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Closing the ‘digital use’ divide

High-speed internet is everywhere—in our homes, our coffees shops, even our cars. But for many communities throughout the U.S., blazing online connectivity still isn’t in the one place it needs to be most: our schools.

Nearly 21 million K12 students in this country still do not have access to high-speed broadband internet in the classroom. Do some back-of-the-napkin math, and that equates to about 23 percent of U.S. school districts, reports Education Superhighway, a nonprofit that wants to achieve access to high-speed broadband in every school.

The “digital divide” between the haves and have-nots used to be all about access in schools—students could either get online from school or from home or not. These days, access isn’t the problem: speed is.

Getting faster, quicker
Increasing school-based access to high-speed internet has become a federal priority.

Early last year, the FCC added $1.5 billion to the federal E-rate program, the massive technology grant initiative that subsidizes telecomm improvements in schools. The White House also got into the act, making high-speed access a focal point of the Education Department’s (ED’s) 2016 National Education Technology Plan.

High-speed access is vitally important, especially as schools aim to give students access to the same resources and tools currently available to students in other fast-moving countries, such as Japan and China. Of course, all that power means little unless the learning it supports enriches the school experience.

Active vs. passive #edtech
The National Education Technology Plan calls for full connectivity for all students. But it goes further, imploring schools to use technology to make a difference. Stuart N. Brotman, a senior fellow at Brookings, puts it this way, “The emphasis on digital learning needs to be shifted from how much broadband is available to how well broadband networks and apps are actually utilized in schools.”

ED says there is a difference between active educational technology use in schools and passive use. The gap between schools that effectively use this technology in the classroom and those that don’t has given rise to what educators call a “digital use-divide.”

In its report, ED offers several suggestions to bridge the gap. Here are a few:

  • Introduce programs for coding, media production, design, and other tech-heavy subjects into school curricula.
  • Shift from textbooks to free digital and open-source education resources.
  • Ensure more in-depth teacher training to promote more effective use of technology in schools. This goes for both college education curricula and school professional development programs.

Even with these recommendations, some educators say the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) makes federal funding available for education technology. But schools can also choose to allocate that money for other purposes.

As Joseph South, deputy director of ED’s Office of Educational Technology told Education Week, “It’s going to mean challenging decisions for states and districts on how they allocate those resources across a number of diverse possibilities.”

For states and districts that see technology investment as a priority, the funding will help put plans into action. For others, however, the funds could be used to fuel indirect improvements—such as infrastructure or safety, for example. Experts say a difference of priorities, drawn along socio-economic lines, will further exacerbate the problem.

Tough choices ahead
As educators shore up long-term plans for ESSA implementation, now is the time for schools to make critical choices regarding future technology investments.

Will you use federal funding to prioritize technology as a tool for learning? Or does your school or district have other priorities it needs to tackle first? Just how wide are you prepared for the digital-use divide to get?

These are tough questions—questions you likely can’t answer on your own. Have you asked your community what it thinks? Giving a voice to the students and teachers who actually use the technology might help your school or district embrace a more active approach.

Want an easy way to bring the different members of your community into that conversation? Start by inviting them to share their opinions.