Bridging the digital divide, from the front lines

November 13, 2013
(The Washington Post)
Gene Sperling - Director, National Economic Council

There’s not enough connectivity not only to the school, but within the school.

A lot of schools were set up to have a computer lab. They were not set up with the vision that in every single classroom somebody had an individualized learning device at their desk.

When you hear statistics like 80 percent of teachers don’t feel they have the connectivity to teach in this kind of modern classroom, I mean, you know who the 20 percent that are likely okay are. They’re the children in the more well-off school districts. There is no question that the current state of connectivity feeds inequality as opposed to alleviates inequality. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Shame on us if we let the wonders of educational technology and broadband lead to more inequality as opposed to less.

Why this topic is so important is that the educational technology we have is unfortunately a way of accelerating disparities. You just see it, you know it. Those of us who are middle class, upper middle class, we see our kids getting ahead so quickly. They’re on the Internet, they’re doing learning games.

The idea that we have as a capacity — with a mild reform of the E-Rate (a program that helps pay for school and library Internet access) — to connect 99 percent of our schools to broadband, is very exciting.

And I really do want to just come back to the theme of bridging the digital divide. This same technology, this same access to broadband, this same capacity of people to have individualized learning devices connected to the Internet in their school — which is probably feeding disadvantage, increasing disparity, increasing inequality — can so easily, if we’re being committed, be something that increases equality, that gives more kids in lower-income neighborhoods the chance to soar because they can be at the same desk, with the same learning tablet, with the same content as kids in the most upper-middle-class neighborhoods.

So shame on us — really, shame on us if we let the wonders of educational technology and broadband lead to more inequality as opposed to less — as opposed to more opportunity, more leveling of giving everybody a chance. That is a great challenge. I hope you keep pushing on this theme because technology moves quick. So it’s either going to quickly feed disparity or it’s going to help address disparity. Let’s hope that we are doing this to bridge the divide, bridge educational disparity, be what our country is supposed to be about, which is the accident of your birth is not supposed to overly determine the outcome of your life. And how we deal with this issue can make a big difference in whether we do or don’t live up to that ideal.

(The Washington Post)

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake - Mayor, Baltimore

When you look at the whole state of Maryland, the state’s elderly people and those who are living in poverty are concentrated in Baltimore. We have lots of residents — a quarter of the citizens — living below the poverty line, and many who are living without access to the Internet. It’s an issue of vitality. You have to have broadband access and equality to have a vital city. But it’s also a justice issue.

You can’t grow jobs with slow Internet.

We have a consultant working to find ways to use the fiber infrastructure to create a loop around the city and bring access to more Baltimoreans.

We’re wiring some of our recreation centers, our public markets around the city. We’ve worked to make our Penn Station give free Wi-Fi as well.

You can’t grow jobs with slow Internet. People want to be on the cutting edge. So that’s why we’re working hard to bring that fiber loop around the city and give more and faster access.

Several of our recreation centers have been transformed into tech centers. Our library system has revisioned itself as a technology hub.

There are so many ways that the divide between the haves and the have-nots in public education can be closed using technology. And that’s why I fought so hard to win more than $1 billion in infrastructure investment in creating the next generation of Baltimore city schools.

(The Washington Post)

Richard Culatta - Director of the Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education

When we talk about what the digital divide is, I worry that sometimes we think it’s people who have technology versus people who don’t have technology.

You can make sure there’s technology in schools, and it doesn’t improve learning.

We don’t want to simply take a textbook, and then make a PDF version of it. That’s not helpful.

It’s not just about the devices and the connectivity. It’s also the difference between those who know how to re-imagine learning through technology.

Recently we were at Sunnyside High School in Arizona. Sunnyside has given laptops and provided connectivity to all their students. . . . They have opportunities for students to actually build and design in ways that you couldn’t do without that technology. Yes, there’s a biotech lab — how many high schools have biotech labs where the students are doing projects in cooperation with local universities?

One of the teachers had all of her students — freshman English class — publish a novel. Amazing. To be clear, they’re probably not all on the bestseller list. But just having the experience of writing and editing — that’s phenomenal.

This last year was the first year that the class that got the technology graduated, having gone through all four years. It had the highest graduation rate they’ve ever had in the district.

I’ll just be really honest: I don’t see why anybody would be investing in a strategy to make sure there are more textbooks in classrooms. It just doesn’t make sense.

Even when I talk to textbook publishers, they’re saying, “We would be happy to transition to different models where we’re building great interactive, rich simulations.”

Let’s be really clear:We don’t want to simply take a textbook, and then make a PDF version of it.That’s not helpful.

