The days when spiral notebooks, No. 2 pencils, and a backpack full of textbooks served as the mainstays of the American classroom are rapidly giving way to a new school environment. Interactive whiteboards, online classes, streaming lectures, and digital textbooks are revolutionizing the way students learn and communicate with their teachers. Technology is blurring the brick-and-mortar boundaries of learning in 21st-century schools.
As a result, access to the Internet has become a need-to-have—not just a nice-to-have—when it comes to student success. After all, according to documents the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband task force released in 2009, about 70 percent of teens said the Internet had been their primary source for a recent school project, and at least 65 percent went online at home to complete their homework. Teachers routinely assign homework that requires Internet use to complete, and more than half of American schools expect to adopt e-textbooks in the next two to three years.
But with this increased reliance on the Internet as a basic resource in our education system, we can’t forget about the infrastructure that makes it all possible. We must ensure that all students—no matter their location or socioeconomic status—have access to affordable, reliable high-speed Internet both in and outside the classroom.
Even if students have reliable Internet access at school, many become digitally disconnected once they leave. This is especially true for those who live in rural or low-income communities, and it makes their homework harder to complete. It’s often difficult for students in rural areas to get to their schools, which makes online connections at home all the more important. This lack of access particularly affects minorities. Only 55 percent of African-American and 57 percent of Hispanic households are able to access the Internet at home, and only 50 percent of residents in rural areas have high-speed Internet, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Without access to the Internet, students can’t take advantage of the numerous innovative tools that have democratized learning, such as high-quality teaching, learning, and research materials that are available for free online. For instance, the nonprofit Khan Academy offers an extensive online library of more than 3,800 free video lessons that have been viewed millions of times and cover topics on everything from math, chemistry, and physics to art history, civics, and economics. Founder Salman Khan has said he created the academy as a way to provide a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere.
In addition to open educational resources, the availability and popularity of distance learning in K-12 education have also taken off in recent years. Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia offer multidistrict, full-time online schools, which allow students to take courses from any location, including classes that are not available at their schools. Through virtual and self-paced learning, students can also retake courses to raise a grade or even get ahead to graduate early.
The Florida Virtual School is the country’s largest K-12 online school program, now serving more than 148,000 students. In 2011, the Florida legislature passed a mandate that requires high school students to take at least one online course in order to graduate.
While open educational resources, virtual schools, and other innovative tools have transformed education, the simple fact is they can’t benefit all students without policies and funding that make these platforms accessible to everyone. As the authors of a recent report from the State Educational Technology Directors Association pointed out, “access to high-speed broadband is now as vital a component of K-12 school infrastructure as electricity, air conditioning, and heating.” Clearly, those without access to high-speed Internet at home are at a serious disadvantage in comparison with their connected peers.
There’s no silver-bullet solution to the challenges to providing students the best education possible, but there are some concrete steps that we can—and must—take to give all students access to the technology they need to thrive. We need to pay attention to policy decisions such as whether the federally created Universal Service Fund, which has a strong record in providing phone service to rural and low-income communities, will succeed in helping to expand broadband Internet access as well. Implementation on the broadband front is still a work in progress. We also need to help ensure the technology industry will be required to have a truly competitive marketplace that results in more affordable services since this will affect how much access students have to online resources.
For too long, these important debates have been kept in a silo of technologists and communication advocates. But school administrators, policymakers, teachers, nonprofit organizations, and funders who care deeply about the future of education in our country must all engage in these debates and call on the FCC, the Obama administration, and congressional leaders to strongly support and promote technology policies that provide the infrastructure needed for all students to get the leg up they need to graduate from high school, succeed in college, and compete in a digitally driven 21st-century economy.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Why Equal Internet Access Is an Education Essential