The week of August 17, 2014

Illustrating the digital divide in education

By Aaron Sankin

Reading may be fundamental, but, increasingly, so is knowing your way around an Excel spreadsheet.

It isn’t just the knowledge of technology that’s important for kids. Understanding the functionality of the technology behind streaming videos and interactive testing platforms is quickly becoming an essential part of teaching subjects from chemistry to math.

Despite the rapidly growing ability of people at nearly all income levels to access the Internet at home, the digital divide between rich and poor schools is sadly still alive and well. Nearly across the board, students in higher-income areas have better, more robust online educational tools than those in poorer school districts.

However, there are public-sector efforts to rectify the situation.

Much of the funding for improving Internet connectivity comes from the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, which provides discounts to help schools and libraries acquire a level of telecommunications service via fees on telephone service.

Thanks to the program’s efforts so far, virtually all public schools in the country have some kind of Internet access. However, the quality of that access is often too poor to take advantage of many of the educational tools that are available online.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration proposed a one-time funding boost to the program that comes with a much-needed refocusing of its priorities—away from things like providing funding for pagers and toward ensuring that more schools had functional Wi-Fi networks. President Obama has said the goal of the E-Rate program is for 99 percent of American schools to have access to high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi in the next five years.

As the infographics below illustrate, the country still has long way to go when it comes to closing the digital divide in our schools.

1. 84 percent of teachers agree with the statement: “Today’s digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts.”

 2. 56 percent of teachers say technology is widening the gap between rich and poor school districts.

 3. Only 18 percent of teachers say that all or almost all of their students have sufficient access to all of the digital tools they need at home.

4. 56 percent of teachers at predominantly low-income schools say that a lack of resources to access digital technology is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching; only 21 percent of teachers at high-income schools say this.

 5. An estimated 72 percent of public schools have connections that are too slow to take full advantage of digital learning.

 6. The typical public school has the same Internet access as the typical home—but with 100 times more users.

 7. Prior to the reforms of the E-Rate program, only 10 percent of schools’ requests for funding connections inside school buildings (like for Wi-Fi) were approved. For libraries, that number was a mere 1 percent.

 8. From 1996 to 2000, subsidies provided by the E-Rate program to public schools in California increased the number of Internet-connected classrooms by 68 percent over what would have occurred without them.




Illustrations by J. Longo