By Erika Winston
The digital divide is the substantial gap that exists between people who actively benefit from the advantages of current technology and those who are financially unable to access it. This lack of technology excludes these individuals from the vast opportunities that computers and the internet provide. According to a study by the Pew Research Internet Project, in-home internet access has increased by more than 70% since 2000. Despite this impressive growth, a significantly large segment of the population currently lacks access to the internet. Approximately 15% of Americans do not have in-home access to the internet and research shows that income is a substantial factor in this equation.
According to the Pew report, about a third of all lower income individuals, making less than $20,000 per year, are not actively utilizing the internet at all. Another third of this population use the internet, but have no access within their homes. To fill this void, many of these Americans use computers in their local libraries, where access is provided for free. Pew reports that about 81% of low income adults describe the library’s free internet access as “very important”.
While these free services are valuable, they do not adequately address problems with the digital divide gap. In home internet access is a staple of American society. Without it, adults can miss out on employment, educational, and entertainment opportunities. In addition, children are denied necessary educational tools. Recognizing the seriousness of this situation, corporations and school districts are stepping up in hopes of decreasing the digital divide.
Internet Essentials is a program of the Comcast Corporation that promotes access to the internet among lower income individuals. Created in 2011, the initiative has connected more than 1.4 million Americans to in-home internet access. This number reportedly represents more than 350,000 low income families.
“We want to help ensure that as many low-income people as possible, in our region, get connected to the internet,” stated a Comcast Internet Essentials representative. “Thirty percent of the population remains on the wrong side of the digital divide.” She went on to explain that the divide creates profound educational disadvantages and places barriers to employment, essentially “increasing the disparity between the haves and have-nots.”
To enhance the current success of the program, Comcast recently announced improvements to Internet Essentials. The first will expand eligibility through a debt amnesty program. As long as all other requirements are met, applicants can enroll in Internet Essentials even if they have Comcast debts that are more than a year old. The company reportedly recognized that many applicants were kept from enrollment by old outstanding bills. The new policy eliminates this barrier to participation.
The second program enhancement allows any family, with children who are eligible under the National School Lunch Program, to apply for internet services. The children must be school aged, but these ages can range from Head Start to seniors in high school. The program even includes charter school students, online education programs, and homeschooled students.
In addition to internet services, Comcast also partners with other organizations to provide low-cost computers. According to Comcast, more than 30,000 subsidized computers have been provided to customers over the last three years and all were offered at less than $150. Additionally, partnerships with various non-profit organizations further expand access to internet services. A company fact sheet states, “Comcast is committed to ensuring that learning not only happens in school and at home, but also continues in the community at rec centers, libraries, and after-school programs. That’s why we created Internet Essentials Learning Zones through more than $1 million in grants to 15 communities.”
Schools are a major resource for spreading computer access and narrowing the digital divide. Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) is responding to the issue by providing computers to its students. Anytime, Anywhere Learning is a school initiative to provide all students with daily access to computer technology. Starting this school year, all middle school students will receive a Chromebook, which is a laptop computer pre-installed with Google’s Chrome operating system.
The laptop search began in 2012, when administrators considered and researched six computers and tablets. Various computers were provided to teachers of various disciplines across the county. These instructors were then asked to rate their respective devices. Student input was also considered through focus groups and the final piece of the puzzle included opinions from technology professionals. After all of the information was gathered, Chesterfield administrators chose the Chromebook for the Anytime, Anywhere Learning program.
Chesterfield County Public School officials say that the program promotes blended learning, which combines a traditional teaching environment with advanced technology. Students will reportedly use the computers within the classrooms, allowing teachers to reinforce their lessons with new and innovative technical resources. The technology also allows for smaller group learning, instead of limiting instruction to the entire classroom simultaneously. Students can instead receive instruction that is tailored to their individual education level.
Students will also be able to take the laptops home for additional assignments and studies. Through technical integration, teachers can monitor the students’ individual learning, and instantaneously respond to their needs. “That is what anytime, anywhere learning is all about,” states CCPS literature.
The school system expects to expand the program to high school students during the 2015-2016 school year. Administrators are reportedly still working to determine the most appropriate device for elementary school students. However, they do expect to redistribute many of the current high school and middle school lab computers into the elementary schools for increased access and usage. All of these changes are in furtherance of the county’s Design for Excellence 2020 program.
Organizers assert that the laptop computers will not replace teachers, who are “the most important facet in education,” according to CCPS. “While computers provide a number of benefits and opportunities for students that would not be possible without digital devices, the expert and caring guidance of teachers in our strong digital curriculum is what ultimately helps students achieve and succeed. “