Digital Divide and Long Division

people interacting with technology behind them on a blue background

School’s Out for Summer!

With school out for the summer, I’m sure many parents (and teachers) hope that their kids (students) might try to keep up with their studies—even if it’s only a little bit, so they don’t forget everything they’ve learned over the past year. 

I know my parents and teachers did! 

Looking back, I remember getting homework packets to complete over the summer (much to my chagrin) that would be graded at the start of the next school year. Though having been out of school for quite some time now, I’d venture to guess that this may still be the case…but with one difference: a virtual component or platform on which to complete the assignments.

The Problem:

That may seem all well and good at a surface level. Some benefits include less paper waste and the ability to set deadlines on virtual assignments so students can pace themselves during summer. 

But we must ask a few important, but often overlooked, questions: what if that child doesn’t have access to the internet at home? What if they don’t have their own computer or any computer in the entire household? Or what if their school doesn’t have resources to provide each student with a laptop or tablet for the summer? 

While going to the public library may be an option for some students, there may be circumstances where public transit is limited (e.g., in rural areas), or the parent/guardian must work and therefore can’t take the student to the library.

The problem described is called “The Digital Divide,” and it’s more common than you may think, even in the U.S.

What is the Digital Divide? 

Merriam Webster defines the digital divide as “the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not.” 

This definition is more thoroughly expanded upon by the Internet Society as:

“(At a high level) the gap between those with internet access and those without it. But the digital divide is multifaceted and includes many factors such as access, affordability, quality, and relevance.”

Additional factors affecting internet access include:

  • Availability: Do they have access to the internet? Is there a connection nearby? If so, this is just the first step to getting access.
  • Affordability: How much does the internet service cost? When compared with other essential goods, how much income would be sacrificed in order to get the service?
  • Quality of service: Do the upload and download speeds meet the needs of internet users in the area?
  • Relevance: Do the local community members have the necessary skills to use the technology? Are the people interested in internet access and what its benefits? Is there content in the native language, and is it relevant to locals’ lives?
  • Additional divides: Other areas that can create digital inequality can include security, interconnectivity, digital literacy, and access to equipment.

Demographics and Effects:

While it may be difficult for some to fathom not having easy (or any) access to the internet on a daily basis, there is a great deal of research showing that it’s more common than you may think.

In the US, it’s been found that 97 percent of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed, fixed internet service (according to the FCC). Though in rural areas, that number falls to 65 percent; on tribal lands, it tumbles further to 60 percent. 

And those are just the ‘official’ numbers.

Microsoft released a study in 2018 that estimated nearly half of all people in the US weren’t connecting at broadband speeds; since then, that number has dropped to 120.4 million people, which is still many times higher than the FCC reports.

Reports indicate that nearly 30 million Americans cannot fully benefit from and participate in the digital age. And that number only increases as we look at other parts of the world.

In fact, a study by the US National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that poor students are less likely to have the equipment needed to attend online school; 7 percent of eighth-graders who are poor don’t have internet access compared to only 1.6 percent of non-poor students. 

Digital Divide and COVID-19

As the initial wave of COVID-19 spread around the world, more than a billion children worldwide were sent home in a matter of weeks to continue classes online. Yet schools struggled during those first weeks of the pandemic as they were confronted by the realities of disparate access to technology and connectivity for their students.

A U.S. Census Bureau survey during the pandemic found that not all families with school-age kids had access to internet services or a computer. The levels varied by race and family income.

​​For example, 84 percent of Asian families had a computer in the home for educational use, while only 72 percent of Latino and Hispanic families did.

87 percent of Asian families surveyed also indicated they always have internet access available for their children’s school-related assignments. While only 68 percent of respondents belonging to biracial, multiracial, or in a group labeled “other races” – meaning not white, not Black, not Asian, and not Hispanic/Latino—affirmed this claim.

Back in 2020, much of the world embraced digital transformation in quick form, which, in turn, helped solidify technology’s critical role in how we work, learn, and live. 

On the flip side, the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on a long-standing issue: billions of people worldwide remain without the universal human right of internet access.

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Solutions on the Horizon? 

Even as recently as 2021, a New America and Rutgers University report shows 1 in 7 children still don’t have high-speed internet access at home.

Additionally, the focus on providing temporary devices to students (however good natured the intention) doesn’t necessarily address underlying social issues—a laptop and hot spot issued for one year does not permanently solve problems as complex as the digital divide.

However, the new federal infrastructure package offers some renewed hope in tackling the digital divide here in the US. The law’s text says high-speed internet access is as essential as running water and electricity in order for citizens to fully participate in modern life.

This package includes $2.75 billion in funding for a program improving digital access to social services—which should help it become a higher priority on the government’s agenda. Though history and experience show that closing the digital divide requires much more than just funding efforts.

Here at Tenacity we aspire to do our part to help close this divide. Below we’ve listed a few good resources for learning and giving to the cause. Additionally, we offer free performance optimization to non-profits thorugh our initiaive called SwingSpan.

What are your thoughts on the digital divide? Have you seen any promising initiatives in your community that you’d like to share? Drop us a line in the comments!

Digital Divide Resources:

EveryoneOn

PCs for People

National Digital Inclusion Alliance

Sources:

COVID-19 Magnifies Inequality in Internet Accessibility

COVID-19 exposed the digital divide. Here’s how we can close it | World Economic Forum

Digital divide Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster 

What Is the Digital Divide? – Internet Society 

A ‘digital canyon’: 1.3 billion school-aged children can’t log on to internet at home | | UN News  

State Efforts to Close the K-12 Digital Divide May Come Up Short 

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