A recent article in Investor’s Business Daily revealed a startling bias against the potential benefits of broadband, particularly for low-income and minority students.
According to Norm Alster, the article’s author,
[T]he latest research suggests that dumping technology on people actually widens the gap between haves and have-nots. Kids who are given computers and high-speed Internet begin to slip in math, reading and English. The impact is worst among the poor students who were supposed to gain the most…
While the study Alster references provides a troubling view about the impact of computers and broadband on our culture, it does not tell the whole story. As John Horrigan, FCC Consumer Research Director, Omnimus Broadband Initiative noted:
[T]his finding was not as earth-shattering as some may have assumed. In fact, it is consistent with the findings in the National Broadband Plan: connectivity and hardware matter, but computers and broadband access cannot replace parents, teachers and broader social support as critical inputs into student achievement. Laptops in the home are not a silver bullet–digital literacy training for parents and teachers, appropriate content for online learning systems, and broader community digital literacy efforts are necessary to ensure children benefit from technology…instructional gains come about only if schools undertake new instructional approaches tethered to technology and if they adopt new practices to support the technology.
So there you have it. There is no silver bullet. And while a student may be given access to the implements of a modern economy, absent new methods of learning that compliment these tools, we cannot expect substantial educational gains to result from the mere presence of technology in the home.
What Alster fails to realize, however, is that the Internet is a part of almost every aspect of our lives, from healthcare to education and job creation and everything in between. Anyone who looks around for a second knows this. The people who are falling behind in all of these areas — typically minorities and people subsisting in the lowest income brackets — have either chosen not to, or are unable to, adopt broadband into their homes.
We live in an increasingly digital economy, and despite the result of the study described by Alster, broadbad is the single most viable option we have toward increasing positive economic impacts for people of color and for those who have been historically marginalized and underserved. Were it not such a vital infrastructure for our nation’s recovery, success and prosperity, the Obama Administration likely would not have encouraged Congress to include $7 billion in broadband stimulus in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the FCC would not have gone to such great pains to create our country’s first National Broadband Plan.
While Alster may be personally biased against the substantial investments being made into broadband expansion and use in this country, his is not an attitude we can afford to adopt. And in fact, it runs counter to the overwhelming evidence that broadband can and must be the critical infrastructure in an information economy – our increasingly digital society.