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How Cities Can Help Schools Bridge the Digital Divide

By: Steve Meany, CEO

In an earlier post, we talked about the lack of broadband service to school districts in rural areas, the resulting homework gap for students, and the need for comprehensive strategies to develop improved access for every community. These strategies will need to come not only from the school systems themselves, but also from communities, elected officials, businesses, and the philanthropic community.

Here’s how one community, Boston, is addressing the problem.

Boston’s Extensive Broadband Expansion

Boston’s fiber optic network service has been up and running since 2008 and originally provided services for 130 City offices and public safety entities. Since then, the city has added 50 more buildings and hotspots. Today, they’re working to broaden the network, connecting public schools throughout the area. The network, when implemented, will bring connectivity capacity to public schools and offer students better access to information, bridge the “homework gap,” and level the education playing field for all. There are currently 26 schools and 38 libraries connected to the network and the expansion will eventually add 89 more schools, giving them better internet speeds for educational tools like:

  • Computer-based tests
  • Online learning
  • Video services

The $10 million project is part of Boston’s Imagine Boston 2030 growth initiative and will also be used to aid public safety communications for first responders. A request for bids on the ambitious project began on April 3 and will run through June 6, 2017, when the proposal request is due. The project represents years of planning and is seen as a solution to the city’s diverse broadband needs, including bridging the digital divide for low-income residents.

How Lower-Income Families View Tech in the Classroom

Lower income families often see both opportunity and risk in their children’s technology use in the classroom. Over 75% of them believe that technology use helps their child learn important new skills, exposes her or him to important new ideas, and offers new and interesting means of expression. The majority of those parents, though, also worry that their child:

  • Will be exposed to inappropriate content.
  • Will spend less time with family and friends.
  • Will be a victim of cyberbullying.

Educators can take a proactive approach in easing these concerns while encouraging parents to be a part of supporting their child’s classroom success through technology. Steps like involving parents in changes to classroom instruction right from the start, providing opportunities for parents to learn how to use the technology themselves, and establishing an on-going outreach program are a good start.

From an emotional standpoint, educators can:

  • Demonstrate to parents specific ideas and skills their child learns in the classroom, and explain how the parents can help extend that learning to the home.
  • Listen to and empathize with parents’ concerns about technology’s impact on the student-teacher relationship, educating them on how technology actually enhances it.
  • Educate parents on recognizing online harm and online risk and how to protect their child from both.

Hopefully, Boston’s model will be emulated across the country. Cities like Virginia Beach and New York, with its hot-spot loan initiative, are already on board. For these cities, broadband expansion is more than a noble goal – it is a necessary one. And it’s one they believe will have a meaningful impact on closing the digital divide for thousands of students.