Council Profiles

Teetering on the Digital Divide

September 28, 2017
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Teetering on the Digital Divide
Around 65 million American schoolchildren do not have access to the Internet. Courtesy of Verizon Foundation
A new film by Rory Kennedy and narrated by Jamie Foxx calls for tech equality in classrooms.

At Jameira Miller’s high school in Lansdowne, Pa., using technology means punching buttons on a calculator. To use a computer, the soft-spoken senior has to give up lunch to wait in line at the media center, which only has a few desktops. Yet five miles away, students at a different school enjoy courses in computer-aided drafting design, engineering and robotics.

Welcome to the “digital divide,” the alarming technology gap in our nation’s public schools that threatens to leave children in disadvantaged districts behind. It’s the focus of Academy Award-nominated director Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America.

The one-hour film, narrated by actor Jamie Foxx, profiles schools, teachers and students, including Miller, who are hurt by a lack of technology access. The hardware shortage is just the start. Approximately 6.5 million U.S. students still lack connectivity to the Internet. Half our country’s teachers lack the support to incorporate technology into their lessons.

The digital divide cuts across small rural towns and big cities alike. The only common denominator: a lack of federal, state and local funding. Live in the “wrong” zip code and not only will your child’s ability to learn be affected, but her odds of thriving in the future will also be impacted, explains Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, which produced “Without a Net.

“There isn’t a single industry that hasn’t been touched by the innovation of technology,” Kirk points out. “How can we not give kids the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults?”

The argument, “Well, I didn’t have technology when I went to school,” isn’t valid, she says.

“When people ask, ‘Is it really necessary?’ my answer is yes,” says Kirk. “And then I ask them, ‘Who are you hiring today who can’t type on a computer?’”

UP TO SPEED: The Digital Divide in America

Through the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative, the company has committed $160 million in free technology devices, connectivity, teacher training and hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning for kids in need. So far, the program has helped 300,000 students in 1,900 schools and clubs. After measuring its impact, Kirk says, Verizon knew it was on to something big: 64 percent of kids who participated were more eager to go to college. And 53 percent decided to pursue STEM careers.

Still, “the answer to the digital divide isn’t as simple as ‘let’s give away technology to everyone,’” Kirk notes.

That’s where “Without a Net” comes in.

“We wanted to tell a story,” Kirk says. “Not about Verizon, but about the bigger issue. We wanted to take a closer look at the ecosystem [of the digital divide] — the students, parents, teachers, schools, government, curriculum, zip codes — and shine a light on what our opportunities could be.”

Kennedy was the perfect filmmaker to take on that challenge. “Giving back is in Rory’s DNA,” says Kirk, a NationSwell Council member. “She has incredible compassion for the underserved.”

The film’s narrative, and Kennedy’s focus, remains firmly on those teetering closest to the digital divide. A sixth grader in New York shows how she types out school assignments on her mom’s phone. (“A 10-minute assignment can take her an hour,” her teacher worries.) A frustrated principal in rural Pennsylvania shows off a storage room filled with brand new Chromebooks — which can’t be used since his school can’t afford Wi-Fi.

In Coachella, Calif., one of the poorest school districts in the state, teenagers spend their weekends sitting inside parked school buses outfitted with Wi-Fi routers. Since their families can’t afford Internet access at home, these buses are their only chance to go online and finish homework.

As president of the Verizon Foundation, Rose Stuckey Kirk believes that giving children access to technology puts them on a path to success, both in school and in life.Courtesy of Verizon Foundation

Kirk knows putting an end to tech inequality requires many factors, including reliable connectivity at schools and homes, mobile digital devices, immersive teacher training, tech-ed focused curriculum — and plenty of visionary leaders. (Those Coachella buses tricked out with Wi-Fi? They were the brainchild of a principal who saw his students struggling.)

That’s why Verizon is committed to continue handing out tablets, training teachers and offering free tech labs to kids who need them the most. And it’ll continue giving a voice to the issue with its campaign, #weneedmore.

When Kirk saw the final cut of “Without a Net,” “I cried,” she admits. The scene that touched a nerve: When Miller learns all those lunches she missed for the opportunity to use a computer were worth it — because she’s been accepted to college.

“Without a Net” recently premiered on National Geographic and is a selection at the New York Film Festival. Watch the film now at digitaldivide.com.

This post was paid for by Verizon.

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