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.