Can the digital divide be bridged?

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews

A symptom of a deeper problem

For as long as people have been talking about (the potential of) the Internet, we’ve been anticipating and lamenting the digital divide. Like a moving target, the digital divide simultaneously appears surmountable while also inevitable. The rapid rate of technological change creates early adopters and thereby people who struggle to keep up.

Yet what if the framing of the digital divide takes attention away from why some people are forced to keep up? Technology reflects our inequality in addition to enabling it. By focusing on the digital divide we can ignore the political economic dynamics that make it such a problem.

Take for example this pandemic. Rather than call out institutions for failing to function as they should, we’re expected to bend towards and accommodate their dysfunction. In this context, the digital divide is not a failure to keep up but rather a failure to fulfil a collective responsibility to include.

We assumed long ago that educational institutions could not be responsible for providing students with the tools they need to learn in a digital society. Instead we expected parents and families to provide these tools, which not only guaranteed that many students went without, but that teachers had to accommodate a wide range of tools and literacies.

Although now that this error is being understood, and educational organizations are scrambling to procure and provide the tools, the already broken global supply chain cannot keep up with the sudden surge in demand.

A surge in worldwide demand by educators for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks — up to 41 percent higher than last year — has created months long shipment delays and pitted desperate schools against one another. Districts with deep pockets often win out, leaving poorer ones to give out printed assignments and wait until winter for new computers to arrive.

That has frustrated students around the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color, which also often lack high-speed internet access and are most likely to be on the losing end of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students didn’t have an adequate device at home, a study by education nonprofit Common Sense Media found. That gap, with much of the country still learning remotely, could now be crippling.

“The learning loss that’s taken place since March when they left, when schools closed, it’ll take years to catch up,” Ms. Henry said. “This could impact an entire generation of our students.”

While the sudden shift in demand has exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, it also illustrates the reality of the digital divide, that these tools were never meant to be universal. This is a by product of scarce resources and limited production, but it also reflects the consequences of an educational system that focuses on educating elites rather than educating all.

Here’s some more background via the study cited above:

Theses dynamics were well known before the pandemic, but were also easier to ignore or placate with the (now false) belief that the digital divide could be bridged. However the concept was already growing thin after decades of lip service.

For example I recall when the digital divide was used to speak of connectivity exclusively. The assumption was that once everyone had Internet access the related problems of inequality and inequity would go away.

This was short lived, even though the problem of connectivity was never fundamentally solved. Rather the focus quickly shifted from the binary of connected vis disconnected to the genuine issue of speeds, of narrowband vs broadband or dial up vs high speed and now high speed vs fibre optic.

Yet even if connectivity were resolved, there’s still the issue of what is done with the connection. The difference between education and entertainment, or self-directed learning vs self-directed distraction.

The moral of all of this is that the Internet and technology in general is relativistic. That as long as a minority or elite set the pace, then the rest of society will have difficulty keeping up.

This is a big reason as to why this problem has been so difficult to resolve let alone address.

Weeks into the academic year, state education officials in New Jersey still can’t account for the number of students unable to get online for remote learning, which is playing a critical role during the pandemic. Despite strides made in the last few months, they also don’t have a full picture on the number of families who have a device or those struggling to stay reliably connected.

“The state just has to accept that internet connectivity at home now has to be part of a free, public education,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based nonprofit that advocates for school equity. “We have to make sure that every kid has this, whether or not they can afford it.”

Sciarra said it’s hard for the state to fix a problem without updated information because closing the digital divide is more than just giving every student a device. Laptops break, students move, and their connectivity at home can change.

“We still don’t have a reliable set of data that allows us to understand where these students are and more importantly…the particular barriers they are facing,” he said.

It’s worth reflecting that after decades of lip service the digital divide remains relatively undefined and unmeasured.

While we know that it encompasses more than just connectivity, it should come as no surprise that this foundational element remains a big part of the problem.

Across the country as American schools struggle with whether to reopen or stay virtual, many rural districts are worried their students will fall even further behind than their city peers.

This pandemic has shone a glaring light on a lot of inequalities. The federal government estimates that more than a third of rural America has little or no Internet. In numerous recent interviews, educators have told NPR they’re concerned the rural-urban divide will only worsen if kids can’t get online to learn.

This past spring, when the lockdowns began, many rural districts amid the crisis had to resort to delivering paper copies of school work to students who didn’t have Internet or cell phone service at home.

Even though our Future Fibre series covers this subject, the scale of the problem still shocks me. This is true in both the US and here in Canada.

Tabish said about one in 10 Canadian households have no internet connection whatsoever, and the pandemic has exacerbated the gap in connectivity between rural and urban areas. He said high-speed internet has become even faster in cities, while it has plateaued in remote areas.

This point about relativity is essential. This is also why I’m suggesting that perhaps the digital divide is inherently flawed, and arguably unfixable, or rather unbridgeable.

Technological change is exponential. The connected side of the digital divide will accelerate at a pace that will leave the less connected behind. All current and proposed measures are designed to at best maintain the gap, but even then fail to do so.

Although in using the language of connected and less connected I’m falling into the false logic of the divide. This recent study helps illustrate this:

The survey also finds that younger people across all seven countries have greater access problems than their elders. More than half of all respondents aged 18 to 24, and nearly as many in the 25 to 34 age bracket, reported having some issues with digital access, compared with 15 percent of those aged 65 and older. To some extent, that may reflect that younger people have a greater need of internet access for work or school than those aged 65 and up.

This study illustrated something I suspect many of us take for granted, that the digital divide, like the Internet, is inherently subjective. We perceive our needs differently, depending upon what we know is possible, or what our peers expect of us.

In this context, we should be allowing young people to define basic needs and service levels, as their expectations and needs are often higher than our own.

It also suggests that we underestimate how underserved many rural communities are. They may not know what they’re missing, or understand what they could do with a faster or more reliable connection.

Certainly this has been my own experience. I lived in an urban environment with super fast Internet and understand what I could be doing here in a rural community if I had the same infrastructure.

The larger issue and part of the solution is literacy and empowering people with the knowledge of what is possible. While there’s an element of literacy to the concept of the digital divide, it remains marginalized. The digital divide maintains a focus on connectivity when the problem is much larger.

The digital divide is also a distraction from the larger argument that the Internet is an essential service that should be public infrastructure. As it is currently constructed, the concept will never be bridge, and will only get worse.

Instead we should shift the discussion from individual privilege to collective responsibility. From early adopters to social good and community benefit.

While that won’t address current hardware shortages, it can help reorient our culture, in particular our technology culture, to one that emphasizes open source knowledge and empowerment.

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