In 1997, the population of the United States was 272.6 million, a gallon of gas cost $1.23, and millions of people were significantly disadvantaged by their lack of access to the internet.
Fast-forward twenty years to today: the population is 325.98 million, the average price of gas hovers around $2.35, and millions of people are still significantly disadvantaged by their lack of access to the internet.
The American public first heard the term “digital divide” two decades ago, when President Bill Clinton, my boss at the time, presented a report based on research my colleagues and I had undertaken about the imperative need for internet access for all Americans, in schools, in libraries and community technology centers, and, eventually, all homes.
I was born in Brooklyn and raised in a working class community in Queens, and knew firsthand that public institutions, particularly schools and libraries were critical resources in my life. President Clinton, a native son of Hope, Arkansas, knew the same. I’m a product of public institutions, and it was unlikely at birth that I’d grow up to become an advisor to multiple presidents. In addition to the support of my family, public investments in education and access to knowledge made a difference in my life, and still matter in the lives of millions of American children.
I first realized the disparity of access to the internet on a trip through California while I was an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Traveling with the late Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, we went to Cupertino, California, the home of Apple Computers, where we saw a room of bright-eyed kids sitting eight to a computer around early networked Macs. Later that same day we travelled to Hunter’s Point, a low-income, primarily black and Latino community in San Francisco, less than a 45 minute drive away. We saw classrooms of kids there who didn’t even know there was such a thing as a computer, let alone the internet. Both sets of American children were equally deserving of a quality education and great future, but one group of children was going to be at a severe disadvantage through no fault of their own.
Things have improved in the last 20-plus years: We’ve gone from 15 million people on the internet when I joined the Clinton Administration to 3.5 billion on the internet today worldwide and, in the U.S., we’re 80 to 85 percent connected. The numbers are moving in the right direction, but we won’t be done until there is no gap, until every person who wants access has access to the information and opportunities the internet provides.
We’re still hammering away at the problem of the connectivity gap, but the face of the problem has changed as well. Once we’ve gotten kids connected to the internet we need to make sure they have the appropriate physical tools, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, to wield that power effectively. Verizon’s new documentary on the subject, Without A Net: The Digital Divide in America, posits that we need a three-pronged approach: connectivity, hardware access and teacher training.
When I was in middle school, I spent three hours a day commuting between school and home. Countless kids today are in the same situation, going the literal distance they need to ensure their futures. Imagine if that time could be used productively. Imagine if we could get wi-fi on school buses, allowing kids to work on schoolwork on the go, regardless of the data plans on their cell phones.
What other innovative things can we do? We need to ensure connectivity for all in our nation’s rural and inner city schools. In addition, kids spend about 75 percent of their days outside the classroom, but learning is a 24/7 enterprise. Low-cost technology such as Chromebooks, mobile devices and more are essential to ensure that our students can access the most powerful source of information in the world no matter the time of day or their location. We need to constantly rethink the situation to ensure we’re meeting people where they are and solving the problems that actually exist. Those problems look different than they did 20 years ago, but they haven’t gone away.
In 2016, 5 million kids, K-12, said they didn’t have internet at home at all. At all. Research shows that 70 percent of homework assigned to these kids involves the internet. Imagine one kid has high-speed internet at home and can surf and do research and watch educational video content, while other children in the same class are told to find whatever they can in their schoolbooks. Those children will not have the same success in school or, possibly, in life. Without A Net emphasizes a striking Department of Labor Statistic: By 2020, 77% of all U.S. jobs will require computer skills. Students who have limited or no access to the internet for the first 17 years of their life just won’t have the same ability to compete in school or later in life.
Equally important as access to technology and connectivity is knowing how to use those tools properly. Without proper teacher training, students won’t be able to make use of the tools we’re handing them. I applaud initiatives such as PBS’s Ready to Learn program, that assist in developing training and curriculum that makes efficient use of these powerful tools. We need programs that tackle all three aspects—connectivity, teacher training, and access to technology—to solve the problem.
Closing the digital divide isn’t solely about students, either. One-third of our senior-citizens don’t have internet access, barring them from lower prices and convenient delivery for medication, arranging for their own care, and finding the social connections that are important to living a full, and fulfilling life. For too many, we’re not doing all we need to do at the beginning and end of people’s lives.
We’re making progress, but the job’s not done yet. There’s no silver bullet for this, any attempt at a solution has to be thoughtful and iterative, measuring outcomes and engaging in observations of what’s working and what’s not. I’ve been working on this issue in and out of government for decades, and I am increasingly hopeful that we will solve the divide. I have seen increased attention by telecommunications and technology companies but, as importantly, I have seen the efforts of outstanding innovators I’ve met at the local level, particularly among technologists and school administrators in communities such as Baltimore, Broward County, Cleveland, San Francisco, Miami and elsewhere across the country. These leaders understand what their students and educators need and are bringing tailored solutions to their school districts.
With the help of legislators, innovators, advocates, the private sector and everyday people—everyone—we can close the digital divide and make access to the vast benefits of the internet virtually ubiquitous. Those with the least economic and political power still are at risk of being left behind as this technological revolution progresses. This is not a merely an education or technology issue. It is an equity issue. The stakes are great, but so is the opportunity.
To view the film, Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America, and learn more about the issue, visit digitaldivide.com. Or watch an interview with Meredith Viera and the filmmakers below to learn how you can get involved and help #closethedivide.
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