Digital divide creates a new type of gap

On evenings when there are special events and on various nights throughout the summer, you might find a student sitting near an empty school bus in an elementary school parking lot in Kokomo.

The student is likely on a laptop, tablet or smart phone using the bus’s Wi-Fi signal to gain the internet access that’s missing at home. Students need this access for everything from completing assignments to simply staying connected. Welcome to the new “digital divide.”

“People who have access to high-speed internet and technology devices stand a better chance of getting a better education and doing better economically than those people who don’t,” said Danny Weiss, a federal policy expert with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media.

The “digital divide” cuts across socio-economic, racial, ethnic and geographic lines. The 2012 Pew Report “Digital Differences” found only 62 percent of people in households making less than $30,000 annually had internet access compared to 90 percent of those in households earning $50,000-74,999.

That same report found about half of both African Americans and Hispanics have high-speed internet at home, compared with two-thirds of Caucasians.

Hoosiers living in rural areas also face challenges because that same access can be sparse.

In Johnson County, 16 percent of kids have a home computer but no internet, compared to 12 percent statewide.

Bridging this divide is critical. The Pew report found teachers in schools with students mostly from lower-income families faced more hurdles in incorporating technology into teaching.

Yet employers surveyed by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce said that understanding and using technology is among the basic workplace readiness skills students should have.

Armed with this sort of knowledge, Kokomo schools took action. Four schools, covering all grade levels, issue laptops to students every day. High school students who meet responsibility requirements can take their computers home.

Kokomo also became Indiana’s first district to add Wi-Fi to some buses, allowing students even more access to the internet. On certain days, they then park those buses in areas where Wi-Fi access is limited, creating a hotspot for students.

Kokomo is one of six school districts across the country selected this year to join Digital Promise, a bi-partisan nonprofit agency authorized by Congress in 2008. The year-long program will advise Kokomo schools on research-based best practices for utilizing technology in teaching and learning.

Kokomo schools superintendent Jeff Hauswald said he believes lessons learned through Digital Promise can help Kokomo minimize the impact of the “digital divide,” but not eliminate it.

To increase access, some communications companies offer low-cost, income-based Internet service. On March 31, the Federal Communications Commission voted to expand the Lifeline Program. It was established in 1985 as a way to ensure low-income households had a landline phone. It expanded to include cell service in 2005. This latest decision extends the $9.25 subsidy to high-speed Internet access for low-income families.

Some strategies to provide students Wi-Fi may not work in rural areas, where children have to travel greater distances to find a hot spot.

In both rural and urban communities, local organizations, businesses, churches and public and private entities might consider ways to expand public Wi-Fi hotspots or offer students places to collaborate and learn using technology.

Weiss contends the internet is akin to last century’s spread of electricity and running water to areas in need of economic growth.

“50 percent of employers require an online application for jobs today. Seven out of 10 kids are assigned homework on the internet to do at home,” Weiss said. “It’s now an essential utility.”

But for some, essential remains out of reach, on the other side of the digital divide.