Equity & Diversity

‘Without a Net’ Documentary Explores Digital Divide in U.S. Schools

By Sarah Schwartz — September 26, 2017 3 min read
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Without access to technology or the internet in schools, millions of students are being denied a future.

That’s the message behind Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America, a new documentary directed by Rory Kennedy and narrated by Jamie Foxx. The film will air Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.

The movie, produced by Verizon, explores the digital divide in the United States and demonstrates how the lack of consistent, reliable internet access in high-poverty schools can limit students’ educational opportunities and future job prospects.

“It is vitally important that we cross this digital divide and give every child, no matter their ZIP code, access to a robust learning environment that can enable them to be learners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said Jeff Hawkins, the executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative.

“The world of work that our kids will go into after high school and college is advancing so rapidly that we have to be able to provide our kids with the most up to date, current knowledge that they can have.”

Two schools within the cooperative, Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County School District and Belfry High School in Pike County Public Schools, are featured in the documentary.

Hawkins hopes that viewers finish watching the film with a better understanding of the many interconnecting parts required to get students learning online. Schools aren’t done once they secure connectivity, he said—they also need functioning devices, instructional software, and teachers trained in technology use. “It also helps to point out that funding for this is critical,” he said.

For schools or other organizations looking to show the film, screening kits will be available beginning Sept. 27.

Filmmakers featured schools struggling with connectivity challenges in urban and rural districts alike, from New York to Coachella, Calif. In 2013, Ed Week covered the New York City school system’s payout of back wages to over 30,000 teachers, social workers, and school psychologists who had to work outside of contractually mandated hours because of slow internet speeds.

Hear some of the student voices in the trailer below:

The concerns students voice in the trailer—getting functional devices in the classroom, going online to do homework, and preparing for careers in a tech-based economy—have been familiar themes in Education Week‘s coverage of the digital divide.

In 2015, we profiled Calhoun County, a 2,500-student school district in rural Mississippi, that was charged $9,275 a month for 3 megabits per second of bandwidth delivered over 15-year-old copper wires. The impossibly slow internet forced teachers to abandon the use of digital tools in the classroom and derailed online state testing.

The Federal Communications Commission’s overhaul of the federal E-rate program has granted Calhoun County, and districts like it, some relief. In 2014, the then-Democrat-led FCC expanded the program’s funding cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, prioritized broadband and WiFi access, and put in place new rules to help get districts access to fiber-optic cable.

The FCC’s modernization effort has seen significant success, according to a recent report from EducationSuperHighway, a broadband advocacy group. Over 35 million new students have gained access to the internet since 2013, and the price of broadband has plummeted.

Even still, barriers persist, especially for rural schools.

Critics of the now Republican-led FCC have suggested that the commission has been delaying the applications of school districts looking to take advantage of new E-rate rules to fund new fiber-optic networks.

“They have red tape wrapped around these projects, and there’s really been no meaningful movement,” said John Harrington, the CEO of consulting firm Funds for Learning, told Education Week earlier this month.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.