Most Americans agree that education is a national priority. Yet, despite efforts over the last 20 years to improve the performance of our schools, the U.S. public education system falls in the middle of international quality rankings.
But let’s be clear: the problem with education in America is not lack of excellence. It’s lack of equity.
There are pockets of excellence across the country that outshine the best of the best around the world. Students are designing, making, coding, composing, animating, and publishing. They are experimenting and tackling the challenges of food, water, housing, and energy. They are connecting across cultural and national borders to promote global awareness and tolerance. They are creating solutions for positive social change and a healthier, more sustainable future.
At the same time, innovative education leaders and classroom teachers are engaging, motivating, and nurturing students to develop mindsets for college and career readiness and lifelong learning, and they are supporting social and emotional development. Education researchers and neuroscientists are learning more about how people learn. Entrepreneurs are building on this knowledge to build breakthrough innovations that improve learning.
Still, huge gaps exist in educational outcomes, high school graduation rates, college readiness and workforce advancements based on race, class, and geography. Gaps also exist between high-performing and low-performing public schools based on differences in access to funding and resources, community engagement and commitment, and the ability and willingness of district and school leaders to embrace innovation and try new strategies.
In the old model of education, the job of schools was to teach students everything they needed to know for life and work. In a rapidly changing world, this is no longer possible. Today, students must acquire knowledge, competencies, and mindsets that prepare them to be productive members of a modern workforce in a global economy powered by technology. They must be prepared to continually learn new skills throughout their lives for a future we cannot predict. And, they must be informed citizens in our democracy.
In recent years, to support these outcomes, a growing number of forward-thinking states, districts, schools, and teachers have adopted technology in learning and strategies proven to be effective.
Technology, and especially the internet and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, has become ubiquitous in our daily lives and affordable even to our public schools. With the internet, students can access primary source documents, research just about anything, and support their own understanding with explanations accompanied by video, animations, or other helpful visualizations. A growing number of education-focused websites help people of all ages and stages of life learn, from students to professionals to leisure-time learners.
Mobile devices let teachers and students do what they naturally want to do: move around the classroom or campus, work one-on-one and in small groups. And, accessibility technologies support learner variability and people with disabilities by ensuring navigation and information display is available in multiple ways.
However, even as technology has evolved to more effectively support learning, our education system faces another great divide: the Digital Learning Gap. The Digital Learning Gap is caused by differences in how Americans in and out of school access and use technology to improve learning opportunity and outcomes. To help ensure powerful learning opportunities for all are supported by technology, we must understand and work to close this gap. There are three parts to the problem—access, participation, and powerful use. These present as follows:
Over the past two decades, the FCC through its E-Rate program has connected just about every U.S. school and library to the internet. In 2014 the FCC modernized the E-Rate program to make it more affordable for schools and libraries to upgrade their internet connection speeds. In 2018, 98 percent of K-12 school districts met the FCC’s minimum connectivity target of 100 kilobits-per-second per student in schools. This means nearly 45 million students now have access to high-speed internet at school, up from 4 million five years ago.
However, there are still 2.3 million students left to connect at the minimum target speed, mostly in rural and remote areas of the country. Further, just 28 percent of school districts meet the more ambitious target of one megabit-per-second per student, which is necessary to enable every teacher in every school to use technology learning resources each day. In addition, high-speed internet goals are increasing and schools that have met the minimum target speed must continue to upgrade to higher speeds to meet demand.
While the E-Rate program has been enormously successful at connecting schools and libraries to the internet and increasingly to high-speed internet, about 15 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. The statistics are worse for school-age children in lower-income households earning less than $30,000 a year; about one-third of these households do not have a high-speed internet connection, compared with just six percent of households earning more than $75,000 a year.
Lack of access to high-speed internet access at home creates yet another educational gap: the homework gap. Nearly one in five teens can’t always finish their homework because they lack access to a computer at home and high-speed internet access. Among black teens, it’s even worse; 25 percent of black teens report they are sometimes not able to finish their homework, compared with just four percent of white teens and six percent of Hispanic teens. Further, one in four teens from lower-income households (<$30,000 a year)don’t have access to a computer at home, compared with just four percent of teens living in households that earn at least $75,000 a year. About one-third of teens say they often or sometimes have to do their homework on a cellphone; 45 percent of teens living in lower-income households say they at least sometimes must rely on cell phones to finish their homework.
Not surprisingly, seniors are the age group most likely not to use the internet. But beyond age, household income and educational attainment are also indicators of internet use. A little more than one-third of Americans without a high school education do not use the internet. Approximately one in five adults earning less than $30,000 a year do not use the internet. Rural Americans are more than twice as likely to not use the internet than their urban and suburban counterparts.
Americans who do not use the internet are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing jobs, federal benefits, healthcare through public health insurance exchanges, and, increasingly, educational opportunities that require high-speed internet access.
Over time, the reality of living in a digital world will resolve the participation issue. But we can’t wait. Our schools must begin now to educate students and their families about the importance of technology and internet access to their lives and futures. They also must ensure all students are digitally literate—that they understand online information, media, and how to be competent digital citizens before they reach adulthood. Likewise, we must expand adult learning opportunities through libraries, community centers, and adult learning programs to improve digital literacy and workforce skills.
Learning to use technology effectively goes much deeper than learning how to access the internet from mobile phones to use social and other media for connection and entertainment. Technology can enable deepened understanding and problem-solving, and support learning how to learn.
Powerful use of technology supports learning in numerous ways, including:
If we work to close the Digital Learning Gap, technology will promote equity of opportunity regardless of location, disability, or age—and, if used in powerful ways, it will support learning how to learn for life. As we work towards this goal it is important to note that technology cannot replace teachers. On the contrary, when used in powerful ways, technology supports teachers in their efforts to help students engage and achieve. But, teachers need support through coaching, continuous improvement practices, and opportunities to further their own learning.
Closing the Digital Learning Gap is a big idea for education. If we’re successful, all Americans will have a better opportunity to learn now and throughout their lifetimes.
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