What we’re saying is, if we’re teaching writing, let’s have them actually be writing using the same tools that professional writers use. Let’s have them actually design and build things. This is hard stuff. It’s not easy. The opposite of hard is easy, not boring. A lot of people think, “Well, should school just always be fun all the time?” I think it can be fun and hard, because the more kids see relevance in what they’re doing, they will be working much, much, much harder. And so it’s not about just clicking and reading stuff on Wikipedia all the time.

(The Washington Post)

Mignon Clyburn - Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission

We’re going to continue to partner,with others to make sure that this game changing ecosystem, that this environment, that these technologies that everyone, regardless of your zip code, regardless of your income, regardless of your background, that everyone has an opportunity to engage.There are 15 million Americans who, regardless of their capacities, do not have the infrastructure for broadband, because in the areas in which they live — which are primarily rural — the business case cannot be made. That is why we are reforming the Universal Service Fund to target those dollars to those areas. And that is what government does best.

We are in a state of continual change, of modernizing (FCC programs). There are some services that maybe the money should not flow to; there are other services and other ways of doing things that we need to look at.

These technologies, they’re neutral. Agnostic. The difference, in terms of bridging the divide or further hardening the divide, is engagement, interaction. It’s going to take a proactive engagement.It’s going to take a community of a whole to say, “What do we need? What can we do?How can we use these technologies to better expedite, to better close those gaps?”

What I am hearing is the [E-Rate] process is a bit cumbersome, that it takes a PhD (to understand it). We’re listening to that. We’re going to streamline. We’re going to encourage consortia so that you can bulk buy, gain more efficiencies.

(The Washington Post)

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.)

Everybody talks about California and Silicon Valley being so connected, that we must be ahead of everybody else. But even in California, there are pockets where my constituents aren’t connected at all. About 20,000 of them.

This country was founded as a democracy -- and education was a big aspect of it, to give opportunity to everyone. If you are not connected, I feel that it really is a loss of opportunity. So for me, I think it’s important for this great country to ensure that not only are we economically ahead of everybody else, and competitive, but also that our citizens are connected.

Even in California, we have areas where we’re not connected.

I fell that it really is a loss of opportunity. Just recently, I introduced the National Broadband Adoption Act because you could have access, but if you can’t afford it, you’re not going to adopt it. What we’ve done, essentially, is to [try to] ensure that every household ... could have landline, mobile or broadband. And in that way, we’re hoping to be able to penetrate those households that really do not subscribe to the Internet.

(The Washington Post)

Lee Rainie - Director, Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project

One of the most remarkable stories we’ve seen in technology adoption in the history of the world is as people moved from the dial-up universe at home to the broadband universe at home — which happened in the past decade — they became very different Internet users.

And if you asked them whether they would give it up, they’d say, ‘Over my dead body.’

They did more stuff online, they spent more time online, they used a lot more video online because it was enabled by the high-speed connections. And probably most important , they became content creators themselves.

They became participants in culture, civic life, government life and in their communities in very different ways. The Internet, and especially broadband at home, made it sort of a utility in their lives.

Dial-up made the Internet a novelty, but when users switched to broadband, it became an essential part of the rhythms of their information-seeking, of their communication patterns. It was deeply built into their lives. And if you asked them whether they would give it up, they’d say, “Over my dead body.”

A big game changer in home use of the Internet was the arrival of smartphones. Fifty-six percent of American adults use them, about 35 percent have feature phones and nine percent don’t have a cellphone.

But when you add up the number of people who either have broadband at home in a wired connection or who have a smartphone even if they don’t have a wired connection at home, it’s about 80 percent of Americans.

One of the most striking things is that if you add those smartphones users as a category of home users, all of a sudden some of the race and ethnicity differences that show in up in the wired data go away. So the smartphone is narrowing the gap of home Internet use for some communities, and there is a big increase particularly among African Americans and Latinos.

There are lots of minorities using their smartphones as their sole home access. There are big questions about that: Can you use a small-screen device in the same robust way that you can a larger device? It’s interesting to think about whether it’s really possible to fill out an application using a small screen or go through the health-care exchange Web site using a small screen.

(The Washington Post)

Estella Pyfrom - Chief executive, Estella’s Brilliant Bus

Our overall mission, in short, is to be able to go to underserved communities and help bridge the digital divide. We have served more than 20,000 kids. We go to a park, or a school, or clinic or center. The kids know we’re coming. Schools kind of build us up and usually the kids are very excited when we get there.

We went to one school and I said, “What are your biggest challenges?” They said, “Science.” So we knew that most of our time at that school was going to be on science.

