As prices for computing devices continue to decline and the popularity and variety of tablets and laptops explodes, computing mobile devices are finding their way into classrooms for regular student use. Combine those trends with the rapid proliferation of digital educational content and apps, and the fact that half of the states have (or will) conduct digital assessments this year— assessments against Common Core, such as PARCC or Smarter Balanced, and we find that the rapid spreading of technology through the classrooms of K-12 institutions is ineluctable. Already one-third of U.S students use school-issued computing devices according to a Project Tomorrow Report, and that number is expected to grow. Many more rely on digital content and/or applications to do their school work.
As technology spreads through schools, students are eager to use it and administrators recognize its value. But that same technology increasingly demands mobile Internet connectivity — preferably broadband —to be fully effective as a tool. Unfortunately, there are still many schools without adequate wireless Internet connectivity (i.e. on-campus Wi-Fi) to allow these devices to function to their full capability.
As part of E-rate 2.0, the government will be spending $1 billion per year for the next five years to bring improved wireless connectivity to K-12 schools. As on-campus networks improve, students and teachers will become near-universally comfortable using laptops, tablets and digital content and applications, as part of their learning and instruction. Schools and districts will realize the benefits of one to one technology instructions.
The Digital Divide
The investment in on-campus wireless connectivity and online assessment tools, and the push towards personalized learning, is leading educators to further extend learning beyond the classroom walls and long after the school day has ended. Homework, electronic text books, classroom communication platforms, access to the districts’ Learning Management System, class research projects, and more, will require that students have high-speed Internet access in the afternoon, evening hours, on weekends, and even on snow days and holidays, just as we adults have constant Internet access in our professions. Districts will find themselves in a quandary after spending billions of dollars for online instructional tools that compliment improved networks and high speed campus-based connectivity, only to find that an average of 30 percent of their students can’t access such essential tools once they leave campus. Currently, 100 million Americans do not have access to the Internet at home. When the school day ends, there are literally millions of American students who are increasingly disadvantaged by not being connected to their educational resources when not on school grounds.
The disparity between those who have connectivity and those who don’t, also known as the digital divide, is increasing at an accelerating rate.
Connecting Outside Class
Districts with a large population of students qualifying for “free and reduced-cost meals” will likely have high numbers of children without broadband at home, let alone mobile broadband. According to a Project Tomorrow report, digital equity, including student access to the Internet outside school, is a growing concern among district technology leaders, with 46 percent saying it is one of the most challenging issues they face today. For many districts, off-campus connectivity is not yet part of the annual budget; and administrators, principals and even teachers are left with few options. Below are a few of the more well known options for off-campus broadband.
Wi-Fi Hotspots: Schools and districts can secure Wi-Fi hotspots, either from a company that focuses on filtered educational broadband or directly from the wireless carriers such as AT&T or Verizon. Mobile broadband solutions focused specifically on providing Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA)-compliant filtering will keep students safe and focused on education-related tasks and resources anytime and anywhere: on the school bus, at their grandma’s house, even on the sidelines of their away game. It is important for administrators to recognize that mobile connectivity from the big carriers is not education-specific broadband, and does not filter out legally impermissible and inappropriate content for students.
Wi-Fi Mapping: Some school districts are making efforts to assist families without connectivity by providing local maps that show where free Wi-Fi might be available in the community, such as public libraries, coffee shops or restaurants. While this may be helpful for some students, it doesn’t address the root of the problem. There are many places in the more affluent areas where students can go for free Wi-Fi access, but in poorer areas—where connectivity is most needed—it is more difficult to find. Food deserts are typically also Wi-Fi deserts. For students who lack safe and ready transportation, traveling to different areas of a city or a county to locate public Wi-Fi access can be a hardship. And then there is the obvious issue of safety. Do we really expect our less advantaged children to be wandering the streets at night looking for a Wi-Fi signal that enables them to do required schoolwork, or to email a teacher with a question?
Connect2Compete: Programs such as Connect2Compete may sometimes provide an affordable option for disadvantaged families to purchase broadband in the home, though it does not come with a Wi-Fi router to make it accessible to a student with a school-issued mobile device. In addition, districts should be aware that there is a list of requirements—including enrollment in the “free or reduced-priced meal” program, credit checks, and having no outstanding payments due to the provider— that must be met before a family can be eligible to qualify. In addition, this option places the responsibility for payment back on the parent or guardian. For many low-income families, this low-cost option still isn’t affordable or they do not qualify. And, in the end, do we really expect children who arrive at school without having been fed to have their home broadband needs readily met?
Embedded Connectivity: Many computing devices, such as Chromebooks or tablets, have an option for embedded connectivity. Such a feature comes at a much higher cost, in that it is simply not needed for all students. During the day, such devices are connected to the school Wi-Fi; however, after school, only some of students may require the built-in mobile connectivity, as some will have broadband Internet at home — yet, the school or district is paying for connectivity fees on all devices.
Helping the Unconnected and Bridging the Digital Divide
The future will prove that the responsibility to provide students with off-campus mobile broadband will rest in the hands of our schools and districts. Each district will need to consider the number of students at risk of being left out of their expanded, Internet-based classroom, and the resources needed for the best and most pragmatic solution for their community, one that ensures there is equal access for all to the vast educational resources of 21st century education.
In the United States today, no fewer than 14.7 million people live in poverty and 21.5 million students are enrolled in the free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. For these families and children, broadband is, naturally, less of a priority than paying their electric bill or keeping their children adequately fed and clothed. If it has not happened already, very soon broadband connectivity will be positively necessary for children to function, let alone succeed, in school. For those that cannot afford it, the digital divide will appear as vast a chasm as the Grand Canyon; one that creates a clear and starkly unfair disparity between the “broadband haves” and the “broadband have-nots.” Only our schools can bridge that chasm.