The “digital divide,” the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who do not, has been with us for decades and has seemed intractable. But as we begin a new year, I’m hopeful that new programs can help open doors of opportunity for those who have been left behind in the past.
Internet Inequity And Learning
Even before the pandemic, many essential functions for both students and adults, such as completing schoolwork, applying for jobs and finding government resources, necessitated access to broadband. But Covid has only increased the inequities for those who sit on the losing side of the digital divide. Currently, 13.6 million urban households and 4.6 million rural homes lack a strong internet connection. This lack of connectivity has direct and indirect costs that harm individuals, communities and society.
In my world, education, the adoption of technology and online learning has increased exponentially over the past several years. The vast majority of our billings at McGraw Hill now come from digital products. This expansion in the use of digital learning platforms is exciting for those of us in the edtech industry, but we need to ensure that access is equitable, so all students have the opportunity to benefit.
With the majority of students and teachers now relying on digital coursework and materials, millions of students in predominantly low-income communities are being left without adequate access to the tools necessary for success. Research released by McKinsey & Co. showed that student learning loss during the pandemic has been much more pronounced for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, in both math and reading. I fear that these gaps could persist, leading to lower graduation rates and lower ability to prepare for high-paying jobs, ultimately hurting the economy in the long run.
The Digital Equity Act
Here’s why I’m hopeful: The Digital Equity Act, part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill, is a historic $2.75 billion investment in digital equity and inclusion that will help address this important issue. The Act will help end digital redlining, which is when internet service providers avoid lower-income areas — typically neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. It will also help lower prices for internet service by boosting competition in areas where there isn’t adequate service and requiring providers to offer a low-cost plan and to display a “Broadband Nutrition Label” that will help families shop for the best deal.
In addition to these important functions, the Act will also fund digital literacy programs and Wi-Fi hot spots in schools and provide computers and other devices to students. Because of its focus on needs outside of widespread broadband deployment (for which $42.5 billion is earmarked in the infrastructure bill), The Digital Equity Act has the power to truly change local communities.
Closing The Digital Divide
Access to broadband and creating digital equality is one of the few bipartisan issues today. Studies have shown that students who lack home internet access or who rely solely on a mobile plan for their internet access spend more time on their homework or fail to finish it, have lower grade point averages and have weaker digital skills. A deficit in digital skills compounds many other inequalities and contributes to students performing lower on standardized tests such as the SAT and being less interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
As we enter a new year that is still so full of uncertainty, it is encouraging to know that steps are being taken to address education gaps. Our education technology industry has the potential to change lives and unlock learners’ potential through innovative tools and platforms, but we must focus on critical issues of equity if we want to achieve our vision. The Digital Equity Act is a great start.