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Bridging the Digital Divide

Education is one of the most accessible avenues for society's disadvantaged to get a chance at equal opportunity, but our schools have often fallen short.

Equal opportunity has been a cornerstone of this nation for more than two centuries. But society has not always measured up to that ideal, and you don't have to go far to see the disparity between the exclusive suburban neighborhoods of the affluent and the decrepit slums of America's inner cities or the ramshackle homes of the rural poor.

And, since most of society's ills find their way to the schoolhouse door sooner or later, it is no surprise that U.S. schools have had to confront the split between haves and have-nots. Education is one of the most accessible avenues for society's disadvantaged to get a chance at equal opportunity, but our schools have often fallen short.

High hopes

Our educational system has endured vicious battles over racial integration and providing more equitable educational opportunities to African Americans and other minorities. Because of arbitrary district boundary lines, parents have seen neighboring districts build impressive new facilities while their own children have had to learn in dilapidated and inadequate classrooms. In state after state, people have filed lawsuits contending that states were not fairly distributing monies to schools.

In the midst of these struggles for equity, the rapidly accelerating power of technology and the massive amounts of information available on the Internet have planted seeds of hope among educators and our nation's leaders that computers could close the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

Technology "gives us the tools to ensure that no one gets left behind," says President Clinton. "Millions of Americans now on the economic margins can join the mainstream in the enterprise of building our nation. A child in South Central L.A. or in the most remote part of Indian country can have access to the same world of knowledge in an instant as a child in the wealthiest suburban school in this country."

But technology won't be able to close the digital divide if the divide itself is preventing the have-nots from gaining access to the technology.

Poor areas without adequate telecommunications infrastructure often are bad candidates for luring businesses. That prevents people who live there from getting the economic opportunities that could improve their situation and can trap the community in a cycle of poverty.

In the 1997 Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education, the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology's Panel on Educational Technology argued that the gap in computer ownership between low- and high-income groups "threatens not only to perpetuate the existing familial patterns of socioeconomic disadvantage, but to widen the gap between the most and least affluent Americans."

In recent times, the community has frequently turned to schools to address a societal problem. When children were coming to school hungry, schools began free- and reduced-meal programs. And now, when children are coming to school without knowledge about computers or access to technology, schools are expected to step in.

Technology can enhance learning In the 1990s, schools have embraced the potential learning benefits that computers and related technology can bring to students. Once thought of as luxuries or expensive toys, computers have become a common and vital part of a student's school experience.

The Panel on Educational Technology's report cited several potential benefits of educational technology:

-Personalizing education to take advantage of the needs, interests and learning styles of individual students.

-Giving more attention to higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills learned through "real-world" tasks.

-Letting students take greater control of their own education. They can seek resources when they become useful to them and explore topics in greater depth when they wish.

-Providing teachers more efficient ways to assess student progress, maintain portfolios of student work, communicate with parents and administrators, exchange ideas and experiences with other teachers, and gain access to data and educational software over the Internet.

Other studies and surveys have indicated that technology can enhance student achievement, increase motivation and spark enthusiasm for learning, especially with at-risk students. A recent Illinois survey reports that more than 86 percent of the state's principals said that students had developed an increased interest in classroom learning and activities, and 83 percent said that technology promoted creativity, exploratory skills and self-motivated learning.

Falling Through the Net

With the end of the century on the horizon, the popularity of the Internet is growing as fast as computer prices are falling. As a result, more Americans than ever own computers and have access to the Internet. That was one of the positive findings in a federal report released earlier this summer.

Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide is the third in a series of reports from The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on who in the United States has access to computers and the Internet.

"Overall, we have found that the number of Americans connected to the nation's information infrastructure is soaring," says Larry Irving, administrator of NTIA.

At the end of 1998, 42.1 percent of American households owned computers, compared with 24.1 percent in 1994 and 36.6 percent in 1997. Household access to the Internet climbed more than 40 percent in one year to 26.2 percent in 1998 from 18.6 percent in 1997.

