by Judith Sebesta, Ph.D., Executive Director, DigiTex
One of the most significant barriers to digital education is the “digital divide”: lack of access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet and adequate devices to capitalize on that access. Primary, secondary, and postsecondary students alike have been affected by this divide, its negative impact on underserved and rural students in particular brought into stark relief over the past fourteen months. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many people are being left behind. One estimate states that as many as 42 million Americans, many in rural areas, were unable to access high speed internet in 2020. And over 9 million Texans lack access to broadband (source: Texas Tribune). 7 Things You Should Know About the Digital Divide, from EDUCAUSE, and Failed Connection: The Broadband Gap, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, are two good sources for additional information about the divide’s effect on higher education.
I have been privileged that, in general, I have not been affected by this divide — except for a relatively brief period five years ago. I was working in Commerce, Texas, and invested in a ten-acre farm in a rural area east of Dallas, where I lived for about fourteen months. Although managing the nearly 100-year-old house and acreage it sat on was incredibly hard work, there was much that was quite bucolic about the experience. I even had the opportunity to rescue and rehab a donkey who had been abandoned on the property. I named him Hank, and along with my two dogs and some ducks on the pond, my mini-farm became a sort of paradise.
However, I naively purchased the property without thoroughly researching internet access. Although I had been assured that internet was available, I was unaware that it was satellite internet. I quickly discovered the drawbacks: there were significant data usage limits and it was slow, expensive, and extremely unreliable, particularly during storms (which are quite frequent in that part of the state). Suddenly I couldn’t stream movies and series to my heart’s content (yes, my privilege was showing), but more significantly, I often was unable to conduct work from home when needed.
For a variety of reasons, I decided to sell the farm (don’t worry — the financial investment paid off, even after such a brief period of ownership!) and return to Austin. But I have to admit, inadequate internet access played a significant role in my decision.
Looking back, I see that the benefits of owning that farm, even briefly, went beyond the financial gain (and rescuing Hank). Living in rural Texas gave me a firsthand look at the challenges faced by those affected by the digital divide (even as I was still privileged that I could afford the available internet as well as devices on which to use it). I now better understand the impact of the divide, an impact that has become a very real crisis during the pandemic. In April, the Texas Tribune published this compelling article and video that put a poignant, human face on the problem, highlighting families living without adequate internet in the colonias of south Texas.
But broadband experts argue that there is no way that rural (and some urban) areas will get access to high-speed, reliable internet service without government help, help that seems on the way — to some extent — from both federal and state governments. Legislation is being considered in Washington right now to address this widening crisis. And as of this writing, here in Texas H.B. 5 (87 R) is awaiting the governor’s approval. It seeks to close the digital divide in Texas through a variety of initiatives, including
- creation of a Broadband Development Office within the Comptroller’s Office;
- setting of minimum upload and download threshold speeds for internet to qualify as broadband;
- establishment of a program to award grants, low-interest loans, and other financial incentives to expand access to and adoption of broadband service in designated areas (such as rural) determined to be eligible; and
- preparation and publication of a state broadband plan that establishes long-term goals for greater access to, and adoption and affordability of, broadband service in Texas.
While some may argue that the legislation does not go far enough to address this urgent need more immediately, it is at least a starting point.
As we at DigiTex continue to expand and improve our initiatives to support community colleges across Texas and the students they serve, I always am aware that the impact of things like digital Open Educational Resources and online course sharing is limited by a student’s ability to access those resources and courses. Bridging the digital divide goes right to the heart of ensuring equity in education. It is time for access to high-speed, broadband internet to be a right, not a privilege.
PS: When I sold the farm, a colleague adopted Hank, who now lives the good life on even more acreage with various chickens, dogs, and his best buddy, a former “donkey basketball” star named Sidney.