When the Digital Divide Closes

Recently, Andrew Ko discussed the critical need to close the digital divide in America, and the challenges to doing so.  Cameron Evans contributed a later post about some of the inspiring programs and initiatives taking place right now. What about the future? What’s on the horizon to close the divide?

The future—even just the next five years—is hard to predict with any reliability. Still, between some fast-growing trends and initiatives with strong momentum behind them, we can get a glimpse.  

The infrastructure expands and becomes wireless

We’re moving, slowly, in the right direction to build a solid digital infrastructure. One of the biggest upcoming opportunities I see is the use of the white space spectrum to provide wireless Internet access. Consisting of the UHF band previously used for television broadcasting, the white space’s longer waves can travel greater distances and penetrate obstacles such as old, concrete school buildings. White space is unlicensed, so these bands are not tied to a given providers’ proprietary technology.  Experts think white space will result in cheaper wireless access, cheaper devices, and greater broadband availability in rural and low-income areas. 

At the same time, smartphone adoption is increasing at record-breaking paces. The Pew Internet & American Life Project  found that 35 percent of American adults own a smartphone. The demographics of smart phone users are heartening when it comes to closing the digital divide. They skew young—58% of those between 26 and 34 and 49 % of those between 18-24, urban, and minority—African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be smartphone owners, as are urban and suburban residents.

Between white space and the increasing penetration of smartphones, we are likely to see lower hardware costs and greater connectivity in rural, minority, and low-income areas. That’s only part of the challenge, though. We’ll still need software and content that takes full advantage of these platforms to really engage and teach students throughout the day and in multiple locations.

Remote and low-cost access to learning

Remote learning is key to addressing the needs of a diverse body of students as well as supporting full-day access to learning environments. Cloud technology has paved the way for readily available technology, such as Microsoft Live@edu and Office 365, that facilitates student and teacher communication and collaboration online, as well as digital learning systems that connect students with online courses. As programs like Microsoft IT Academy provide 21st-century technology skills to teachers and students of all ages, online learning tools and content is blossoming.

Physical textbooks are replaced with digital

The move is on to replace physical books with digital ones. The Common Core Standards being adopted across the United States will make it easier for publishers to enter the digital textbook market with confidence that their content—regardless of the devices and software used to deliver it—meets school requirements. As textbooks move online, we should see them evolve over time from words on a screen to inventive, integrated, and immersive learning experiences that teach vital concepts through visual, audible, and physical means, leveling the playing field for different types of learners and reinforcing learning for all students. 

Companies like Microsoft are uniquely positioned to enable publishers to provide an integrated and engaging learning experience on a variety of devices, including PCs, tablet devices, mobile phones, and the Xbox and Kinect. We envision a future where students learn both in classrooms and through e-learning, engage each other in the learning process using shared online spaces and communication technology, reinforce learning through touch and interactive games on portable devices, discuss homework through texts or tweets on their phones, and deepen their understanding through immersive educational games on Kinect and innovative avatar experiences—all coordinated and orchestrated by teachers.

Learning through gaming, social, and real-time communication

In a world of online games, social media, and texting, it’s hard to keep student attention with the standard classroom lecture. Kids today are used to playing online or watching a video while texting, IMing, or tweeting about it with their friends—and maybe talking through a headset with another group of friends at the same time. While that level of multi-tasking may be counterproductive in a learning environment, providing new ways for them to communicate about and explore subjects as they learn may actually keep them more engaged. Technologies such as Microsoft Lync Server or Skype, along with cloud storage solutions, can be introduced into the classroom and as part of homework assignments in a structured way that encourages discussion and collaboration, keeping kids interested and learning at school and at home.

Similarly, I expect to see more mechanics of gaming brought into educational content. In the online games that many kids play daily, they are incrementally rewarded as they achieve new levels, socially rewarded by their collaboration and interaction with other gamers, and “epically” rewarded when they master the goal of the game. Content creators are likely to apply those same techniques to educational games and content mastery.

Some of the most exciting growth will be in active learning using tools like Microsoft Kinect that blur the line between learning and play. Games like Microsoft Kinect’s Brain and Body Connection are making learning more fun for today’s kids, while adding a physical dimension. Computer science teachers, such as Lou Zulli Jr. in Florida, are using Kinect to inspire learning and student collaboration. Lou says that student interest in STEM has increased by 1000% and he has so much demand to get into his classes because the kids are excited about developing educational games using Kinect. Other schools like Lakeside Autism Center for Autism are using Kinect to engage special needs students. We’re seeing only the tip of the innovation iceberg in engaging educational content.

We’re on the way to expanded digital access, the first step in closing the digital divide. As we approach widespread and consistent connectivity, expect to see a renaissance in digital educational content and technology. In the not-so-distant future, I expect to see technology play a greater and greater role in the education and training that prepares young Americans for the careers of the future and inspires them to become the innovators of tomorrow. We’ll be following those stories as they develop…stay tuned.

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