Digital divide: We must end the struggle of being 'under-connected'

Digital divide: We must end the struggle of being 'under-connected'
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As President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE and Congress debate a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes a historic investment in broadband, it’s an important moment to question what we mean by digital equity and what it will take to achieve it. Pandemic disruptions to school and work made the quest for affordable “broadband for all” a more urgent matter, and recognition that digital infrastructure is essential has never been more bipartisan. All this means that achieving digital equity may be more possible right now than ever before.

But to achieve that goal, we have to retire old ways of defining the problem. There are still 44 million households without home broadband access, either because they do not have access or they cannot afford it. Those households are rightfully receiving attention to ensure they can get access. But we also need to urgently attend to the under-connected — the many millions of American homes with internet access that is inadequate or inconsistent--to truly resolve digital inequality. 

School districts looking to ensure equitable access for their students provide a case in point. The typical questions —Do you have a broadband internet connection? Do you have a computer at home? — are important, but they do not capture the experiences of families who are under-connected.

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Too many families struggle when they have to rely on malfunctioning devices or their internet is cut off because they have more pressing bills to pay. If we do not account for whether families’ digital access actually meets their needs, we cannot fully assess their virtual learning experiences or develop adequate support for students as they return to in-person school this fall.

With support from a consortium of philanthropic partners, in March we surveyed lower-income parents with school-aged children about their technology and learning experiences. The effort was a follow-up to an initial survey conducted in 2015. The findings, released this month, reveal both good and worrisome news.

The good news: Since the 2015 survey, there have been major increases in technology access. Overall, home broadband internet access is up 20 percent, from 64 to 84 percent. Increases are even more dramatic for families with incomes below the federal poverty level (up 28 percent), among Black families (31 percent) and those headed by immigrant Hispanic parents (40 percent). Home computer access is up to 91 percent (compared with 82 percent in 2015), that percentage gain is double among families living below the poverty level and headed by immigrant Hispanic parents.

But there is worrisome news too: The proportion of lower-income families that are under-connected hardly changed at all between 2015 and 2021 — despite the large increases in home broadband and computer access. And being under-connected constrained remote learning too. One-third of surveyed parents with a broadband connection reported that their child’s remote learning was interrupted by insufficient connectivity. And one-fifth of families with a home computer reported learning interruptions because it wasn’t working well or children were having to share devices to complete schoolwork.

School leaders and policymakers need to reckon with the realities of being under-connected, but so do content creators. Many parents relied on educational TV, videos and games during the pandemic to keep their children learning and growing, and the lowest-income families and families of color relied on these media most of all. Designing with the dynamic needs of under-connected students and families in mind will require content creators to think about accessibility in more nuanced and creative ways.

There are three steps that policymakers, local school districts and content creators can take right now to resolve the challenges of being under-connected:

1. Policymakers must prioritize under-connected families to better support them.

At the district level, that will mean collecting information from students and families beyond yes/no questions about digital access; the questions in our surveys can easily be adopted for this purpose. At the federal level, it will mean including broadband investments in national infrastructure legislation as a critical down payment on school and community capacity. But we cannot stop at access.

2. We need local solutions to end the struggle of being under-connected.

We need trusted individuals and community organizations that families can turn to when their devices don’t work or their internet connections are interrupted. Elsewhere, we have proposed development of a Digital Ambassador Corps to seed school communities with capable advocates and coaches to advance digital equity for the long-term, which would be a cost-effective, important step forward.

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3. Media and tech companies must ensure that families can fully participate in digital learning, even at times when they are under-connected.

We saw such ingenuity during the emergency circumstances of the pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder: For example, Noggin prioritized low bandwidth content like podcasts and music  to reach families in need, and Sesame Workshop introduced powerful new anti-racism tools. High-quality content and accessible platforms that meet families’ needs can help ensure that the joy of anytime, anywhere learning will be available to every student during our national recovery. 

Digital access is no longer an either/or proposition, and we must stop treating it that way. As we emerge from the cascading challenges of the pandemic, there are unique opportunities to achieve digital equity. Now, with the potential for an unprecedented federal investment and persistent attention to this problem, we can resolve the struggles of being under-connected and accelerate progress toward equitable learning and work opportunities for all students and families.

Vikki S. Katz, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, and co-author (with Victoria Rideout) of “Learning at Home While Under-Connected.”

Michael H. Levine, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Nickelodeon’s early learning service, Noggin, which creates educational media for children and families. He is co-author (with Lisa Guernsey) of "Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.”

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct the cost of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.