Minimizing the Digital Divide: Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials Program

As educators and policy makers have attempted to eliminate the achievement gap over the years, one of the well-documented pernicious gaps continues to be the “digital divide”.  In fact, a google search on “digital divide” yields over 4 million hits as of October 12, 2011. While there are several definitions of the term, Wikipedia captures the essence in the following description:

More recently, some have used the term to refer to gaps in broadband network access. The term can mean not only unequal access to computer hardware, but also inequalities between groups of people in the ability to use information technology fully.

Last month, we as a country made a major step in addressing this problem with the joint announcement by the Comcast Corporation, FCC, and District of Columbia Public Schools. This major step is the national roll-out of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which will provide affordable internet access to low income families. At an Internet Essentials launch event, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski assessed the digital divide and the need for affordable broadband. With broadband being essential to the academic success of America’s youth, Chairman Genachowski reflected that “the digital divide is seriously troubling; more troubling now than in the past, because the costs of digital exclusion are rising”. Genachowski continued this sentiment noting, “Students increasingly need to go online to complete their homework assignments.” Chairman Genachowski further remarked on the stark statistics and detrimental nature of the digital divide. He referenced research that shows one-third of all students and most of all low-income students do not have internet access at home.

This lack of resources available due to the digital divide results in a lose-lose situation in education. When faced with this problem, teachers will either assign Internet-based homework or not. Either the students without Internet access at home are hurt, or the students do not learn how to utilize the Internet and do not attain necessary Internet skills. However with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, teachers can escape this lose-lose situation.

Comcast initially launched its Internet Essentials program in Chicago, Philadelphia, Hartford and Miamiand is on its way to provide broadband to low-income families across the nation. This initiative is receiving great attention as its promise to provide widespread internet access will help solve the digital divide, and potentially narrow the achievement gap. The bottom line is that families whose children qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch will be able to have access to the internet for $9.95 a month and also will be eligible to purchase a computer for $149.99.   Details of this program can be at the following website, http://internetessentials.com/index.html.  While the price may still be prohibitive for many families, it is an improvement of the current situation and will allow many families the bridge to the digital world.  At these reduced prices it is also possible that foundations and other philanthropic organizations will be able to subsidize these services for families.

Eliminating the digital divide can go a long way towards eliminating the achievement gap as well but only if we as educators build and provide the digital tools and resources that promote and facilitate learning.  For a number of years, we have been working on personalized learning platforms such as Oasis that grant students access to digital content and deliberate practice in reading and writing.  We have demonstrated that the use of Oasis can facilitate growth in a student’s reading and writing skills, and this growth is greater than the expected growth.  That is, we can bend their reading and writing growth trajectory to insure that they are on a path towards college and career readiness in terms of literacy.  Now with the access and affordability brought about by Internet Essentials, more and more students will be able to access personalized learning platforms like Oasis not just in the confines of the school building, school day, and school year but in their home every day of the year. 

This initiative could also help combat summer learning loss. As we have discussed previously, summer loss for low income students is exacerbated due to the fact that many go home to text-free zones. Having internet access, as well as a computer, will permit these students to use resources like Find a Book. Find a Book enables a student to use his or her Lexile® measure to build custom booklists that are targeted to his or her reading ability and personal interests. Once a student has selected books he or she is interested in, Find a Book also provides the student with the location of the closest library for where the book can be found. The utility also connects students to a “Google Preview” of the text when this information is available which allows students to view a selected amount of text online through Google Books.

We here at MetaMetrics are thrilled about Comcast’s Internet Essentials Program and its potential power to diminish both the digital divide and summer learning loss.

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