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Universal Internet access isn’t enough

A while back, I wrote a post about the new digital divide. In the past decade, there has been a push to bring broadband into every household, with new, federally funded programs and national initiatives. At this point these initiatives are no longer enough. With the ubiquity of mobile phones, public Wi-Fi and portable devices, Internet access among low-income families and minorities is higher than it’s ever been. The issue is less about access and more about how families are accessing the Internet.

However, universal Internet access is just a band-aid for a larger problem. Internet access is essential, but there is a huge difference between accessing online resources on a tablet or a phone and accessing them on a computer. Mobile browsing is limiting and lends itself mostly to accessing content, not creating it. Have you ever tried to fill out a multipage job application on your phone, or tried to access a site only to realize that it either requires Flash (not viewable on iOS devices) or is not optimized for mobile viewing? This kind of access has not solved problems, it has brought new ones to the surface.

Underlying this is the basic fact that there are children growing up who don’t have the skills to open and save files, to download and insert images into projects, who don’t know basic file naming practices or how to organize their files. There are young people who don’t know how to format a basic document (whether on or offline), who don’t know how to copy and paste, or how to type a question mark. Add on top of that skills like managing photo libraries, music libraries, downloading and uploading multimedia files, or building movies and sharing them with their friends. These young people are often already at a disadvantage and now are lacking fundamental skills that most children their age take for granted.

Some may argue that these are extreme cases, but they are all first-hand accounts of the students that have walked into my computer lab in Philadelphia. It has pained me to see many talented students without the resources to pursue their passions, to see them spend so much time on basic skills that most children their age learn at home.

So is ubiquitous Internet access important? Definitely. Is it enough? Not at all. The Digital Divide we currently face is no longer about if families have Internet access, but how they are accessing it and what kind of technological tools they have access to.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but what I do know is that we need to provide opportunities for young people to access more than just the Internet. One way is to create environments in our schools that are rich with technology and time to tinker. Technology classes should be focused around creative, collaborative projects and exploration through which young people can build technological skills and share their work with a global audience. Even better, this kind of learning should permeate the school day, with the goal of narrowing the gaps in opportunity, experience and achievement (though not necessarily the tested kind) for all students.

Mary Beth Hertz (@mbteach) is a K-8 technology teacher in Philadelphia. She has a master’s degree in instructional technology from St. Joseph’s University and is a prolific blogger and tweeter. She maintains a blog, blogs regularly for Edutopia and is a moderator for the weekly #edchat discussion on Twitter. She is also an organizer for Edcamp Philly and is the treasurer for the Edcamp Foundation.