Digital inequity, or the growing gap between the technological “have” and “ have not”, is a topic of great concern to me as both an educator and as a parent. My son is very fortunate to live in a home where broadband internet access is a necessity for us, and not a luxury. He has parents that both use the internet daily for their livelihoods. And since he was a toddler, to “google” an answer to a question was as natural as reading a book. But this is not the case for a majority of his classmates. I have seen the effect of the digital inequity among the children in my son’s classes and the challenges and frustrations that these children and their families face is not unlike the profiles highlighted in Wired Less: Disconnected in an Urban Area (http://www.internetforeveryone.org/americaoffline).
As documented in the profiles outlined in Wired Less, the divide is quite evident based upon several socio-economic characteristics. And while the divide is obvious, the reasons are understandable. I live in the center of an urban area, with a high immigrant population. And while access isn’t a contributing factor to the digital divide, affordability is. Broadband internet is expensive in our area; we pay approximately $50-60 per month for access. For many families in our local neighborhood, this cost is prohibitive. Many of our neighbors are new citizens to this country; they do not own homes, automobiles, or computers. They are just beginning their adjustment to our culture, and as of yet, many do not see the importance of such luxuries as the internet. Should they be expected to pay an additional premium for a service they do not find necessary just so their child can “google” a question for their homework? Is it the responsibility of the parent to provide the resources or does the burden fall with the schools?
As I reviewed each of the profiles outlined by “Internet for Everyone”, I was struck by the frustration of the students. Each student seemed capable to learn, motivated to succeed, and in some cases felt penalized for their lack of efficient internet access. Upon watching these profiles, I immediately questioned how an educational system can require students to perform without the tools they need for success. How can we expect students to complete homework if they don’t have the resources? It seems incomprehensible. Is the educational system designed to deepen the divide?
The reality is that when you teach, you begin by teaching to the “lowest common denominator”. You have to begin at a point where all of your students are on similar footing regarding prior knowledge and experience. If teachers are assigning homework that “requires” internet access, then I believe the burden is then upon the schools to provide the time and the resources for students to complete their work. If that means students need time in front of the computer at school, then that is what is required. If time does not allow, then school districts MUST be prepared to offer a computer and internet access to children in their homes while they are in school. While dwindling school budgets will prohibit my desired need for technological equity, the need can be met with assistance by outside sources. As in a case in San Francisco, a local non-profit stepped in to provide free broadband internet service to low-income housing areas (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/28/low-income-residents-get-high-speed-access/).
The use of the internet and technology will only increase as time progresses, and these children will be expected to be proficient in the language of technology to succeed in a post-secondary career, regardless of college. To continue to perpetuate this growing digital divide is a disservice to our children’s education and their future.