Five reasons we have yet to close the digital divide

For 30 years, we have talked about the digital divide and its impact on education in the United States. Yet the gaps remain, even as the very nature of digital technology has changed. Why is this problem so hard to solve, and what is holding us back?

The need to close the technology gap has never been greater. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) Atlantic Century II report, published in July 2011, ranked the United States fourth in innovation-based competitiveness. Manufacturing jobs continue to decrease, while science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs grow at a faster and faster rate. According to a recent U.S. Department of Commerce report, employers increasingly seek employees with “knowledge of mathematics, computers, and electronics….”

At a personal level, familiarity with computers and technology has a big impact on a student’s future. Half of today’s jobs require technology skills, and that is expected to increase to 77 percent in the next 10 years. Students without home access to computers and the Internet are 6–8 percent less likely to graduate, have a lower academic performance, and have a lower lifetime earning potential.

Sixteen years after passing the Telecommunications Act, we still only have 68 percent broadband penetration. That number drops precipitously in low-income, minority, and rural areas. The same pattern appears within the schools themselves. Our inability to integrate technology into the daily lives of students and to use it to further education and to increase educational opportunities contrasts starkly with our historical leading role in technology innovation. The reasons for this inability are many and complex, but five stand out:

Many constituents. Ending the digital divide requires coordinating across a multitude of groups and organizations, at everything from the federal level to the most local levels. From federal government to individual schools, public programs to private industry, national infrastructure projects to local projects in the smallest towns—the sheer number of factors and coordination presents a significant challenge.

Outdated and underfunded programs. Legislation has not kept up with the racing pace of technology. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is, well, from 1996. It was passed before the rise of search engines and mobile devices, when the primary model was a fixed desktop in the school. Like other legislation, the act has not been updated to reflect changes in technology. The FCC itself has concluded that broadband deployment is still not “reasonable and timely.” Programs at the state and local levels are often just as out-of-date and underfunded, resulting in old technology in the schools―or none at all.

Lack of comprehensive solutions. Our technology has to accommodate a diversity of students with special needs and circumstances. Technology solutions must address the visually and hearing impaired. Equally, they need to accommodate the many students whose primary language is not English. Children who are hospitalized or homebound and the millions classified as homeless—with no consistent, physical location they can call home—all of these kids need access to education through technology.

Uninspired models of technology in education. To truly democratize education, our technical tools need to support students doing homework, participating in classes online, and doing self-education. Yet many proposed technical solutions simply involve moving old solutions to new platforms, such as putting existing textbooks on tablets or making worksheets available in an interactive form online. Remember that kids’ main exposure to the web today is through social media, videos, and games. To gain real adoption, the reality is that educational solutions have to compete with other online sites and must meet a minimum bar for interactivity and engagement, in addition to educational value.

Non-holistic approach. The digital divide is not a result of teacher ignorance, but our ability to close the gap is hindered by the fact that technology is not part and parcel of the way teachers and administrators work. When our report cards, teacher evaluation systems, and teaching tools are mainly paper-based, it is not surprising that the computer and Internet are not the first tools that educators consider for teaching in the classroom. Making technology a central and regular part of teachers’ and staffs’ daily experience provides them with the technical knowledge and skills to use in the classroom. It gives teachers a familiarity and comfort level with technology that makes it a natural choice when evaluating teaching options.

It is disheartening to find that so much remains to be done to close the digital divide in America and to ensure our competitiveness in a global economy. Yet there are glimmers of hope. We know of some. We bet you know of others.

Next week, we will look at what is happening to close the gap. In the meantime, tell us where you have seen improvements and hope. What is happening in your school, campus, or state that shows promise? Tweet us at using  the hashtag #DigitalDivide, post on our Facebook page, or add a comment to share your experiences.

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