Educators wrestle with digital-equity challenges

Despite gains in the number of households that are online and the number of computing devices in the hands of students, making sure all learners have equitable access to technology resources continues to be a challenge in the United States and worldwide, said panelists at a recent summit.

"We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve got a lot more work to do," said Link Hoewing, vice president of internet and technology policy for Verizon Communications.

Hoewing was speaking at a Digital Equity Summit held July 1 at the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio, Texas, where participants discussed ways to close the gaps between those who have easy access to digital tools and resources and those who don’t.

Students who lack this access to technology are at a disadvantage, ed-tech advocates say, because they are missing out on opportunities to learn and to become participants in an increasingly digital workforce and society.

At the summit, panelists shared the latest research on digital inequities in the United States and abroad, as well as possible solutions. One thing they agreed on was that the nature of the problem appears to be changing–and policy makers and education leaders must expand how they view and respond to this challenge in turn.

Thanks to a program in Brazil through which the government offers special-finance loans for people to buy computers, an estimated 36 million Brazilian children reportedly will be using Linux-based machines by the end of this year. Low-cost laptops such as Intel’s Classmate PC and the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s XO computer have reached nearly a million students worldwide. And cell-phone use in Africa has exploded in the last few years; coupled with the convergence in wireless devices, this trend has important implications for students in developing countries.

Yet, while there are many more digital devices now available to students, there seems to be a narrowing of the content they can use, said Joyce Pittman, director of the Center for Learning and Teaching with Technology at United Arab Emirates University.

Paul E. Resta, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Learning Technology Center, framed the digital-equity challenge as one of providing not just technologies, but "digital opportunities," for students.

"The digital divide is traditionally defined in terms of internet access," he said, "but it is really part of a broader divide that contributes to the social and economic exclusion of people."

Resta listed six things that he called "essential conditions" for digital inclusion: (1) basic literacy skills; (2) access to information and communications technology (ICT) devices, software, and connectivity; (3) access to culturally relevant content in the student’s local language; (4) the ability to create, share, and exchange digital content; (5) access to educators who know how to use digital tools and resources in pedagogically sound ways; and (6) access to effective leadership in policy and planning.

In other words, closing the so-called digital divide is about much more than providing access to computers and the internet, he said; it’s about providing all the opportunities for learning that technology affords.

"The digital divide helps widen an even more alarming problem," Resta said–"the knowledge divide."

There are significant efforts under way to provide access not just to digital tools and devices, but also to digital content. The emergence of open educational resources, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare project, and the rapid growth of digital libraries such as Google’s book-scanning project are a few examples.

Yet, the amount of digital content that is available only in English is still overwhelming. Eighty percent of the web sites on the internet are in English, but only 10 percent of the world’s population understands English, said Laura Sujo de Montes, educational technology program coordinator for New Mexico State University.

Besides needing content that is easily accessible, students and families on the wrong side of the digital divide also need training in how to use technology tools and resources.

Ashanti Jefferson, technology integration senior analyst for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), talked about a program in her district that addresses this need. CPS has teamed up with Intel Corp. to offer free technology literacy tutorials that are available online in multiple languages through a low-bandwidth internet connection. These free tutorials work on multiple computing platforms and include resources for parents as well as students, Jefferson said.

‘Thrashing around’

Even though a growing number of students now have access to computers, software, and the internet both in the United States and abroad, there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area, too, panelists said.

Computer refurbishing programs are helping to reduce digital inequities worldwide, Resta said–the top 1,000 companies in the world have an estimated 70 million machines they are trying to dispose of–and so is the open-source software movement.

Any company that develops proprietary software that works only on a single platform "is serving the platform, not the student," said David Thornburg, founder and director of the Thornburg Center, which helps schools deliver inquiry-driven, project-based instruction in science, math, and technology.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a goal of connecting villages, schools, hospitals, and libraries to the internet, ensuring than at least half of the world’s population has access to modern technology by 2015, Resta said. But one of the key challenges to this effort is the cost of broadband services.

Resta showed a graphic that indicated the average annual cost of broadband service is only 2 percent of the total income for high-income populations–yet it’s more than 900 percent of the annual income for low-income populations.

And though the average per-capita income of families in the United States far exceeds that of families in developing nations, the challenge of bringing broadband internet access into homes isn’t limited to the rest of the world.

Sujo de Montes showed a slide listing the characteristics of those affected by the global digital divide: they typically live in rural areas, are uneducated, and many are unskilled laborers. "Don’t these criteria apply to the poor in America?" she asked, to great applause.

Resta noted that the United States has fallen to 15th in broadband penetration among industrialized nations, according to rankings compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development–down from fourth in 2001.

He said most countries have set a goal of universal broadband service, much like electricity, telephone service, or any other utility. But in the United States, "we really don’t have much of a [national] policy–we’re thrashing around," Resta said, and it’s incumbent on educators to help push for a national broadband strategy.

Verizon’s Hoewing described the efforts his company is making to ensure that all students have equitable access to high-speed internet service.

New developments in fiber-optic technology now give internet providers the ability to bend fiber lines into an "L" shape without interfering with how light waves travel along the lines, Hoewing said–which has important implications for delivering fiber-optic service to city apartments and other hard-to-wire places.

Verizon also aims to reach traditionally underserved populations by offering broadband wireless to people’s cell phones. The company’s EV-DO service now reaches an estimated 228 million people, Hoewing said.

He noted that 82 percent of Americans now own a cell phone, and there is not much of a gap in cell-phone use among racial demographics: 74 percent of white Americans, 71 percent of African-Americans, and 84 percent of Hispanics reportedly own phones. And even faster "4G" wireless service should be available by 2010, he said.

Still, new research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that attitude, rather than availability, might be the main reason more Americans don’t have high-speed internet access. (See accompanying story: "Study: Many dial-up users don’t want broadband.")

Hoewing acknowledged that convincing some families to subscribe to broadband service is a key challenge. He said he’s heard from some parents that they’re not online because they’re afraid of the dangers lurking on the web. In response to these concerns, he said, Verizon now offers free online protection tools for families.

He also agreed that cost is still an issue for many families, even in the United States.

"We have to do a better job of bundling and packaging our services," he said. "The basic price of broadband might be affordable–but when you add to that the cost of telephone and cable service, it’s too much for some people."


Learning Technology Center, University of Texas at Austin

CPS/Intel Technology Literacy Project


Editor’s note: For other recent stories on broadband access and digital equity, see the following:

New group wants to make broadband a national priority

SETDA urges schools to boost bandwidth

Star Wars creator pushes free internet service for schools

Municipal broadband projects under attack

Report urges U.S. to think ‘big’ about broadband

Administration: Broadband goal nearly reached


Dennis Pierce

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