Yet a closer look at the numbers shows that not all groups in society are finding their way online in equal numbers.

"This year's report finds that a digital divide still exists, and in many cases is actually widening over time," says Irving. "Minorities, low-income persons, the less-educated, and children of single-parent households, particularly when they reside in rural areas or central cities, are among the groups that lack access to information resources."

Some of the statistics:

-Urban households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than nine times more likely to own a computer than rural households with incomes between $5,000 and $10,000-80.8 percent for high-income urbanites compared with 8.1 percent for low-income rural residents.

-For Internet access, the gap between the two groups is even wider. High-income urban residents are more than 20 times more likely to have access to the Internet than low-income rural residents-62 percent to 2.9 percent.

-Those with a college education are more than eight times as likely to have a computer at home as those with an elementary-school education (68.7 percent compared with 7.9 percent) and nearly 16 times as likely to have Internet access (48.9 percent to 3.1 percent).

-Whites are more likely than blacks or Hispanics to own a computer and have Internet access. In 1998, 46.6 percent of white households owned computers, compared with 23.3 percent of black households and 25.5 percent of Hispanic households; 29.8 percent of white households had Internet access, compared with 11.2 percent of black households and 12.6 percent of Hispanic households.

-The technology gap among those groups is widening. The computer ownership gap is 23.4 percentage points between whites and blacks in 1998, compared with 16.8 percentage points in 1994. The gap between whites and Hispanics is 21.1 percentage points, compared with 14.8 percentage points in 1994. The gap also widened for Internet access rates.

-The gap is wide between the most wired and least wired states. Topping the list is Alaska; 62.4 percent of households have computers, and 44.1 percent have household Internet connections. Mississippi is the least wired-25.7 percent of households have computers, and 13.6 percent have online access at home (see related chart below).

While prices for computers have plummeted in recent years, the machines are still too costly for many low-income people struggling to pay rent and feed their families.

"It is highly unlikely that in the foreseeable future prices will fall to the point where most homes will have computers and Internet access," concluded the report. "Given the great advantages accruing to those who have access it is not economically or socially prudent to idly await the day when most, if not all, homes can claim connectivity. Part of the answer lies in providing Internet access at community access centers, such as schools, libraries and other public-access facilities."

Schools Face Obstacles

Schools are a logical place to provide technological access to the community, as well as to their students and teachers. But difficulty in finding the resources to acquire the equipment and infrastructure has left many districts on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The Panel on Educational Technology noted in its report that in 1994-95, spending on technology represented only about 1.3 percent of the overall monies spent on K-12 education.

Schools with limited resources have even more hurdles to clear to bring technology into their buildings. Many buildings are old and need costly rewiring and upgraded electrical capacity for modern computers. Older schools are more likely to have to remove asbestos to rewire their buildings, adding even more to the expense. The heat generated by computers may require the expense of additional cooling capacity.

A recent report by the Education Writers Association found that large size, poverty, limited resources and old equipment hamper urban schools' entry into the information age. A major reason for the difficulty is the districts' large number of older, often dilapidated buildings making technology upgrades costly.

In addition, while many districts have had enough funding to buy equipment, they often have not followed through with money and planning to train staff and maintain their expensive machines.

"Schools and school districts are prone to overspending on the initial acquisition of hardware and may find themselves with inadequate funding for upgrading or replacement, software and content, hardware and software maintenance, professional development for teachers, and the hiring and retention of necessary technical-support personnel," states the Panel on Educational Technology's report.

"If we do not wish to turn our schools into junkyards for expensive but unused computer equipment... it is important that budgetary constraints and wishful thinking not lead us to buy the equivalent of a fancy automobile without allocating funds for gasoline, repairs or a driver-education class."

