Bridging the Digital Divide
I never liked the phrase, “A crisis is a bad thing to waste.” It wreaks of cynical political opportunism. However, a crisis like COVID does expose underlying systemic issues and forces us to address them. As we emerge from our nation-wide lockdown, can anyone argue the importance of the internet to the way we communicate, work, and entertain ourselves? The ability to provide educational continuity for a large percentage of our nation’s schoolchildren by enabling classes to be conducted virtually exemplifies the essentialness of internet access. Correspondingly, the ability to quickly transition to on-line education also exposed the inability of a segment of the student population to take advantage of this capability.
The phrase “Digital Divide” is typically used to describe the lack of internet access and the electronics to use it by a portion of our children. Like many societal issues where a pithy phrase encompasses a problem of multiple dimensions, the “Digital Divide” isn’t defined by a single adversarial categorization, urban v. rural, for example. The issues surrounding the inability of children to attend a Zoom-delivered class, Google to find the date WWII ended, or email their teacher a question crosses the boundaries of geographic location, physical infrastructure, and economics.
An estimated 18% of U.S. students don’t have broadband access. For some, in rural areas, for example, the physical infrastructure isn’t available, but the primary reason for the lack of internet access is the high cost of high-speed access. In the initial period of lockdown, 50% of Philadelphia school district pupils didn’t have appropriate broadband access, with the primary reason being the cost of higher capacity connectivity options. The level of available bandwidth access is of particular importance to enable on-line students to actively and successfully participate in teacher-directed learning activities—think the worst ZOOM meeting you’ve attended recently. A recent PEW study of U.S. Census survey data determined the quality of the internet connection in terms of speed is even more important than the child’s experience with technology. These economic barriers are particularly acute in many of the country’s urban areas and exacerbate disparities in educational opportunity.
In many instances, even if high bandwidth connectivity is available, students don’t possess the necessary electronic tools to use it effectively. The PEW study found that one in four teenagers living in households with an annual income below $30,000 doesn’t have a computer in their home. Since six in ten six in ten students report using a computer to do their homework nearly every day, it’s not hyperbolic to say a lack of computer access hobbles the learning efforts a significant portion of the country’s student body. In school districts across the country, the use of computer-based instruction has resulted in not just multiple PCs within the classroom, but district provided laptops for each K-12 student as well–this is often not the case in a number more impoverished communities.
As we look toward a future that will continue to see a reduction in the availability of “hands-on” employment opportunities, our schools need to adapt to deliver a workforce with the skills required in a knowledge-based economy. It is inarguable that internet access both in terms of connectivity and the electronics needed to use it are now essential components of the educational process. To have any segment of our nation’s school-aged children divorced from these capabilities places them at a significant educational disadvantage that can have long term societal impact. To rectify the disparities that characterize the current state of our educational system, the digital divide is a chasm that must be bridged.
Chris Crosby is a recognized visionary and leader in the datacenter space and has served as founder and CEO of Compass Datacenters since 2011. Chris has over 25 years of technology experience and over 15 years of real estate and investment experience. Previously, Chris served as a senior executive and founding member of Digital Realty Trust. Mr. Crosby received a B.S. degree in Computer Sciences from the University of Texas at Austin.