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How school leaders can erase the digital divide

The digital divide–and closing that divide–is now more relevant than ever, as students need digital skills to compete in today’s society.

digital-divideThe digital divide is mentioned almost daily in ed-tech discussions: It prevents all students from receiving a technology-rich education that can help them compete on a global scale, it means that some students receive benefits that others do not, and it frustrates school leaders as they try to ensure an equitable and robust education for all students.

But what does the term “digital divide” mean, exactly? According to many experts, the definition has changed to involve more than who has internet access and who does not. And closing the digital divide will require collaboration among many industries.

(Next page: Different efforts to close the digital divide)
During a Connected Educator Month webinar, Michael Flood, vice president of education markets for wireless provider Kajeet, outlined a multifaceted view of the digital divide.

The digital divide, Flood said, is not as straightforward as it might appear. Several components define the digital divide:

  • Access to computing devices: This involves device equity. According to Project Tomorrow’s most recent national survey findings, in 6th grade, 32 percent of students lack in-home access to a tablet or laptop. By grade 12, 27 percent still lack that access. Despite recent news coverage that highlights unique initiatives in which all students in a district have access to a personal computing device, more than 70 percent of students have no school-provided personal computing device. “What we’re really focused on here is students who have access to a personal computing device that they can use to advance their educational goals,” Flood said.
  • Compatibility and capability: Newer versions of software and tools are introduced with such frequency that they can clash with older hardware and systems.
  • Access to broadband: This concerns access equity. Whites (74 percent) are more likely to have home broadband than blacks (64 percent) and Hispanics (53 percent), according to 2013 data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. But this difference in access is driven more by economics than race, Flood said. Eighty-nine percent of college graduates have broadband at home, versus just 37 percent of those without a high school diploma. Broadband penetration is far higher among those with a household income of at least $75,000 per year (88 percent) than those who make less than $30,000 per year (54 percent).

Addressing the off-campus equity gap is just as important as ensuring that schools are equipped to give their students reliable broadband access and mobile devices in classrooms.

Extending broadband access off-campus lets students access and use open educational resources and other tools with more frequency, gives educators more opportunity for online formative assessment, leads to increased digital literacy, 21st century schools, and collaboration, and extends virtual learning access, Flood noted.

According to the State Educational Technology Directors Association’s May 2012 report, The Broadband Imperative, “out-of-school access to broadband by students and teachers is now arguably as important to the overall quality of the student learning experience as access at school,” and “outside of school, home broadband adoption rates have all but stalled since 2009, leveling off at 65 percent.”

Schools and districts, along with service providers and advocacy groups, are trying their best to close the digital divide and offer expanded internet broadband and functionality.

Kajeet introduced the SmartSpot, a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that works with any Wi-Fi-capable device, earlier this year. Each SmartSpot supports up to 10 student devices and is CIPA-compliant. Districts including Chicago Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools have adopted the SmartSpot.

Connect2Compete, which launched nationally in March of 2013, aims to “finally solve the digital divide in a way that’s big enough, at scale, to really get at the meat of the problem, and not as piecemeal as it’s been,” said Zach Leverenz, the nonprofit’s CEO.

Connect2Compete works with internet providers, hardware and software manufacturers, digital content creators, and libraries and nonprofits to deliver free and affordable technology and training.

There is a disconnect today in terms of the way teachers and students use digital tools and methodologies in the classroom versus a lack of at-home internet access that prevents those students from using digital tools outside of school.

Connect2Compete also aims to address the question of what bandwidth speeds and data levels are appropriate and needed in schools.

Leverenz said Connect2Compete hopes to work in parallel with the ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years.

Aerohive Networks, a Wi-Fi and cloud-managed mobile networking service, introduced two access points that support 802.11ac gigabit Wi-Fi. 802.11ac is touted as a faster and more scalable standard than 802.11n.

The new standard offers an increase in data rates to beyond 1 gigabit per second and it provides greater capacity and overall improved performance over the current 802.11n standard–all of which can help schools support new and incoming Wi-Fi devices that access school networks through bring your own device and one-to-one initiatives.

Bradley Chambers, director of IT at Brainerd Baptist School, said that his district uses Aerohive’s solution to manage wireless devices, and that moving to 802.11ac access points will help alleviate strain on the network.

“Even modern 802.11n deployments can drop in 802.11ac access points in congested areas to see immediate relief,” he said.

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Laura Ascione

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