Schools have benefited from computers that have been donated by businesses, but the panel cautioned that donations will not achieve the nation's school-technology goals-the gifts may even be counterproductive.

The panel noted that computers that businesses are replacing are likely to be at least a generation behind state-of-the-art technology. Older machines typically need more maintenance, and since the donated computers a school receives are not necessarily all the same model, integrating them to work together smoothly could be more difficult and expensive.

"It would be unrealistic for the Administration to expect such donations to make more than a relatively small contribution toward ameliorating the current shortage," the report states.

Connecting Schools

Since that report, the federal government has taken great strides to provide more funding for districts to wire their buildings. In the last few years, schools have progressed rapidly toward the Clinton Administration's goal of having every classroom and library connected to the Internet by 2000.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 89 percent of the nation's public schools had access to the Internet in 1998, compared with 35 percent in 1994. The number of instructional rooms connected to the Internet has mushroomed to 51 percent in 1998 from 3 percent in 1994. However, schools with the highest proportion of minority or poor students lag behind in terms of classroom Internet access.

Schools with 50 percent or more minority students have only 37 percent of their classrooms hooked to the Internet, and schools with more than 70 percent of their students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch have only 39 percent of their rooms connected online. In comparison, 62 percent of classrooms in low-poverty schools are connected to the Internet (see related chart).

Universal Access to the Internet

For years, one of the central goals of the United States' telecommunications policy has been bringing affordable telephone access to all Americans. With the burgeoning of the Internet and the flow of information online, the concept of universal service has been extended to include online access.

The federal government's major initiative to achieve universal service for technology-by upgrading technology and Internet access at schools and libraries-is the E-rate.

Congress authorized the E-rate as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It provides discounts on telecommunications and Internet technologies to schools and public libraries. The discounts range from 20 to 90 percent, and the poorest schools and libraries receive the largest discounts.

The E-rate funding mechanism has won strong support from the public, according to a poll commissioned earlier this year by the Education and Libraries Networks Coalition, a group of more than 30 groups working for affordable access to information technology. The poll found that 87 percent of Americans support providing discounts to needy schools and libraries, and 83 percent believe Internet access in schools and libraries will improve educational opportunities for all Americans.

In the first year of the program, more than 30,000 schools and libraries applied for $1.67 billion in funding, and 25,785 of those were at least partially funded. In the second year, more than 32,000 schools and libraries are seeking more than $2.4 billion in funding. The Federal Communications Commission has authorized $2.25 billion-the maximum allowed by law.

A reauthorization proposal for Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)-entitled The Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999-has a provision to narrow the technology gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. The proposal provides support to the neediest schools and communities, targeting high-need districts to help build the necessary capacity to use technology and improve teaching and learning. In addition, the proposal would support the development or expansion of community technology centers to serve disadvantaged residents of high-poverty communities.

"A tremendous ramp-up" The Calcasieu Parish School District, a 33,500-student system in southwest Louisiana, is one of thousands of districts that have benefited from the E-rate.

Louisiana has the fourth-lowest level of home computer ownership (31.1 percent) and Internet access (17.8 percent). But in Calcasieu, every classroom is connected to the Internet and has an Internet-capable computer and a teacher trained in technology.

"There has been a tremendous ramp-up in the last two years," says Sheryl Abshire, technology coordinator for the Calcasieu district. "Before that, we had some library dial-up connections and some school offices connected to the Internet, but as far as a teacher in the classroom, unless you had a modem and paid for your own online service, it was tough luck."

The E-rate, combined with increased state funding and local tax support, has enabled Calcasieu to provide students with access to technology, whether they attend poor rural schools or more affluent suburban buildings in the vast 1,086-square-mile district. Nearly 58 percent of the district's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

"We wanted to make sure we provided access equity to the entire district," says Abshire.

Another key to successfully integrating technology was teacher training.

