Computers Are No Longer a Luxury for Students—They Are a Must

The CEO of Connect2Compete says we must bridge the digital divide between low-income kids and children living in affluent neighborhoods.

Access to technology is a barrier to many low-income students in America. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)
Zach Leverenz is the CEO of Connect2Compete

Once considered a luxury, access to Internet and technology has become absolutely essential to succeeding in school, getting a job, and actively participating in today’s society.

We acknowledge that access to technology is now a significant part of closing the opportunity divide in the United States; however, according to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), 100 million Americans go without an Internet connection at home, and nearly 62 million do not use the Internet at all. Unconnected Americans, the majority of which are low-income, risk becoming increasingly isolated in today’s digital society.

One area where evidence of digital inequities is most prominent—and most troubling—is education.

There is now a widespread alignment among educators on the relationship between technology and improvements in student learning. If not all students in the classroom have access to Internet at home, the impact of current investments in digital classrooms and connected learning opportunities will be limited.

More than 80 percent of teachers agree that today’s digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools.

A recent Pew Internet & American Life study found that more than 80 percent of teachers agree that today’s digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts. When 76 percent of teachers assign online homework, teachers increasingly find themselves in the difficult position of either leaving behind students without Internet at home or holding back the other “connected” students.  

During a pilot program last fall in Macon, Georgia, we witnessed the cost of digital exclusion through personal encounters with students in 21 Bibb County schools. We met Darriale Bradley, a senior from Southwest High, who described evening trips with her mother to the WiFi zone of a McDonald’s parking lot, where she would work in the car to complete school assignments and research college opportunities.

The pilot, in partnership with the Knight Foundation and Cox Communications, helped the student get a home Internet connection. A local news team captured Darriale’s first moments accessing the Interent at home.  “Fireworks cracked!” she said, “Words cannot describe how happy I was.”  

We hear stories like this every day from students like Darriale to parents who want to become more engaged in their children’s education, and adults and seniors who use the Internet to access higher education, jobs resources, and financial savings.

Last week, Connect2Compete rolled out a new national partnership with FreedomPop, a wireless Internet company backed by the cofounder of Skype, to make free and discounted 4G home Internet available to over 87 million qualified Americans. In addition, in partnership with the Ad Council and over 70 partners nationwide, we launched the EveryoneOn campaign to promote the importance of digital literacy and the correlated social outcomes for education, jobs, health, and civic engagement. It is designed to connect Americans to over 21,000 libraries and centers offering free basic digital training across the country.

With nearly ubiquitous coverage, dropping technology costs, and unprecedented public-private partnerships like Connect2Compete, the digital divide in America today is solvable—and it must be solved to ensure the nation and all Americans have the tools necessary to compete in a digital economy.

Through our partnerships with national providers like FreedomPop, Comcast Internet Essentials, Cox Communications, Arrow GoodPC, and Solix Inc., we will answer the call by connecting millions of unconnected individuals with programs that offer free and low-cost Internet and computers. To learn more or to join the EveryoneOn movement, visit www.Connect2Compete.org.

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• Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids Learn?

Zach Leverenz is the CEO of Connect2Compete (C2C), a national nonprofit that aims to eliminate the digital divide by making high-speed, low-cost Internet, computers, and free digital literacy accessible to all unconnected Americans. Zach serves on the Board of Directors at MEET, a MIT-based technology and social justice organization, and received a B.A. from Dickinson College and Ed.M from Harvard University. TakePart.com

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