Internet Access for All: A New Program Targets Low-Income Students

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Technology has often been called a democratizer in education, allowing students from all backgrounds to access the same resources and tools. Others see potential for technology to do great harm, widening an already substantial achievement gap related to issues of equity. Access to technology costs money and some fear lower-income schools and students will lag behind the frenzy for newer and better devices, faster connectivity and effective teacher training on digital tools.

EveryoneOn is one attempt to make sure that doesn’t happen. The campaign, coordinated by the non-profit Connect2Compete, launched today brings together partners from both the public and private sectors to address some of the most vexing aspects of the digital divide. The program offers low-cost devices and Internet service, as well as access to digital literacy training programs around the country, hoping to give access to the estimated 100 million Americans who have no broadband connection at home and another 62 million who don’t use the Internet at all.

“The consensus is that a big piece of how we are going to work in classrooms is with digital tools, both in class and at home,” said Zach Leverenz, CEO of Connect2Compete. Kids living in homes without the Internet are increasingly at a disadvantage as coursework and workplace skills become more dependent on technology. To help students get access to the Internet at home, the group is working with major Internet providers Comcast and Cox Communications to offer low cost Internet. Families with K-12 students eligible for free or reduced lunch can get a free router and unlimited Internet service for less than $10 per month. And there’s a deal for households with no kids too: half off the cost of the router and $10 for 12 gigabits of Internet service per month. If a family lives in a zip code with a median income of $35,000 or less it immediately qualifies.

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[RELATED READING: Bridging the Digital Divide in Rural Schools]

“Access is a basic right. It’s the same as roads or clean water or electricity,” said Michael Mills, a professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas during a SXSWEdu session recently. “Those are [accessible] here in this country because we expect it. The same thing should apply to the Internet. The Internet is about empowerment. If we take away this access because we think certain people aren’t going to use it right, we’re no better than governments who take away voting rights from minorities.”

The program is offering deals on devices, too – 70 percent discounts on PC desktop and laptop computers, and a similar offer for tablets coming in the summer of this year. The hope is that by providing low-income families with affordable devices and Internet, cost will no longer be the prohibitive barrier that it has become. Kids can use the Internet for school and adults might learn that things like searching for a job are made easier when connected.

But cost is not the only barrier. Many people don’t understand how the Internet could benefit their lives or how to use it. That’s why the campaign includes a media blitz through radio, TV, and print publications that target the population they are trying to reach. The ads feature first person narratives of digital literacy improving quality of life.

One of the biggest pieces of this initiative is providing digital literacy training. Using a network of partners already skilled in digital inclusion work, the campaign is working with 21,000 libraries and training centers that offer digital literacy trainings. The “EveryoneOn” website offers a locator tool, and information is available by texting "Connect" to 30364.

Connect2Compete is the organizing force, aggregating the resources specifically targeted at the populations they want to reach based on research on connectivity.

Leverenz is aware that the companies involved stand to profit from the initiative and he’s okay with that. Signing up 100 million new Internet users could mean big profits for Internet providers and device makers, even at discounted rates, but for Leverenz, the goal is connectivity.

“Our goal is 30 million connected in three years,” Leverenz said. “If we haven’t substantially moved the needle then we shouldn't be doing it at all.” He’d like to see this offer snowball into a bigger movement that recognizes how crucial access will be to equity.

[RELATED READING: By the Numbers: Teachers, Tech, and the Digital Divide]

The Department of Education has been using its bullhorn to help get the word out about the initiative, although it has no role in financing the effort. “They are leveraging this public-private partnership in a pretty unique way,” said Richard Culatta, acting director of the Office of Education Technology. “They are bringing people together who have power to make huge shifts and huge changes if they can be brought in.”

The DOE sees Internet access as one important piece of their larger plan to leverage digital technologies to personalize learning, help students and their parents use data to make informed educational choices and improve connectivity in schools.

“We've been waiting for a long time for an alignment of digital stars and I think we’re actually getting to this point where it’s all coming together to provide really incredible learning experiences,” Culatta said.

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The EveryoneOn website will serve as a portal for newly connected users. It will host educational content as well as employment search tools and digital literacy materials. The site is meant to offer a friendly way for new users to become acquainted with some of what's on the web.

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