By Steve Westerman, vice president, Cox Business
Technology impacts nearly every aspect of our daily lives, and education is no exception. It has transformed school systems, enhanced the learning experience and created an engaging environment for students of all ages. But not all communities are equally equipped to thrive in the digital age.
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the decades-old issue known as the digital divide. It’s the lopsided demographic gap between those who have access to modern technology and those who don’t. Even as kids have returned to class, this inequity persists across school districts and at home.
As of 2021 a quarter of the population still did not have broadband internet connection at home – a necessary gateway for homework, studying, and both peer and teacher connections. And Cox Communications recently surveyed more than 2,000 of its affordable internet customers and found nearly half (48 percent) had obtained home internet access for the first time through Cox.
As classrooms move from remote-only learning to increasingly digital spaces, there are ways school systems and community leaders can work together to tackle today’s digital divide issues for more equitable education.
Certain areas, demographics will require more support
The digital divide reduces a student’s economic outlook for lifehen they start behind their peers, they are likelier to stay behind. And the opposite is true: Greater internet and tech access leads to a greater long-term economic return.
According to Cox Communications’ survey of affordable internet customers, 90 percent of households say Cox internet access has had a positive impact on their children’s education, specifically in helping them complete homework, attend school virtually and access learning resources.
However, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently reported that in its state alone, full digital access remains lower among Latino (63 percent), Black (71 percent) and low-income households with school-aged (K-12) children (59 percent). This disparity makes it difficult for students to compete for secondary education and higher paying jobs.
Rural areas, too, continue to lag compared to their urban and suburban counterparts, though adoption is growing. According to Pew Research, “while broadband adoption has not significantly increased for urban and suburban Americans in the last five years, rural residents have seen a nine-percentage point rise in home broadband adoption since 2016.”
And with continued adoption come positive impacts for households across the nation. Cox Communications’ survey also found that the majority (eight out of 10) customers with affordable home internet access have experienced benefits to their career advancement, and two-thirds of these customers have experienced a positive impact on their continued education.
Half of respondents said they have earned certifications in specific skills or trades, and one-third said they are a first-generation college graduate in their family because of home internet.
To shrink the digital divide, it will be critical for leaders across all sectors to set their sights on the communities that need their support the most.
Infrastructure expansions, partnerships will be critical
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 14.5 million Americans still lack access to broadband. Thankfully, the government is tackling the digital divide with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that will allocate $65 billion to expand broadband in communities across the United States.
This funding will “both expand the physical infrastructure needed for new broadband service and subsidize internet plans for millions of low-income Americans.” And while the “pieces are in place” to connect all Americans to a digital future per the bill, policymakers must incentivize and partner with U.S. companies for it to come to fruition.
Schools systems will be pivotal agents of change
While many students struggle to get connected at home, nearly all (99 percent) schools nationwide have access to high-speed internet through state-operated networks. This access is often vital for digitally divided students and may be their only chance to get online during the week. But many schools are taking their responsibility to get students connected further.
As we saw during the pandemic, many schools were critical to advocating for their students to get the internet access they need. A great example is Clark County School District (CCSD), which launched the Connecting Kids Nevada campaign that successfully connected 100 percent of the students in the district to enable remote learning.
In addition to efforts from the government and private sector, school systems will continue to serve important roles in bridging the gap, including providing take-home technology and connecting students with community centers to ensure after-hours connectivity.
Having connectivity outside of school, whether at home or in community centers, is vital for students with higher-education goals. With access to home internet, the majority of Cox affordable internet customers’ children are able to research (60%), apply (53%), and find financial aid for their college education after high school.
“Digital literacy can open up so many doors – I have first-hand experience” said Malcolm Mitchell, former New England Patriots football player, author and founder of the Share the Magic Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to improving childhood literacy among minority students through in-school programs, virtual reading challenges and community partner programs.
“I grew up in a low-income household lacking the resources to meet my educational goals. Through perseverance, books became an avenue for expanding my curiosity, creativity and learning,” said Mitchell who has partnered with Cox to spread awareness of Cox’s Connect2Compete program. “Digital literacy is important and spreading the wealth of connectivity and technology to all, regardless of income level or background, will help underserved students compete today and succeed tomorrow.”
Technology has become an integral part of the education system, propelling classrooms toward an immersive, learning experience for students. Strategically investing in technology and digital literacy resources will modernize classrooms and help to close digital equity gaps.