With Only 5% Of Students In Tech-Based Learning, Digital Divide Grows

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The first time I heard the term “digital divide” was while serving at the U.S. Department of Education in the early 1990s. Back then, as the internet was in its early stages of development, I recalled participating in numerous policy conversations around the growing use of technology in classroom instruction and the disparities between student populations that had access to this educational technology and those that did not.

The term digital divide emerged to explain these disparities that were a result of students having unequal access to educational technology through the internet. This contrast in opportunity, for me and many others, was an education civil rights issue.

During President Clinton’s administration, I served on a team at the Department of Education with representatives from other U.S. federal government agencies to address policies and programs to address this apparent and growing digital divide in our country.

These conversations ultimately resulted in a major policy and a new program known as the E-Rate, properly known as the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund. Under direction of the Federal Communications Commission, the E-Rate was designed to use federal funding to accelerate building an infrastructure necessary to make internet access available to the most rural and underserved communities in America.

That was almost 30 years ago. One of the many revelations of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the digital divide has not gone away. In fact, it has widened. The pandemic forced schools to shut down, send students home, and move into remote learning models. It quickly became apparent that significant populations of students would be particularly disadvantaged due to lack of home access to the internet, lack of computer hardware, lack of in person instruction, and an absence of various other components that make for a healthy and effective remote learning experience.

Fortunately, the federal government, many states, and local school districts have engaged in meaningful efforts to address this digital divide that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, education innovation and education technology have accelerated. In the last four years, we have seen an incredible investment in education innovation, particularly surrounding AI-generated technology. Most of this education technology centers on learning tools for students to accelerate math skills, as well as similar efforts to improve science and literacy comprehension. I have personally witnessed classroom use of some highly impressive and effective education tools that have come to market in recent years that have an incredible impact on accelerating student learning.

But what benefit is superior technology without meaningful numbers of student engagement? We have learned that most students in our nation’s public schools are not fully engaged in using these new and effective educational tools.

Credible reporting reveals that only 5 percent of students are fully engaged with these novel educational learning tools and are using these tools appropriately. More alarming is that of the five percent who use these tools, the students most in need of educational assistance are far outweighed by the least-in-need students from more affluent families and/or pockets of aggressive learning styles.

A recent Education Next article by education innovator and author Laurence Holt called The 5 Percent Problem illuminates this issue quite well. As Holt points out, studies show that high achievers with a growth mindset invest more time to use technology to better their skills. These students are the 5 percent.

Unfortunately, when taking into consideration the numerous variables in students’ family dynamics and home learning environments, some students may only be able to use technology at school. This has served to increase the digital divide between students from more affluent families and those from more socioeconomically challenged communities.

Policymakers and school system leaders in collaboration with the education innovation community must come together to maximize the availability of and effective use of education innovations to ultimately decrease, if not eliminate, our nation’s growing digital divide. A mere 5 percent use of education innovation, and that among students least in need, is unacceptable in a nation that continues to struggle with damaging inequities that limit education opportunities for large numbers of students.

Challenges to public education are plentiful. Amongst these challenges are some unthoughtful and harmful political attacks on our nation’s education systems. Despite these challenges, leadership is required to move our nation forward in thoughtful conversation around maximizing the effectiveness of our public education system, wholly embracing effective education technology that advances learning, and eliminating to the greatest extent practicable the disparities and inequities that constrict learning opportunities for far too many of our students. These disparities limit the nation’s ability to remain competitive on a global scale. This is yet another unnecessary disparity that our nation can ill afford.

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