Digital Equity: It's Not Just about Access Anymore: Sure, Most Schools Now Have Computers and Internet Access, but Are All Students Receiving the Same High-Quality Learning Experience? We Examine the Issues. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Knowing how to use computers, software, and the Internet is simply not enough anymore. To be prepared for today's digital society, all students must have the skills to find, understand, and use information, and, perhaps more importantly, to evaluate that information. In short, they must become people who are able to continually discern, adapt, and learn.

In the past several years, much has been invested to bring students and educators up to speed with technology. With passage of the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress created technology programs to promote experimentation, research, and the proliferation of good ideas. According to recent Benton Foundation reports, the United States has spent $38 billion over the past 10 years to bring technology and Internet connectivity to the nation's schools. At the end of the current funding cycle, E-rate telecommunications discounts for poor and rural schools and libraries will have totaled $10 billion. And Market Data Retrieval, Inc., estimates that with federal, local, and other funding, total spending for the 2000-2001 school year alone was approximately $5.53 billion. In addition, the recently passed ESEA authorizes as much as $1 billion each year for a new educational technology block grant.

The test for this federal commitment to technology in education promises to take many forms, but a key question we must ask ourselves is this: Did we achieve digital equity as we implemented these programs? This article will look at what we've achieved, what's left to accomplish, models of success, and challenges that still lie ahead.

Despite the seemingly impressive numbers reflecting growth in student-computer ratios and schools with Internet access (see charts, this page and far right), making a significant: difference isn't easy. Problems that keep students from achieving their potential in any area, including technology, can seem intractable. Predictably, poverty remains the major factor inhibiting students' technology access, surpassing all other considerations, including ethnic or minority group affiliation (see "The Haves and the Have-Nots," at right).

The New Inequities

While not every student has a computer and the Internet at her fingertips, it's clear that the problem of access is on its way to being solved. But there remain other areas of concern: the quality of hardware and connections, what students do with technology, what their teachers know and can do, the influence of strong leaders, and reaching those populations of students out of the educational mainstream.

Hardware and Bandwidth

New computers today are multimedia machines: fast, powerful, and capable of running software with sound, graphics, and video. Advances in chip technology increase the power and decrease the cost of equipment every 18 months. Similar advances in broadband technologies provide corresponding decreases in cost and improvements in connectivity speed. And access to new tools and new instructional methods provide potentially better learning opportunities.

Yet many schools are caught in a digital divide time warp. Those that began purchasing computers many years ago or that have limited resources may be using older equipment with less capability. The sheer size of their investments in technology and infrastructure prevents them from tossing the old and bringing in the new in a time frame that would allow them to take advantage of recent advances.

Some districts have put aging equipment to good use with thin client technology, which connects low-end computers to high-end servers that provide the processing power and memory from which applications and data are managed. For example, Chapel Hill, N.C., technology coordinator Ray Reitz had too many varieties of computers and too many old machines in classrooms for effective integration. Now high-powered servers provide access to from any of these thin clients. …