Digital Inclusion: New Policies and Leadership Urgently Needed

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

There is a growing economic and educational imperative in the U.S. for new strategies, policies, and leadership to achieve a ubiquitous technology environment at school, at home and in the community.

In some countries, particularly in South America, information and communications technologies (ICT) are increasingly viewed as a part of a policy of social inclusion and equity, rather than simply an education strategy. As a result, bold efforts are extending learning beyond classroom walls, helping teachers and students to be more engaged and connected, bridging the home/school connection and improving the lives of families and entire communities as a result. The infrastructure and hardware components that bring these efforts to fruition are part of a much larger transformation occurring that position the next generation of learning systems.

Last year, CoSN led a delegation to South America—specifically, Uruguay and Argentina. The U.S. educational leaders who participated in this delegation were struck by the commitment at the highest levels of these governments to enable digital inclusion. For example, in Uruguay, a presidential initiative, called Plan Ceibal, has provided 450,000 devices for students in grades 1 through 9 that are used at school and go home every night. They have deployed hotspots throughout the country to access the educational network—you are no farther than six blocks from the wireless network anywhere in the country. Our trip is chronicled here in a delegation report.

An initiative such as Plan Ceibal has sparked similar efforts in Argentina and across South America. If a developing country like Uruguay can undertake this bold initiative, why can’t the United States and other affluent countries make similar investments in bridging home and school? The answer lies in bold vision and leadership.

The compelling nature of these efforts is becoming more evident daily. Economically disadvantaged families increasingly lack the ability to use technology to seek jobs, to access online government resources, and, increasingly, their children are unable to connect to formal educational opportunities. In the United States, there are nearly 27 million families out of a total U.S. population of 312 million—or 9 percent—without a home computer or connection to the internet, according to the World Bank’s 2012 research paper named, The Little Data Book on Information and Communication Technology.

While the use of computing devices in schools is growing, technology is not ubiquitous in most classrooms around the world. For example, according to MDR Research, only 13 percent of U.S. classrooms have a one-device-per-child technology environment. And for those American students who are from less affluent families, or families of incomes $30,000 or less annually, they have a 50 percent less likelihood of having broadband access at home compared to families with incomes more than $75,000. Only 29 percent of the U.S. population subscribed to broadband in 2011 compared to 8 percent worldwide, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), according to the ICT Statistics Database.

Clearly, this research shows we need to build new coalitions involving government, industry, and philanthropic organizations to support and scale these digital inclusion efforts. If you want to be part of that conversation, I hope you will join me on March 11 at the CoSN International Symposium in San Diego for an in-depth examination of Digital Inclusion. The goal of the International Symposium is to start a new conversation about establishing ICT in your district.

The future is at stake, and we need bold, innovative leadership for digital inclusion.

Keith Krueger leads the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a professional association for school district technology leaders/CTOs.