Over the past few years, there has been a strong push to improve the technological capabilities of our public schools. When used well, technology has the power to connect people and provide various means to find and engage with new information. It is so powerful that it has become a major part of our daily lives. However, these same tools of empowerment can also be a driving force of inequality.
Technology opens a new door of accessibility to resources and information. However, the people that need this accessibility most are unable to get it. Low-income families are frequently unable to afford both the technological devices and the network services that allow them to work to their full potential. This post will discuss the resulting ‘digital divide’ in our society and what is being done to try and close the gap.
What is the “Digital Divide”?
The ‘digital divide’ refers to the division between middle-upper class students and poor students caused by the students’ ability to access technology. A 2011 study examining educational practices over the last 40 years determined that technology has the ability to significantly enhance instruction and improve student learning. It goes to follow that schools who are better able to provide these tools to their students will experience greater success. Where many schools struggle to provide the ideal level of technological exposure, many have found success integrating students’ personal devices and technological access into their instruction. However, schools in impoverished areas cannot rely on students having any personal access and struggle to implement effective technology programs within school walls. This difference has resulted in a growing performance gap between these schools and their more affluent counterparts; a ‘digital divide’.
The digital divide not only effects students, it effects adults as well. ‘Digital literacy’ (the ability to use technology with ease) has become a requirement to success in many occupations and is essential for the success of small businesses. An individual who lacks digital literacy because they were unalbe to practice using the necessary technology will find it more difficult to find professional success in a world driven by technology. Low-income individuals who lack digital access and, by extension, have lower digital literacy will struggle more to keep up than their more affluent counterparts, further widening the gap.
Efforts to Close the Gap
In an effort to help eliminate the digital divide, President Obama launched the ConnectED initiative to provide high-speed access to all public schools by the year 2017. This program has not only made it possible for schools to get connected, it has also spread awareness of the digital divide and the general need for effective technology in public schools. With increased awareness, many other programs have been established in order to deal with issues of access inequality.
One program that has responded to the call for action is the Google Community Leaders Program (CLP) of New Orleans. This program brings together local university student and local communities to improve digital literacy and help local business establish a web presence. University students provide free computer training for students and adults alike in order to teach them how to use technology effectively. It is the hope that this digital knowledge will aid in the success of local businesses and by extension, the community. School students also gain empowering skills that can help them be successful in the future.
In addition to training programs, many private companies have worked to develop free educational tools and have donated nearly $750 Million worth of supplies and services to schools in order to establish and/or improve technology programs. Together with aid from grants and not-for-profits, these contributions have greatly increased digital accessibility.
Long Road Ahead
Though efforts to close the digital divide are admirable and have yielded success, there are still many challenges ahead. Many of the organizations and programs working towards this goal are narrowly focused and struggle to meet the large demands of schools seeking to establish digital programs. These demands will only continue to grow as schools continue to grow, update and service these programs.
The ConnectED initiative has been able to filter $2 billion of federal funds into subsidizing high-speed broadband for public schools. This money has been well used and schools across the nation are finally getting connected however, there is catch: the money can ONLY be used to subsidize networking and telecommunications. In other words, schools cannot use money from the ConnectED program to purchase the devices capable of using the new network. This leaves schools to use their own individual budgets to purchase, maintain, repair, and replace any devices they wish to have. Haunted with stretched funds and budget cuts, many schools are cutting back in these areas in order to pay for other school necessities.
In collaboration with ConnectED, companies and not-for-profit organizations have tried to make up for the limitations it presents by providing schools with the initial equipment and services they need. However, they can’t keep up with demand. While some schools are getting their initial equipment, others are in need of replacements and updates. With the rate of technological development and natural wear and tear, many schools with equipment 4-5 years old and older are finding that their equipment can no longer meet their needs and requires too much maintenance. With limited funds to dedicate to replacing the bad equipment, companies/organizations are left to balance between helping schools establish programs and helping schools in need of updating.
In addition to providing the proper equipment, school staff also require training in order to use this technology effectively. For many districts, this means having staff dedicated to staying up-to-date on the latest digital developments and how to use them in the classroom so they can provide the necessary training. With limited budgets, many districts have trouble maintaining an adequate amount of staff for this purpose, making digital initiatives difficult to implement.
Hope for the Future
As digital efficiency continues to improve, it will become easier for schools to acquire the necessary equipment. Greater digital knowledge will also make it easier to implement effective programs, even with limited technology.
With the success ConnectED, there will likely be other federal technology initiatives as well. Through this initial goal, partnerships have been formed, organizations have been established, and a framework for future projects has been put in place.This seems to be step one in a long and difficult process.
ConnectED Initiative: Plans for the Government program
Why It’s So Hard to Close the Digital Divide in High-Poverty Schools: NBC article about the digital divide
Google Community Leaders Program New Orleans: Organization homepage
TCC Article: Inspiration for this post