Education Technology Can’t Fulfill Its Promise if Students Can’t Get Online

What's to come?
April 17 2013 7:15 AM

A Failing Grade for Broadband

Education technology can’t fulfill its promise if students can’t get online.

Bryan Molina a 8th grader works on his robot in the bilingual, project lead the way class at Escuela Vieau Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study, teachers are incorporating more technological tools into their classrooms, but they are concerned about whether students have the necessary connectivity.

Photo by Darren Hauck/Reuters

The Internet is becoming as critical to student success as textbooks and blackboards—in many parts of the country, even basic homework assignments require access to the Web. This reflects not only a greater variety of educational resources available online to students, but also the rising importance of digital literacy as a fundamental skill.

But even as companies create innovative new educational technologies—like cloud-based literacy programs, Skype-based tutors, and virtual math games—many policymakers and entrepreneurs are overlooking a critical factor that stands in the way of widespread adoption of these tools: adequate and universal broadband infrastructure. Without it, people in most parts of the United States are unable to use some of the most innovative educational technologies out there. As the tech leaps ahead and our infrastructure stays the same, the problem will only worsen.

A 2010 survey from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that 22 percent of households with school-age children did not have broadband at home. Nineteen million Americans—especially those in rural areas—don’t have access to broadband in their communities at all. For many students from low-income households, even a basic connection could be out of reach of the monthly budget. As a result, they are falling on the wrong side of a growing digital divide. Some end up huddling in McDonald’s and Starbucks just to complete homework assignments. In 2011, the public schools in Fairfax County, Va., an affluent district outside Washington, D.C., introduced an e-textbook program to replace printed textbooks. But the books worked only when students were online, and some features required high-speed Internet access. Ultimately, the district had to purchase an additional $2 million worth of textbooks to support students who did not have adequate access to use the electronic versions at home.


Research shows that these are not isolated incidents. According to a recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, teachers are incorporating technological tools into their classroom work now more than ever—even as they are concerned about whether students have the necessary connectivity. More than three-quarters of teachers interviewed say that they instruct students to complete assignments online, but nearly half believe their students don’t have access to the appropriate tools at school. And just 18 percent think their students have sufficient connectivity at home. Teachers in lower-income school districts reported that their students were “behind the curve” when it came to using digital technology. More than 80 percent agreed that right now, digital technologies are widening the gap between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts. And the problem is not just at home: Nearly 80 percent of the schools receiving subsidies for broadband connections through the Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate program have reported that they did not have the bandwidth to meet current needs, let alone support the applications of the future.

To take advantage of the wave of innovation in education, the nation’s communication policies need to be updated to rectify the current limitations and inequities. Currently, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: These new applications can drive demand for faster and higher capacity broadband connection, but without widespread access to those connections, widespread use of the technology will be limited.

Existing programs offered by both federal and local government could make a difference, as could private sector solutions. For example, the FCC’s E-Rate program could be updated. Since E-Rate was established in 1996, the number of classrooms with Internet connections has risen to 92 percent from 14 percent. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has called for E-Rate to provide a 1 gigabit connection to every school in the country—a far more ambitious goal than outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s challenge to bring a gigabit connection to at least one community in every state by 2015.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.