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What does the digital divide look like in the US? The Wi-Fi enabled school bus is a pretty good example. School districts have rolled out a few in rural school districts like Augusta, Georgia and Berkely County, South Carolina. Coachella Valley schools in the California desert tried them; a group in Worcester, Massachusetts is pushing to start with a program.

Who needs a library when you can stand outside a school bus with a broadband access point?

The Richmond County School District, home of the Masters Golf Tournament, serves 33,000 students across 61 schools in K-12. In 2016, 21 of those schools—a third of the district—are “chronically failing” state College and Career-Ready Performance Index (CCRP) mastery standards.

District leaders in Richmond County blame the scores on lack of access to connected devices. School Board representative Dr. Wayne Frazier told Augusta Chronicle, “This is one key area that is causing our children to fail – not having the needed technology.” Lack of wireless connectivity is a neighborhood problem; schools have Internet access, but when students go home they do not have the means to connect.

Wireless access point in a Coachella Valley school bus. Photo by Nichole Dobo, Hechinger Report

The gap between “haves” and “have-nots” for Internet connectivity is real. The digital divide gets relegated to K-12 education narratives, but its impact reaches well beyond the classroom.  It is a symptom and a cause of cyclical poverty, and it is not limited to northeastern Georgia.

A Center for Public Integrity analysis of FCC data turned up that families in poor areas are five times more likely not to have access to high-speed Internet. In all, the Center found in excess of 30 million Americans, more than half in areas with a median household income below $47,000 a year, do not have access to broadband, according to its analysis.

In all, in excess of 30 million Americans, more than half in areas with a median household income below $47,000 a year, do not have access to broadband, according to the Center’s analysis.

Internet access is the civil rights issue of our time,” states James Lane, the school superintendent of Goochland County in rural Virginia.

Where have all the libraries gone? 

The school library. I used to write research papers there as a high school student in the late ‘90s, without an Internet connection. I tell this to my school-age son whenever he complains about homework. I also remember trying to do homework on the bus, usually a zero-hour affair before class. Of all the places to complete school work, the bus was probably the worst: the noise, the bumps in the road, the lack of a proper desk.

When online research became a thing right in the middle of my secondary education, it felt like cheating—some of my instructors even treated it as such, limiting the number of Internet sources for research papers. Naturally, most of my classmates  and I cited heavily from online resources, checked out a few books in good form, and called it a day. The Internet was a beautiful shortcut that we could access in a neighborhood library, or a school computer lab full of Compaq PCs.

Today, attitudes in K-12 EDU are completely different. Now kids need to be online. Cloud-based learning software is prevalent, teacher-student communication lives on Internet blackboards, and textbooks have online supplements to foster learning outcomes. No access is a huge disadvantage when competing against those who have 24/7 high speed connections.

It is easy for Internet “haves” to take connectivity for granted. I’m not above complaining when I can’t get 4G in the San Gabriel foothills around the Newegg HQ.

Another victim of the Internet: the school library

Just as it did the recording industry, the Internet obsoleted the library in many regards. Public library patronage is dwindling, state and local funding is on the decline for public libraries. School libraries’ outlook is equally bleak; today there are no federal programs funding school libraries, which are closing doors as well: half of NYC school libraries closed between 2004 and 2014 (Edweek) is a telling example of the direction school libraries are headed.

In its traditional form, connectivity “haves” don’t need a library and its stacks of dated texts. If you don’t have an Internet connection at home, a school library or neighborhood public library with Wi-Fi access is immensely useful. That’s why libraries are called the great equalizer for the digital divide in pro-library elevator pitches by politicians.

I’d argue that a child with a fast home network still has the advantage, but library networks provide a sensible stop-gap for students that need to get homework done online. It also provides a quiet place to learn, a chair, a desk, and other useful means for sitting down to learn.

Final thoughts

Fashioning one or two district school buses into Wi-Fi hotspots and calling it a win for students, that’s just a reckless proliferation of the digital divide. It is time to think about real solutions.

Educators: learn what NeweggBusiness K-12 technology procurement can do for your school district connectivity.

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Avatar rob says:

    So you blame lack of internet instead of your teachers?

    • Adam Lovinus Adam Lovinus says:

      Whose teachers are you referring to? Access to the Internet is critical for learning in 2017–particularly in settings outside the classroom. Access is a problem in poor rural areas. My point is that a school bus with a LTE connection and Wi-Fi is not a solution to be proud of.

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