It’s been almost 20 years since the New York Times helped coin the phrase “digital divide” with a true tale of two elementary schools in San Jose located within a stone’s throw of Apple’s headquarters.
The Harker School, an elite private academy, had state-of-the-art Power Macs and access to what was then known as the World Wide Web. Just a mile down the road, Anderson Elementary, one of California’s poorest schools, had outdated PCs that were barely a step up from typewriters.
When that article was written in 1996, only nine percent of US classrooms were wired to the internet. Since then, the United States has spent billions wiring schools — yet the digital divide persists.
It has been reported that roughly two-thirds of the global population still lacks Internet access. In 2013, fewer than 20 percent of public schools reported that their internet connection met their needs. This January, more than 500 schools in New York State alone reported that they had no internet access at all.
Poor schools are still hit hardest. Teachers of the lowest income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a “major challenge,” according to The Atlantic. These students also lack access at home. Just 45 percent of households with an income of less than $20,000 a year have broadband access, compared to 91 percent of those earning $75,000 or more.
The persistence of the digital divide is tragic but not surprising. If it were easy to solve poverty, we’d have done it years ago. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: the best way to fight societal inequality is by increasing access to great education. But societal inequality is the single greatest obstacle to increasing access to great education.
How can we create a virtuous circle out of this vicious cycle?
Recent problems in places like Los Angeles have shown that iPads alone aren’t the answer. It’s not worth spending millions on devices without good implementation and high-quality content.
We also can’t wait for 100 percent broadband access to begin improving education for students. That’s still years away. Stopgap solutions can help improve learning for today’s students, while we work to improve long-term access to broadband, devices, and professional development.
For example, the White House’s ConnectED initiative is set on delivering quality broadband to 99% of American students by 2018. This is great — but it won’t improve access for all students right now. An underserved school district in California came up with a clever temporary fix: park WiFi-enabled buses outside trailer parks where their students live.
We can develop solutions that bring the best of what digital can do to bricks and mortar classrooms and printed materials. Much of the promise of digital learning materials lies in their ability to adapt in real-time to address each student’s needs, as well as help teachers see in what exact areas students need support. Up to now, only those schools with broadband and devices have been able to provide students with the benefits of this technology.
That’s why Knewton is developing technology with HP that will allow students without 1:1 digital devices or broadband to access “personalized print” materials. Students and teachers still using print materials will just need one smartphone to generate personalized worksheets for each student.
WiFi buses and personalized print materials won’t solve everything. But they will expand access to broadband and personalized learning materials to a large number of students who otherwise wouldn’t have them. And together with other innovations, they can start breaking down the digital divide and pave the way for bigger, more permanent change.