Desperate need for Internet in our urban schools

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For years, parents and educators have argued over the role of technology in the classroom. A poll of some of the most qualified teachers in America conducted by the Pew Center on the Internet and American Life recently revealed how thoroughly digital tools and the Internet have been integrated into education.

Policymakers now must determine how to ensure that all students regardless of income or location enjoy the benefits of digitally enhanced learning. Wireless mobile and an Internet Protocol (IP)-based network might be the answers.

According to the Pew poll of advanced placement and National Writing Project teachers, Business Fiber Optic Internet Access and digital tools such as laptops, cell phones and tablets are threaded throughout the teaching and learning experience. In some schools use of a cell phone or digital device in class is a violation of the rules, but that is changing.

Social media is the status quo

Fully 73 percent of poll respondents say students use mobile phones in class and 45 percent say they use e-readers or tablets to do research and access or submit assignments. Nearly 70 percent of teachers say they use these tools to share work with other teachers (69 percent) or interact with parents (67 percent).

Almost all of these teachers use search engines like Google to find information, and they are more likely to use digital tools and social networks than the general population.

When it comes to digital access, location matters and not all students stand on equal footing. While more than half (54 percent) of these teachers report that almost all students have sufficient access to these tools in school, only 18 percent say students have sufficient access at home. Low income students are least likely to have access in school or at home. For urban students, they face greater barriers at school and rural students have less access at home.

Erasing the barriers to digitally enhanced learning for students in disadvantaged situations requires a multifaceted approach.

Computer ownership could be key

One consistent barrier is computer ownership. For example, when examining the barriers to broadband adoption in America, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) found that U.S. computer ownership rates in 2010 were 80 percent of those of leading nations such as Japan and South Korea.

Access to affordable and reliable high speed Internet access is another barrier. For rural students who are less likely to have at-home access, that means getting service into hard to reach areas. Unlike other advanced nations that significantly subsidize investment in high speed networks through tax dollars, the U.S. relies primarily on private companies. ITIF also found that a significant barrier to the deployment of fiber optic broadband in sparsely populated suburbs and rural areas is the cost per home which can exceed more than $1000 per home.

Given this challenge, wireless must be part (although not all) of the solution. Earlier surveys show that African-American and Latino kids are more likely to use wireless devices to access the web than their white counterparts. Using a wireless-enabled tablet or laptop is a lower-cost option for accessing the web without losing much functionality.

To ensure reliable wireless access long term, we need to make available more spectrum, the invisible airwaves that carry radio, television and data traffic. Just like adding lanes to a highway, the more of it there is, the more information can get through.

Broadening reach and impact

Those in high-cost areas would benefit from the transition to an all Internet Protocol network, a multimedia platform that can support more capabilities than the old, slow copper-based networks. Right now the FCC has a petition from IIA member company AT&T to transition away from maintaining the plain old telephone service (POTS) to an all-IP network.

The company, which has pledged to invest $66 billion dollars in expanding the reach of its wired and wireless broadband service, petitioned the FCC to sanction test market runs for any company interested in using IP technology to determine that it is safe, affordable and reliable. This measured approach will permit any issues to be addressed before a nationwide transition takes place.

Getting students in underserved communities’ access to these educational tools is critical. American kids are facing global competition and according to the Pew poll, digital tools are becoming difference-makers for students in achieving a high standard education. In the global competition the U.S. faces, we can’t afford to leave any kids behind.

Jamal Simmons, a well-known political strategist and public relations executive, is Co-Chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.