Low-Income, Low-Internet: California’s Digital Divide

Low-Income, Low-Internet: California’s Digital Divide

In 2014, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee said, “It’s time to recognize the internet as a basic human right.”

This may seem like hyperbole, but people who are cut off from internet access often miss opportunities to learn and make a reasonable wage in our hyperconnected world. Currently, California is one of the worst offenders in denying residents the ability to pursue affordable internet access for all students. There is a lot standing in the way of providing access to internet to all California students who need it, but the consequences of limited internet access for at-risk populations make the state’s growing digital divide too important to ignore.

What Is the Achievement Gap?

Success in school isn’t purely a result of each student’s own hard work and motivation—if that were the case, the average kid of any race, economic background, or gender would do just as well in their schoolwork and on tests. Instead, research demonstrates clear differences in academic achievement between these groups. Outliers exist, of course, but the pattern is there, and it has real consequences.

For example, according to a 2014 study that tested online reading ability, students who went to school in an affluent neighborhood outpaced students from a middle-class school by more than a full grade level. The researchers weren’t permitted to study low-income schools, but according to the leader of the study, “we would expect [the gap] to be greater if the economic differences were greater.”

The forces that create these achievement gaps are incredibly complex, but let’s take a closer look at one modern consideration: the digital divide.

How Does the Digital Divide Hurt Students?

When scholars use the term “digital divide,” they’re talking about inequality of access to technology. Given the incredible amount of information available online, it’s easy to understand how kids without internet access at home (or internet that’s slow, or an outdated computer, etc.) might have a tougher time excelling academically.

The digital divide may also impact standardized test scores. For instance, when California adjusted state-wide student testing in 2015, the scores for students from low-income families dropped at a higher rate than those of students from affluent families. Researchers attributed at least part of the score discrepancy to a lack of technology in the classroom.

When students have limited access to technology, the consequences extend beyond public school years. How prepared are they to research different college and trade school options? Are they comfortable enough with the internet to apply for jobs and communicate with potential employers? Can they network effectively? In these areas, students for whom technology is familiar have an advantage over students for whom it is foreign. A 2015 Pew Survey reports that of those looking for jobs over the previous two years, 79% used online resources on the job hunt.  The internet was more widely used than personal or professional contacts and significantly more so than employment agencies, print advertisements, and job fairs. When the web is the most effective way to find a job, the digital divide poses a serious risk.

California is the cradle of tech innovation. Broadband internet in Los Angeles is available at a rate of 99%, with impressive speeds from a number of service providers. In such a connected state, a digital divide is unacceptable, particularly when it contributes to achievement gaps between students.

What Solutions Exist?

What’s being done to narrow and even eliminate the digital divide in California? School districts have come up with some stopgaps, like parking a school bus with a Wi-Fi router near a trailer park in Coachella Valley, allowing nearby kids to connect to the internet. Innovations like these are laudable, but for widespread improvement, the state’s schools need long-term reform.

In 2015, President Obama announced a plan to expand high-speed internet access for low-income households by offering stipends to cover costs. Best Buy, along with Google Fiber and several other internet service providers, contributed to the program through donations and reduced rates. An accompanying press release from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said, “While many middle-class U.S. students go home to internet access . . . too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends. This ‘homework gap’ runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education.”

Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just revoked nine companies’ authorization to participate in this program. Gene Kimmelman, president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, responded to the news by explaining that “in any way limiting the Lifeline program, at this moment in time, exacerbates the digital divide. It doesn’t address it in any positive way.”

Grassroots startups like Connecting for Good and TalkingPoints are also stepping in to narrow the achievement gap with technology by implementing initiatives to connect more students and teachers from across the nation to a reliable internet source and direct communication with teachers from outside of the classroom.

Community-driven efforts like Network for Good also aim to gather donations for items like used computers and other devices from others who no longer need them to help more students from low-income families connect.

Although we’re far from a perfect solution to finally close the digital divide in California, efforts are being made to at least stunt its current growth.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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