When I was a kid, we didn’t have very much, so I had to create something. I was really good at creating gadgets, and I like gadgets. And the bus was just a big gadget with a purpose.

(The Washington Post)

Terry Bradwell - Executive vice president, AARP

We’re living in more of a digital reality now. It’s a total mindset change. It’s like the difference of being on the Earth and going to the Moon for some people who have not grown up in it.

We don’t use terms like ‘digital literacy.’ That doesn’t mean a lot.

We have an annual member event, where we get about 15,000 or 16,000 folks to come, and one of the things we did was have more of a technology emphasis. It was by far one of the most popular aspects of our event. You would have thought we were opening an Apple store. We had individuals, waiting in line for up to two hours to receive training, just to receive training.

What’s been the attraction for them, is that we’ve taken the technology lingo out of it. We don’t use terms like “digital literacy.” That doesn’t mean a lot. You say “a hashtag” and they grew up thinking the hashtag is a “pound” because that’s what they saw on the telephone. We use terms like “help you find a job,” “help you connect to your grandkids,” “help you to connect to your communities,” “reimagining yourself.” Those are more real-life terms. When you get into the older demographic, the personal touch is very, very important.

(The Washington Post)

Laura Breeden - Program Director for Public Computing and Broadband Adoption, Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

It’s not just about Facebook. It’s not just so I can see pictures of my friend’s cat doing something funny. ...Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies only accept applications online. . . Anybody here bought a car recently? How did you shop for your car? Pretty much everybody needs a car - and the way you buy a car now is you go online to find out, “What should I be paying for this? Is there a better deal?”

And something else I want to speak to: the isolation piece. It can be tremendously isolating to not have these connections to friends and family. I’ll tell you a story. An Indian Nation in Wisconsin, the Menominee Nation expanded their computer center and offered Skype.

And what did they do with Skype? Well, it turns out a lot of Native American families have members in the military deployed overseas. A phone call is inordinately expensive. But if there’s a computer center on your reservation with a broadband link, it helps people feel connected to other people, to family members.

(The Washington Post)

Kelley Ellsworth - Executive director, Byte Back

You can bring the Internet, the last model, right up to somebody’s doorstep. But if they don’t know how to use it, and they don’t know what it’s worth, then you haven’t really solved the problem.

So we teach at 22 sites all around the city. We teach in the morning, we teach in the afternoon, we teach in the evenings. We teach in Spanish, we teach in American Sign Language, and we teach in English. Physical barriers.

I wanted to read you a quick note that we got from one of our most recent students. And she said, “Before this class, I thought I was useless. At age 50, I didn’t know a thing about computers. I heard things like, ‘You need to catch up. Everything is about the computer now.’ So here I am. I’ve learned what the mouse is, and where to move my cursor. I’ve learned to apply for jobs, and how to send e-mails, and how to retrieve them. Once I laid my hands on the keyboard, I was off to the races. I’m a better person now. With my new skills, the sky is the limit.”

(The Washington Post)

Zach Leverenz - Chief executive, EveryoneOn

I come from the digital divide, rural Appalachia. A little town called Accident, Maryland.

It’s a scary walk through the woods sometimes. And so help — hold someone’s hand and get to the other side.

For me, affordability is the number one [reason people don’t have Internet access]. Make it affordable. Ten years ago, my parents couldn’t afford it. They were both postal workers. Now they can. It’s relevant now.

If we, in three years, at EveryoneOn [a nonprofit that offers low-cost, high-speed Internet] don’t significantly move the needle on broadband adoption, we should stop doing this. We have 60 million Americans in all 50 states — and Puerto Rico, as well — covered right now. We need help getting the word out, getting folks to take advantage, folks on the ground where we win or lose the adoption battle, is about interface at a human level, and establishing relevance, and facilitating that move to the Internet.

It’s a scary walk through the woods sometimes. And so help — hold someone’s hand and get to the other side.

(The Washington Post)

Diane Russell - Maine state representative

In Maine, we have 1.3 million people and a huge geography. Right now, 50,000 households still remain without basic broadband Internet. They have the dial tone.

We have some of the lowest incomes in New England, and income is certainly a factor [in broadband adoption]. So if you couple that with geography it is a toxic mix in terms of getting to the last mile. It costs a lot of money to get that last mile.

When I was a kid we had the crank phone. You just pick up the phone and there was the operator. Back when folks who are significantly older than me were kids — we rolled out electricity because it was important that everybody have access to electricity.

We rolled out the land lines so that people would have access to 911 services. And I think, at this point, broadband is something that’s a necessity. I think it’s time to start having a conversation about whether that should be regulated as a utility.

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