Thank you very much for hav­ing me. What I want to talk about in my brief time today is to start with some­thing that is no secret to any­one in this room, which is that access to the Internet is increas­ing­ly being rec­og­nized as a neces­si­ty rather than as a lux­u­ry. And as more oppor­tu­ni­ties move online, not just for kids but also for adults, it should be rec­og­nized as one of the things that gives peo­ple access to the world.

Part of the rea­son we’re con­cerned about this is because there’s also grow­ing recog­ni­tion that social inequal­i­ty and dig­i­tal inequal­i­ty are linked. The peo­ple who expe­ri­ence broad­er and more per­va­sive forms of social inequal­i­ty relat­ed to hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, lan­guage pro­fi­cien­cy, occu­pa­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty and so forth, are also the ones who are most like­ly to be under-connected to the Internet. That cre­ates fears that dig­i­tal inequal­i­ty might exac­er­bate these broad­er forms of social inequal­i­ty, but also pro­vides hope and pos­si­ble oppor­tu­ni­ties for mit­i­gat­ing these broad­er social inequal­i­ties with mean­ing­ful access to technology.

In the edu­ca­tion sphere par­tic­u­lar­ly, the time to act is now. A new era began in September of 2014. Kids of col­or became the major­i­ty in American K–12 schools. And approx­i­mate­ly 60% of those kids are grow­ing up in low-income fam­i­lies. So there’s a few aspects of the chal­lenges to dig­i­tal equi­ty that I want to high­light today as we’re think­ing about the next social con­tract for US edu­ca­tion. And they all have to do with what com­mit­ments we’re will­ing to make about expand­ing what it means to have access.

The first thing, and it comes out of our study so clear­ly, is that think­ing about access as hav­ing the Internet or hav­ing its advice is sim­ply not enough. It’s about the qual­i­ty of your con­nec­tion. It’s about how con­sis­tent it is. It’s about what you can do with it. So it’s not just about hard­ware. It’s not just about the Internet. It’s about whether you can pay for it. It’s about whether you have the sup­port local­ly in your com­mu­ni­ty to help you devel­op the skills so that you can mean­ing­ful­ly access the things you want to do in your day. And those things mat­ter tremendously.

One thing I want to raise for our con­ver­sa­tion is that there’s a dif­fer­ence between mobile-only access and access on a lap­top or desk­top. I’d like every­body in this room to con­sid­er the fol­low­ing, which is some­thing that came out of our inter­views over and over again. Imagine being in sev­enth grade and hav­ing to do research for a school project on the Hippocratic Oath, on a smart­phone. You do all your research on mom’s phone. Now you have to type it up on the smart­phone, and sub­mit it. That is not equi­table access, com­pared with some­body who has access on a desk­top or lap­top. So, for our lower-income fam­i­lies, for fam­i­lies of col­or who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly con­nect­ed through mobile devices, that is not mis­sion accom­plished. That’s just a first step, and we need to be clear about that.

The sec­ond thing that I want to add just very very quick­ly is to think about fil­ter­ing of con­tent. There was a recent arti­cle in the Atlantic that high­light­ed how Internet fil­ter­ing is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ing our lowest-income stu­dents. Because if you only access the Internet at school or through school-provided devices, you’re sub­ject to the fil­ters that are con­sis­tent on school-related tech­nol­o­gy, and the same is true of libraries.

Why is fil­ter­ing a big deal for the next social con­tract for US edu­ca­tion? Because frankly, unless we com­mit to mak­ing the whole Internet avail­able to every­one, our efforts towards dig­i­tal equi­ty are fruit­less. We either make the Internet as broad­ly acces­si­ble to all learn­ers as pos­si­ble, or we will inevitably cre­ate a two-tiered sys­tem where the poor get a nar­row­er set of resources and oppor­tu­ni­ties than the wealthy. No mat­ter how good the inten­tions, a more lim­it­ed Internet is less Internet, and that includes efforts like Internet​.org.

We can look to the EU for guid­ance on this. Researchers there have focused on chil­dren and media, and helped to shape a pol­i­cy agen­da for pro­tect­ing chil­dren from harm, which is what fil­ters are intend­ed to do. But harm is a nar­row­er con­cep­tion of online threat than risk. Risk and oppor­tu­ni­ty are paired, and you can think of that every time you pro­vide your email address to get dis­counts at a favorite store. You’re sac­ri­fic­ing a lit­tle bit of pri­va­cy for an oppor­tu­ni­ty. You’re man­ag­ing risk and oppor­tu­ni­ty. We should be teach­ing all children—rich and poor—how to man­age risk, not using fil­ter­ing and oth­er heavy-handed means to obvi­ate all risk. Because doing that also restricts the many oppor­tu­ni­ties for the kids and par­ents who are affect­ed by it. Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Vikki Katz' home page and faculty profile at Rutgers.

The Next Social Contract event home page.


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