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Digital divide in education

After $4 billion worth of federal grants over the past few years, 98 percent of Americans now have access to high-speed broadband Internet–in theory. Yet 30 percent of Americans, according to the latest report from the US Department of Commerce, don’t actually have the Internet at home.

Broadband access is effectively no longer a matter of infrastructure, but of class. Not too surprisingly, the digital divide disproportionately affects low-income, black, Hispanic, less educated, and rural households. In large cities, telecom monopolies and duopolies keep monthly prices high for bundles of high-speed Internet and cable. Poor families are restricted to school or the local library. In the past decade, according to a report in the New York Times this week, the US has slipped to seventh among the world’s largest economies in our population’s access to the Internet.

The fine print of the Department of Commerce report clearly indicates that families with school-age children get it. They understand the importance of Internet access for their children’s education. They are more likely, by 13 percentage points, to have broadband at home, and if they don’t, they’re more likely to say it’s cost that prevents them. Over half of disconnected households without children living at home cited “lack of interest” as the primary reason they did not have residential Internet service, but for families with kids the figure was just one in four.

But what about mobile? It’s true that most young people (57% of those under 30) use phones to browse the web, and that mobile ownership is more widespread among people of all incomes and backgrounds than computer ownership, but a recent report by tech blog Mashable reminds readers that mobile-only is not, or at least not yet, a perfect channel for all of students’ educational needs.

Newark Leadership Academy is an alternative vocational and second-chance public high school created, ironically, with startup funds from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, part of his $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools. According to teachers there, the vast majority of students do not have Internet and/or computer access at home. As a result, the teachers have two choices: allow extra time for assignments involving the Internet so students can complete them at school or at the library, or leave out the computer altogether.

One teacher reported of her students, “They’re extremely computer-illiterate, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not tech-savvy…They’re all over Twitter but they don’t know how to save a Word document.” One student handed in an essay written, and presumably researched, entirely on her iPhone.

The idea of being tech savvy and computer illiterate at once is a paradox of this transitional moment. These students are effectively caught in between different models and different eras of digital technology. In order to apply for jobs and function in an office setting, they will need to be conversant with desktop computers, proper email etiquette, and basic software like Word, Excel and Office. It’s also more difficult than it should be, though not impossible, to design a web page, retouch a photograph, compose music, write an app or build a game on your phone. Yet in many ways, and especially globally, the mobile-only world these young people are living in is increasingly the norm. It seems teachers could meet these students creatively where they are at with a greater role for mobile-based–even Twitter-based–lesson plans and assignments. After all, in Japan, entire novels composed and read on cell phones, usually by young women, top bestseller lists.

At the same time, there’s no reason that a country as rich as the United States should be willing to settle for seventh place in the percentage of our households that are connected. Comcast Cable offers $10 a month internet access to households with children in free and reduced lunch programs, and enrollees at about 25,000 schools are automatically qualified, but only a tenth of eligible households are actually signed up.

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