Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Internet for all?

Bill Gates recently named "education as the issue that could most determine America's future" which is, of course, a valid observation.  However, for children and adults to take advantage of their education, or to seek out further educational opportunities, broadband internet access is a vital piece of the solution. I would argue that it may be more important to increase connectivity than to re-reform education.

According to a paper issued by The College Board "
Fast and reliable access to technology increasingly drives our economy and is key to individual opportunity in today's world. Special efforts must be made to equalize technology's availability and expand opportunity for all." When most businesses rely on online services to advertise and accept job applications, when teachers are being encouraged to "flip" their classrooms and offer online components to their classes, when everything from grocery shopping to reporting sick leave is taking place online, can we really treat it as optional? In the Fall Mountain Regional School District (NH) where they are going 1:1 with computing devices for their students, Lynne Phillips, the district’s technology director, said: “Everyone should have access to high-speed Internet. It’s a necessity, a utility.”

This week the FCC is holding a Summit on Broadband Adoption and Usage.  This summit will look at the "digital divide that keeps large numbers of low-income households, racial and ethnic minorities, seniors, people with disabilities, and residents of rural areas and tribal lands from fully utilizing the Internet." Believe me when I say that it is not merely a financial issue. I live less than 100 miles from Washington DC and broadband is not available in my area. Neither, for that matter, is cable TV. My internet and TV options are wireless cellular service or satellite. We've chosen the wireless cellular service, but in addition to being expensive, it only works in certain parts of our house and it is unable to handle video without major buffering (and eating up our pricey data plan).

In my job as a connected educator, I've been collaborating with several other Google Certified Teachers on a web-based project. We meet via G+ Hangouts which are an amazing way to collaborate virtually. But at our first meeting, like the students who "flock to McDonalds," I sat in the parking lot of a local gas station and used their wireless until it cut me off and I was required to connect to the home improvement store across the road's free wifi. If I didn't have a car, neither would have been possible. Broadband is a necessity, a utility like power and electricity that we need in order to participate fully in our modern society.

Before anyone accuses me of contributing to the crazy, fast-paced, plugged-in, couch-potato-ness of American children, let me add that we do need to remember to unplug and smell the roses. But it should be our decision to unplug, to ban cell phones from the dinner table, to get outside and play. We should have that choice; we should have digital equity.