"There's not just a digital divide between those having connections and those who don't," says Abshire. "There is a divide of knowledge among teachers in the classroom who did not receive any technology training in colleges of education. Unless you have a properly trained teacher, it's just lip service."

Abshire attributes much of Calcasieu's success in upgrading technology to the support of the community, especially local businesses that work closely with schools.

"The petro-chemical industry, which we have here, knows they need employees they can rely on to work at high technological levels," says Abshire. "Those jobs aren't turning valves and looking at gauges anymore-they're all computer-based. They need our students to be able to step into that work setting."

Similar improvements are occurring throughout Louisiana. The student-computer ratio has improved to 18 to 1 in 1998 from 88 to 1 in 1996.

"With the funding received during this legislative session," says Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard, "we intend to lower the ratio to one computer for every five students."

Technology shrinks distance Louisiana's neighbor, Mississippi, ranks even lower in home access to technology-federal statistics placed the state last in household computer ownership and Internet access. Technology, in the form of the state's ETV Interactive Video Network, is helping schools shrink the digital divide.

The network links more than 110 schools with two-way audio, video and data communications, and offers high-school courses as well as in-service opportunities for teachers, field trips and other special events. The schools on the network represent more than two-thirds of the state's 152 districts.

"It's our goal to make our resources available to every school in the state," says Lucy Ferron, director of distance learning for the Mississippi Educational Network.

The state received federal grants four years ago to establish the network. E-rate funding has helped pay for the network, as well as some of the equipment at the school sites. Schools can offer a wider variety of courses via the network than they can on their own. The classes that most benefit from being offered on the network are what Ferron describes as "low numbers, but high need."

"A given school might have only two or three students who want to take a course," says Ferron. "It's especially helpful in rural locations, where it wouldn't be economically feasible to offer these classes."

The network also enables schools to offer courses when they can't find a qualified teacher for them at their own site.

"There is a real shortage of teachers in math, science and foreign languages, but there is a real need to provide the services," says Ferron.

The Aberdeen School District in the northeast part of Mississippi is among those using distance learning. The 2,000-student district is in the bottom quartile of the state economically, but with the ETV network can offer students a wide array of advanced placement and elective courses, says Andy Thaggard, the district's director of technology.

Because Aberdeen is a small district, the distance learning mostly supplements the high school's core curriculum and doesn't provide any sizable savings for the district. The system has helped Aberdeen, but Thaggard cautions that the network is still in its infancy.

"It is still a tendency of schools in Mississippi and nationwide to treat technology as another one of those passing initiatives that we just have to do," says Thaggard.

Other Funding Sources

Besides the E-rate, other federal programs, as well as state governments and private agencies, are providing funding to close the digital divide:

-The U.S. Department of Education's Community Technical Centers program has $10 million available this year to develop model programs that demonstrate the educational effectiveness of technology in urban and rural areas, and economically distressed communities.

-The Star Schools program has allocated more than $125 million since 1988 to support demonstration projects that use distance-learning technology to provide programs and activities in under-served areas.

-The Technology Literacy Challenge Fund is allocating $2 billion over five years to help states and local districts meet the Administration's educational technology goals.

-The Gates Learning Foundation and the Gates Center for Technology Access, endowed with money from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, are working to bridge the digital divide "by providing computers and Internet access to public libraries in low-income communities or partnering with schools or community organizations. By the end of 1998, the Learning Foundation had awarded grants of more than $22 million.

The Northwest Educational Technology Consortium suggests several steps to help students and families of limited means gain more access to computers and related technology:

-Hold a lab night for students and parents to work together at computers.

-Have loaner equipment, such as computers, instructional videos and calculators, for families to borrow.

-Allow families to borrow software.

-Look into a telecommunications hookup between homes and school.

-Keep labs open before and after school, in the evenings and during the summer.

-Seek funds to serve groups with limited economic means.

-Partner with the public library to make your equipment available to students in the summer.

-Offer programming classes as part of a latchkey program.

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