Students hurt by the digital divide

Millions of students in the U.S. don’t have access to high speed Internet services at home and it’s hurting their chances for academic success, but fixing the problem is not going to be easy or cheap

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The high speed lane of the Internet is closed at home to millions of students

Image credit: flickr/Julien Menichini

As the parents of teen and a tween, one of the most common refrains my wife and I hear around our house from the kids is “I need the laptop to do homework.” Whether they’re researching a topic for a report or presentation, checking homework assignments online or downloading the latest Justin Bieber album for extra credit (I’m skeptical about that last claim of theirs), the computer and, more importantly, the Internet seem to be a requirement for them to do well in school. It’s hard to fathom how they would function well academically without broadband access at home.

[Will the FCC's free WiFi plan bridge the digital divide? and Moving from programming to something else, anything else]

Yet, as a piece in the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, many families and students in the U.S. are forced to try and keep up at school without high speed (or any) Internet access at home. According to the WSJ, of the households with teenagers and incomes less than $30,000, about one third don’t have such access. Some of these families simply can’t afford the monthly access fees, while others don’t have the option, since they live in rural areas without access to broadband networks.

As a result, in order to complete digital assignments, these kids are forced to find sources of free Internet access outside of school. While the library is often an option, hours can be limited, particularly in the evening. As the WSJ piece details, many of these students are increasingly turning to free WiFi at places like McDonald’s to complete their homework. 

Needless to say, this is not ideal and it’s putting these children at a real disadvantage academically. How many children are really affected? Well, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2009 about 42 million households had an annual income of $35,000 or less and roughly half of U.S. household have kids under 18. Take a third of those and you get, say, 6-7 million households with kids in the U.S. that don’t have high speed access.

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