Dial-Up Internet for Education
Educational inequality is a major driving force in the wealth disparity, and inequality seen across the world and here in the United States. According to an article by Visakh Madathil, “Inequality in education increases inequality in society…” As technology has become more and more a part of our classrooms, “tech deserts” are only furthering the gap. As many schools close and move online, due to safety concerns surrounding the pandemic, those with ample resources are impacted far less than those without. With remote learning becoming increasingly present in our children’s everyday lives, technology has taken a front seat as an educational tool and necessity. According to edweek.org, “Two of the biggest hurdles to moving America’s schools online have been an inadequate number of digital devices for students and millions of families’ lack of high-speed Internet at home.” The advancements in technology and telecommunications have been far from equal. According to an article in the Washington Post that cited a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, “21 million Americans do not have access to high speed Internet.” Not every school district or child has equal access to the Internet, computer or teleconference systems necessary to provide adequate learning environments.
While not being able to play online math games may not seem like a major concern at this point, there is significant amounts of research and retrospective data that not only highlights the impact of poor education on personal outcomes, but also the impact a lack of technology can have on a community. A study quoted in Forbes Magazine revealed that, “Technology coincided with an increase in wages across the labor market, but whereas the average employee saw wages rise by just 2.3%, those in managerial positions saw a 9% rise, and those in the boardroom saw an even more impressive 19% boost to the income.” What is most notable here is that the biggest impact and benefit was to those with management and executive level jobs, jobs frequently associated with the development of a skill base rooted in technological savvy. Highlighting that once again those “without” continue to be disproportionately punished than those in better positions. This concept directly applies to the educational side of things as well.
This information does not come as a surprise to all, and in fact, the federal government has long been trying to help address technological inequality. According to an article in the Washington Post, “The U.S. government already provides $4 billion in aid to schools annually to help keep them online. Known as E-Rate, the decades-old pot of funds helps schools and libraries buy and maintain telecommunications services, like speedy Internet connectivity, at steep discounts, a major boost to cash-starved schools’ budgets.” However, due to stipulations on the use of the money, schools may not be able to use these federal funds “off campus.” Essentially these funds may not be used to provide home Internet or computers for students in remote learning, a desperately needed intervention. One local public-school teacher noted that her district is in a “relatively affluent area and was able to buy numerous personal ‘hotspots’ and laptops for students who did not possess the necessary equipment to learn online.” However, she goes on to say, “This is certainly not the case everywhere and I consider ourselves very lucky to have been able to provide this service to our students.”
According to the E-rate website, “The ongoing proliferation of innovative digital learning technologies and the need to connect students, teachers and consumers to jobs, life-long learning, and information have led to a steady rise in demand for bandwidth in schools and libraries.” It is E-rates mission to address these infrastructure shortcomings but not those technological shortcomings at the student’s home where most learning is occurring at this point. This program is not without controversy and in 2004 there was a significant investigation launched into the mismanaging of E-rate funds with some practices declared fraudulent. Other concerns were raised in 2019 when there was a cap placed on E-rate funding, signifying a misalignment of federal goals with local and state needs.
Not all are in support of e-learning and the remote/technological aspect has provided significant challenges for parents, students and teachers alike. Additionally, there is some research that shows significant use of classroom technology does not always benefit the student. An article in the MIT news writes, “Broadly, programs to expand access to technology have been effective at increasing use of computers and improving computer skills. However, computer distribution and Internet subsidy programs generally did not improve grades and test scores and in some cases led to adverse impacts on academic achievement.” Additionally, many teachers in low income areas have found the transition to remote and online instruction challenging. A survey by edweek.org found, “74 percent of Teachers … were still teaching (after being forced into remote learning). But that figure rose to 89 percent in public schools where one-fourth or fewer of students are from low-income families, and it dropped to 67 percent in schools where more than three-fourths of students are from low-income families.” This study found that the richer a school was, the higher percentage of teachers were able to transition to online learning. This highlights that income disparities in public education also have a significant impact on the ability to implement technology in education.
Ultimately, as our students are being forced into remote and online learning, it is becoming quite clear that the impact of this change will not be equitable across all social classes. Some federal intervention has taken place in the form of E-rate, an antiquated but somewhat influential program to provide funds to “plug-in” America’s schools. Restrictions placed on these funds make it difficult for districts to use the federal money for at home learning and ultimately fall very short in addressing the technological disparities seen in education. Many of the “tech billionaires,” who see computer science and technology as their path to success, have made calls to increase access and funding for schools to provide at home technology. With the implementation of a new administration and subsequently new fiscal budget we will have to wait and see whether programs like E-rate receive the funds and permission necessary to have a true impact. While Joe Biden has not yet nominated a Secretary of Education, he did promise on the campaign trail that he would nominate a teacher for this role. Many are hopeful that Senator Elizabeth Warren gets the nod. She was once favored to be Treasury Secretary, however, with the nomination of Janet Yellen for this position we are left wondering if there is a role for Senator Warren in this administration’s cabinet. Warren, once a special education teacher, would fulfil Biden’s promise to nominate a teacher for Secretary of Education.
It is ultimately frustrating that we don’t focus more on the early success of our youngest citizens so that they may flourish into productive adult lives. Investing in technology and funding for our educational system will help to foster growth and success in later years. The closest analogy I could think of would be spending money on the “upper floors” of our later years, when we haven’t invested any into the “foundation” of our educational youth.
Ben Velardi, Author/Founder