Divided We Learn

New documentary explores ‘the digital divide’

Filmmaker Rory Kennedy focuses on the causes and consequences of unequal digital access

Rory Kennedy examines the gaps computer and internet access between wealthy and impoverished schools in her latest documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.”

The United States is likely to reach the goal of making sure every single public school has access to the internet by 2020, according to EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit focused on this milestone. But that won’t close what has come to be known as “the digital divide.”

Nearly one in four school districts still does not have sufficient bandwidth to meet the digital learning needs of students. And even before bandwidth, plenty of schools don’t have the laptops or tablets that students need to get online.

Meanwhile, wealthy districts go on purchasing the newest technologies to prepare their students for a world that increasingly runs on them.

The documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, who has covered addiction, nuclear radiation and the politics of the Mexican border fence, among other social issues, explores this persistent technology gap in her latest film, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.” Financed by Verizon, the documentary digs into the funding inequities that contribute to the digital divide as well as efforts, both public and private, to close it.  The film premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 26 on the National Geographic channel. It will also air on PBS stations around the country this fall.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Kennedy about the film and this issue, crucial to the future of learning.

How long has the “digital divide” been on your radar?

In the last couple years, I’ve become increasingly aware of it. In making this film I really began to understand the depths of the issue and the fact that there are over a million classrooms in this country that don’t have adequate broadband, a huge number of kids who don’t have access to computers, and the reality that 77 percent of jobs are going to require technology education and background by the year 2020.

You mention some shocking statistics. What else do you find striking about the digital divide?

The way I like to tell stories is to focus on individuals and, through them, help people understand these numbers and statistics. I would give an example of an individual I met, Amanda, here in New York at the Patrick Henry School. She lived in poverty and went to a school in Harlem and didn’t have a lot of access to many resources, and the school had very few computers and internet Wi-Fi, but she was very driven and loved to write and wants to be a lawyer. She would go home at night for her assignments and do them on her mother’s cell phone with her thumbs — write an entire paper using her thumbs.

When you watch Amanda do that and she talks about the physical pain, she does it with a smile on her face because she’s not prone to complaining, and you think “Oh my God, what are we doing in this country?” We’re making it actually physically painful to be educated.

Her story is indicative of so many kids, some of whom are able to educate themselves, but it’s so often despite the system and not because of it. I think there’s a great opportunity here to really try to even the playing field in terms of education through what technology has to offer. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really cost that much and then you can open up worlds to these kids who otherwise have access to very little.

The film spends a lot of time explaining how school funding works, between local, state and federal funds. Are you advocating change there?

Creating awareness is a big part of our goal. So many people I talk to and tell I’m making this film about the digital divide and kids who don’t have access to the internet and computers, they say, “Are you focusing on South America or Africa or where?” I say, “This country.” They’re shocked. You think everybody here has their own computer and cell phone and they’re on it too much, but the reality is there are these huge numbers of kids who don’t have access.

Beyond that, I think that the greatest, easiest, quickest solution is for the federal government to decide this is a priority and commit the resources necessary to extend the broadband and ensure that every kid in public schools in this country has their own computer to learn on. Until that happens, we can see how individuals can really make a difference, and institutions and corporations.

Do you think it will be difficult to engage people with this issue?

It’s hard to get anybody to focus on anything at this point in the game. There’s a lot of chatter and a lot of competing media out there. But I do think it’s an important issue. It’s an issue that impacts not only the kids who don’t have access, but it speaks to larger issues of us as a country, and do we want to be ahead of the game in terms of technology, and do we want to be able to compete over the next 10, 20, 50 years on the international scale? Right now we have four million STEM jobs in this country that are unfilled because we don’t have a system where we’re educating people to do those jobs.

I think that if we want to stay competitive, if we want to employ our citizens, if we want to keep them engaged, that it’s an issue that really impacts all of us in a significant way. My hope is that people will be drawn to it and kind of understand that bigger story.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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