Education 2.0: The Case for Universal Broadband Access and Meaningful Use

On September 15, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)—the specialized technology agency of the United Nations—released new figures showing an acceleration of broadband uptake and a decline in broadband prices worldwide. According to the report, the U.S. boasts a respectably high level of broadband uptake and some of the lowest broadband prices in the world.

Over the past decade, 290 million Americans (95 percent of the population) have gained access to broadband Internet. To those fixated on economic growth, the widespread availability of affordable broadband has narrowed the digital divide, laying the groundwork for accelerated job creation and workforce development in an increasingly digital economy. To folks in public education, broadband holds the potential to immediately address issues of educational access, equity of opportunity, and public transparency.

Broadband connections are the building blocks of “digital classrooms,” in which highly-customizable digital learning resources replace one-text-fits-all print materials to expand the quality and variety of online solutions available to support teaching and learning.  In these classrooms, broadband powers learning environments that respond in real-time to individual student needs and move aggressively to elevate achievement.

From a basic civil rights perspective, universal broadband promotes equity of access and opportunity among students.  Put simply, quality broadband service ensures that a student from rural America can access the same resources as a student from the heart of New York City.  Broadband’s potential to further our national goals for education is readily apparent, as is the tremendous progress that has been made to date. The task of ensuring access and meaningful use for students, though, is far from complete.

Students spend an average of 7.5 hours per day using technology to access information and people, and 71 percent of teens say that the Internet was their primary source for a recent school project. Despite mounting evidence that students rely on online resources to help them learn throughout the day, one in every four students still does not have home access to broadband. The lack of broadband access and meaningful use impacts rural schools, which host a full fifth of the nation’s student population, most heavily.

The disparity between the digital needs of all students and the inadequate broadband many receive is unacceptable. The education community needs to take leadership for ensuring access and meaningful utilization for all students. We must leverage broadband development and deployment to address deep-seated inequities and to promote 21st-century teaching and learning.

For example, educators and policymakers have considered the use of student-owned devices in broadband-equipped classrooms. These devices enable students to utilize technology that they already use for recreational purposes to learn both at school and at home. Thus, broadband-enabled technologies repurpose students’ time towards productive learning.

Universal broadband capability also creates an enormous market that digital learning resources may populate. The Obama Administration is placing significant emphasis on ensuring that digital space is used widely and creatively: at the National Rural Education Technology Summit in July 2010—where key government leaders affirmed their commitment to bringing broadband to rural America—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced the Learning Registry, an interagency project to maximize the accessibility and use of online federal resources. The creation of the Learning Registry and similar projects will help to ensure that valuable resources flow generously and consistently through broadband-enabled learning pipelines.

Universally accessible and meaningfully used broadband can improve the quality of instruction students can receive in digitally-equipped classrooms anywhere in the country. Increasing equity and transparency through comprehensive broadband mapping and infrastructure-building may not appear to be the sexiest approach to social justice, but it may prove to have a surprisingly large impact.

Our end goal is to make universal broadband as consistently accessible and meaningfully used as telephone service. Today, the average American might have ready access to a phone, uses the device regularly and knowledgeably, and enjoys service that is comparable to what individuals across the country receive. As our communications capabilities continue to expand, we must begin to demand that same level of quality and equity for broadband service. With appropriate data infrastructure and a host of creative learning resources in place, we can begin to explore how advanced broadband capability can transform teaching and learning.

Monica S. Liu ’12, a Crimson arts editor, is a social and cognitive neuroscience concentrator living in Mather House.