Inside the leather-bound World Book encyclopedias of my childhood, their golden page tips now settled with dust, Pluto is still a planet. Queen Elizabeth II sits on the throne of England. The average sedan is powered entirely by gasoline.
With the Internet’s real-time reservoir of information at our command, we forget that facts were once bound by publication dates.
Let’s not also forget that, for children who lack reliable internet access, information barriers persist. Online information is often available to them only in small grabs – a 30-minute turn on the school library computer, a few minutes outside the local Starbucks, a glimpse at a friend’s smartphone on the bus ride home. These students and their families are among the more than 42 million Americans who lack access to broadband internet.
As a public school superintendent, I consider this gap one of the great education challenges of our time.
At the most basic level, it’s a matter of education delivery. Students’ homework, class syllabi and test dates are posted online. Jeopardy-style games that quiz students on history facts, videos offering step-by-step math strategies and, of course, sources for research papers all come with a URL. Students are expected to collaborate with classmates in real time on projects and presentations.
Most communication between schools and parents also occurs online. Parents check their children’s grades, fill out school forms, sign up for volunteer activities and teacher conferences, get details on upcoming school meetings or participate in parent training sessions.
Even more than supporting instruction and parent outreach, however, bridging the digital divide fulfills a moral imperative. Because the divide is deep.
In the Silicon Valley district that I serve, as in many districts across the country, families span the socio-economic spectrum. Some live in multimillion-dollar homes with the support of professional cleaners, lawn services or live-in nannies. These fortunate ones travel internationally, inviting their children to explore the sights, scents, foods and languages of other cultures in a way that most children, even most adults, will never experience.
Then there are students living in the local RV community. Their families park and live in campers on a street near one of our schools. Every few days they move from one parking place to another, as dictated by city law, circling the streets for another spot that keeps a good public education within reach.
Some level of economic disparity is inevitable, it’s true, and not even the best education system can expect to eradicate it. But we must recognize that poverty is not only about lacking food, shelter and clothing. Poverty is also about a lack of experiences. And that’s a problem we can help solve by bridging the digital divide.
When our district set out to do so early in the pandemic, it was a process of trial and error.
Our district encouraged families to sign up for free services offered by the big-name internet providers. But these offers are limited, often good for just a few months.
So we distributed mobile hotspots. The devices worked — until they broke, which happened often. We pivoted again, outfitting school parking lots as Wi-Fi zones. They helped but were less convenient, not a long-term solution.
We finally found a solution through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, a 150-megahertz band of spectrum made usable for the public by the Federal Communications Commission. Using some of our district’s federal Covid relief funds, we bought and outfitted a portion of the spectrum to deliver internet access for our district’s students and families.
While we continue to fine-tune the project and search for higher-elevation spots for our transmission towers, we have managed to make the internet available to 100% of our students and families.
Different districts will take different approaches. Some may rely upon Covid relief funds, while others may pursue public-private partnerships or request a dedicated line item in the annual budget. Whatever the path, the end goal is the same.
Education leaders can’t promise every child a passport, a climb up the Eiffel Tower or a glimpse into the depths of the Grand Canyon. But we can give them the power to ask questions, to follow their curiosity down a rabbit hole, to stumble upon voices and ideas different from their own.
That adventure can be experienced through the internet, for those who have its riches at their fingertips.
Ayindé Rudolph, EdD, is superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District in Mountain View.
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