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Local school districts keeping tabs on 'digital divide'; Comcast offers program to assist

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 - 6:24 am

How can families and school districts go about addressing the digital divide, providing quality education for students whose families might not have the means to afford a suite of computers and Internet-based services, yet still acknowledging the importance of learning how to effectively use technology?

It’s an intricate balancing act, with one large company offering a program for nearly two years that seeks to address the issue, but two of the largest districts in northeast Indiana having to walk a fine line of not promoting any particular for-profit company while still acknowledging its existence.

First, the digital divide is basically defined as the gap, primarily socioeconomic, that develops between people who have the ability to take advantage of opportunities that come from understanding how to use digital resources, including the Internet, and those who do not. That gap certainly becomes apparent when, for example, a job listing might require a person to apply online and one person can do so with ease, while another might not even know the listing exists, let alone be able to successfully navigate a website and complete it.

"The Internet is transformative technology," said Rob Ponto, the public relations manager for Comcast’s Heartland Region. "It gives people opportunities, allows people to engage and participate in a society that is constantly changing."

To that end, for nearly two years, Comcast has offered a program it calls Internet Essentials, which features Internet access for $9.95 (plus tax) for families who have at least one child who qualifies for the National School Lunch Program, as well as the opportunity to obtain training about digital literacy either in person, online or in print, as well as other aspects of technology that seem commonplace to some but isn’t for all. Those who would like to know more can read about the program at www.internetessentials.com.

"I hate to use the word ‘essential,’ but it is important," said Ponto. "It’s important to bridge the digital divide. We’re working with the school districts and would like to do more, because we think it’s something that has to be done for people."

Ponto said the Comcast is planning a large push for the program in Indiana in the next few months, likely starting with an event in Indianapolis, but was not at liberty to divulge details yet.

But even though the program exists, local school districts Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools - districts that would have, combined, thousands of students who likely qualify for the program, are careful in explaining a few things: Students are certainly able to be taught and to learn without access to the Internet at home, and that the districts do not want to be perceived as promoting any company’s services and products.

"Last year, we presented (details of Comcast’s program) to students, but we don’t know how many would have used it," said Tamyra Kelly, spokeswoman for East Allen County Schools. Kelly said in a follow-up email that information about the program is currently available in each of its schools.

The district is currently using iPads in what is sometimes referred to as a 1-to-1 initiative, where each student is provided with the portable computer.

How to make sure that students’ education isn’t bound to home Internet access has “been discussed within the district, and for those who don’t have Internet access at home, that doesn’t mean that the student isn’t able to complete their studies. That isn’t the case."

"What it would do is allow them the opportunity to do additional studies at home, with additional tools," Kelly said. "It would certainly enhance the ability of students, but it isn’t required."

Fort Wayne Community Schools does not have the kind of 1-to-1 program that EACS is using, but that doesn’t mean the district isn’t cognizant of technology and its uses and drawbacks, as well as its limitations in that not everyone has access outside of the school buildings.

"I think we know that the reality is, a lot of our students don’t have computers at home," said Krista Stockman, a FWCS spokeswoman. "I think there is a concern, that we feel we need to provide the technology where students can get work done at school."

Stockman explained that the district is aware that students have to be taught, at some level, how to effectively use technology in the world today.

"It is really important for students to know how to use technology as a tool. Not a toy, but a tool," Stockman said. "I think a lot of our classrooms already do that – it’s not like it was, years ago, where students listened while teachers talked.

"You have a lot of students working independently, while some students are getting remediation, while others might be using computers or other tools," Stockman said.

Information provided by Comcast indicates the technology company has distributed 27 million brochures explaining Internet Essentials to school districts and business partners, in 14 different languages, while more than 20,000 people have attended free, in-person training to enhance digital literacy.

Eligibility for the program has also been expanded to parochial schools, homeschoolers, and private schools.