In this Washington Post article, you can read about President Obama’s push to get broadband Internet access into low income houses. Some read this and wonder why. Out of all the needs of low-income families, why worry about Internet access?
Allow me to offer an example. Imagine that you are going to learning to play the piano, so you sign up for piano lessons. Once a week you go to the piano teacher for lessons, then you return home. You don’t have a piano, nor do your neighbors, so you don’t get much time to practice. There there is another person the same age who starts taking piano lessons. She goes to lessons once a week, then comes home and practices daily on the piano at her house. Regardless of the skill of each person’s piano teacher, the one with access to the piano at home is going to get better. Why? It is because access matters.
Now imagine a student at school learning about how to leverage the Internet to learn new things, build connections, join learning communities, conduct research, and do a hundred other things. The school this student attends words hard to teach these skills at school, but you only spend so much of your day at school. Some students live in homes with Internet access where they can geek out, mess around, and hang out in digital spaces. Yes, there is the risk of abuse of that access. Yet, this person has the chance to deepen his digital literacy and digital citizenship skills so much more than the classmate who only gets the lessons at school but doesn’t have time to practice, experiment, and explore with the tools at home. This is part of what some researchers talk about as the digital divide. Good schools, teachers and curricula are not enough to bridge the divide.
Having access doesn’t guarantee great results, but not having access does limit many opportunities. It isn’t just about school and learning. It is also about access to the global, national and local conversation. Without accessto the web, it is difficult to stay informed today. More information is online first, sometimes never or rarely making it to your home in a paper format or even via television or radio. We are a digital first culture, and having Internet access is way of staying and being connected. It impacts your ability to connect with experts, learn about job opportunities in a timely manner, stay up to speed on government and politics, do research related to a problem or issue in your life, and much more. It is also a place where you can create a digital presence that offers tons of opportunities for new connections that can have a huge and positive benefit to you. Austin Kleon’s proverbial truth in Show Your Work points to this fact. “If your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.” A person without such connections can be at a significant disadvantage in the workplace and as a consumer. As such, having Internet access in most communities in the United States is about bridging the digital divide and closing other gaps and even potential inequities.
Yes, there are plenty of exceptions. There are people who are thriving and perfectly happy disconnected from the Internet and much of the world. However, there are others who are not disconnected by choice, and that access could give them valuable opportunities, allowing them to be more connected as citizens, consumers, workers, and learners.
People can disagree with whether this should be a federal government initiative, but I find it more difficult to ignore the thinking behind President Obama and other’s interest in connecting low-income homes to the Internet. If you are disconnected (not by choice) in an increasingly connected world, that is a problem. Formal learning organizations and libraries can help, but they can’t bridge the gap. As I’ve written before, learning to be a self-directed learner is an important literacy of our connected age, and amplifying the capacity for self-direction by providing persistent Internet access further empowers people to overcome challenges, pursue new opportunities and reach their goals.