From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

The widespread adoption of online instruction has exposed our nation’s glaring digital divide. Closing this divide is critical if we are to achieve substantive educational progress in the coming decade and beyond.

The words digital divide denote the gulf separating those who enjoy ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. The term was coined in the mid-1990s, and numerous studies indicate that the phenomenon it describes remains a problem.

Unsurprisingly, the divide is a function of socioeconomic status. By and large, those without access to computers and the Internet are from low-income families.

According to the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California, just 63 percent of students whose families make up to $25,000 a year have the necessary digital devices and Internet access for distance learning, while nearly all (98 percent) of those whose families earn $150,000 or more have the required technology.

The implications are clear, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic is forcing more schools and colleges to pursue online education, but the imbalance should concern us in any event.

As is widely known, computers and Internet connectivity have become integral to learning in K-12 schools and at colleges and universities. Moreover, computers and associated technologies are destined to figure prominently in the workplaces of tomorrow.

Unequal access to digital tools all but guarantees unequal educational and life outcomes.

What should be done? In many parts of the country, local governments and companies are teaming up to improve broadband access in their communities. One popular tactic is to have libraries, schools, and government offices adjust or upgrade their routers to target the outdoors, thus creating free Internet hotspots in parking lots. In Baton Rouge, free drive-in WiFi is available at recreational centers and public parks, and in Vermont empty train stations now serve as Internet hotspots.

Worthwhile though these and similar initiatives are, however, they do not address the issue of unequal hardware access, particularly among disadvantaged students.

In fact, I suspect a prevalent problem in low-income households with multiple family members now working and attending class from home is shared computer access. If your family has one computer or tablet for use among six members, you can bet no one will enjoy significant screen time.

Fortunately, local leaders have introduced an array of impactful programs in recent years to meet this challenge. For example, Computers for Families, a joint venture involving the nonprofit Partners in Education and the Santa Barbara County Education Office, provides refurbished computers and technical assistance to county residents. And the nonprofit EqualiTech is striving to improve computer and Internet access in Old Town Goleta.

Please consider supporting these and related area efforts to reduce the digital divide.

Versions of this commentary have appeared on Noozhawk and in the Santa Maria Times.