Inside the leather-bound World Book encyclopedias of my childhood, the tips of the gilt pages now littered with dust, Pluto is still a planet. Queen Elizabeth II sits on the throne of England. The average sedan runs entirely on gasoline.
With the Internet’s reservoir of real-time information at our fingertips, we forget that facts were once subject to publication dates.
Let’s not forget, too, that for children without reliable internet access, information barriers remain. Often, online information is available to them only in small shots: a 30-minute power-up on the school library computer, a few minutes outside the local Starbucks, a glance at a friend’s smartphone on the road trip. bus home. These students and their families are among the more than 42 million Americans without broadband Internet access.
As the superintendent of public schools, I consider this gap to be one of the great educational challenges of our time.
At the most basic level, it is a matter of education delivery. Student assignments, syllabuses, and exam dates are posted online. Jeopardy-style games that quiz students on historical facts, videos that offer step-by-step math strategies, and, of course, sources for research papers all come with a URL. Students are expected to collaborate with their classmates in real time on projects and presentations.
Most of the communication between schools and parents also happens online. Parents check their child’s grades, fill out school forms, sign up for volunteer activities and teacher conferences, get details about upcoming school meetings, or participate in parent training sessions.
Yet even more than supporting parental education and outreach, bridging the digital divide meets a moral imperative. Because the division is deep.
In the Silicon Valley district I serve, as in many districts across the country, families run across the socioeconomic spectrum. Some live in multi-million dollar homes supported by professional cleaners, lawn services, or live-in babysitters. These lucky ones travel internationally, inviting their children to explore the sights, smells, food, and languages of other cultures in ways most children, even most adults, will never experience.
Then there are the students who live in the local RV community. Their families park and live in trailers on a street near one of our schools. Every few days they move from one parking spot to another, as dictated by city law, circling the streets looking for another spot that will keep a good public education within reach.
Some level of economic disparity is inevitable, it is true, and not even the best educational system can hope to eradicate it. But we must recognize that poverty is not just about the lack of food, shelter and clothing. Poverty is also about lack of experiences. And that’s a problem we can help solve by bridging the digital divide.
When our district set out to do this early in the pandemic, it was a trial and error process.
Our district encouraged families to sign up for free services offered by reputable Internet providers. But these offers are limited, often only valid for a few months.
So we distribute mobile hotspots. The devices worked, until they broke down, which happened frequently. We turned again, equipping school parking lots as Wi-Fi hotspots. They helped but were less convenient, not a long term solution.
We finally found a solution through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, a 150 megahertz band of spectrum made available to the public by the Federal Communications Commission. Using some of our district’s federal Covid relief funds, we purchased and equipped a portion of the spectrum to provide Internet access for our district’s students and families.
As we continue to refine the project and find higher locations for our transmission towers, we have made the Internet available to 100% of our students and families.
Different districts will take different approaches. Some may rely on Covid relief funds, while others may seek public-private partnerships or request a specific line item in the annual budget. Whatever the path, the end goal is the same.
Educational leaders cannot promise every child a passport, climb the Eiffel Tower, or peek into the depths of the Grand Canyon. But we can give them the power to ask questions, to follow their curiosity down the rabbit hole, to encounter voices and ideas that are different from their own.
This adventure can be lived through the internet, for those who have their riches at their fingertips.
Ayindé Rudolph, EdD, is superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District in Mountain View. She wrote this for EdSource.