Human technology

How a Utah school district is taking action to address the digital divide

The digital divide is a human rights issue regarding people’s access to technology and broadband. Here’s how a Utah school district is taking action to address it locally. (Zern Liew, Shutterstock)

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SALT LAKE CITY – Technology plays a major role in our lives, which is more evident than ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, not everyone can rely on or even have access to technology.

Lack of access to high-speed or broadband internet is a human rights and social justice issue that disproportionately affects low-income groups, people of color, the elderly, rural residents and tribal communities. , according to Cynthia Sanders, associate professor and online program director. at the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and lead author of an article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work.

Although the problem is urgent, there are examples in Utah of how it can be addressed. One example is in the Murray City School District.

“The digital divide is asset and technology is not, especially we often talk about broadband access or high speed internet,” Sanders said. “People who fall into the digital divide generally do not have access to broadband or may not be able to afford it.”

Among the community and local initiatives that can serve as great role models is how the Murray City School District has taken steps to bridge the digital divide. In addition to providing all of its students with laptops, the district used federal funds to create its own Long Term Evolution Network (LTE), providing students in the district with a fast and reliable high-speed internet connection.

“Our intention in creating this was to address the equity issues of students being able to access the Internet while doing their homework at home,” said Doug Perry, district public information officer. “We thought this was a good initiative that would help bridge the gap for these households, especially those who have had connectivity issues either because they cannot afford a good connection or because they have multiple people in the household using the connections and having to compete for space for those (connections). “

The district began experimenting with LTE after becoming one of the first districts to provide laptops for every student – something Perry said put them in place to handle the gradual closure of schools last year due to the pandemic.

“We hadn’t planned it, but since we were sort of ahead of the game, we were able to start quickly. The day after the shutdown we were able to get all of our students home with their laptops and home with an Internet connection, ”said Perry.

“This is a change in education not just for our district, but across the state and certainly across the country.”

Perry said the district has received great feedback from parents expressing how much LTE means to them. A relative told her that before the LTE network, she had to monitor the bandwidth she had for her cell phone, which turned out to be the internet source for the whole household.

“She had a limited plan and limited funds to be able to pay for this each month and had to figure out what the bandwidth allowance was each day as they had to pay for this service,” Perry said. “For us, it’s gratifying to hear stories like this, that a parent like this no longer has to rely on their own cell phone plan to provide internet to their students.”

Sanders said the digital divide can be looked at from three dimensions: access, affordability and the ability of people to use technology and the internet effectively and securely. At least 20 million Americans don’t have broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission, an estimate that Sanders says is fairly conservative.

“The way they measure it is by census tract, basically they count people as having access or able to get broadband if even a person in a census tract is able to get it. Some estimates are also high. that 162 million people falling into the digital divide, ”she said.

“It not only becomes a problem of infrastructure and policy aimed at bridging the digital divide, but it also becomes a problem of social justice and human rights for these already marginalized groups.”

The negative impacts associated with the collapse of the digital divide are vast and powerful. It can affect access to health care or medical records, staying in touch with family and friends, and restricting access to education along with a myriad of other issues, Sanders said.

“The digital divide certainly represents a lack of social inclusion as there is so much associated with access to broadband in terms of how we think about our daily lives and our opportunities, particularly highlighted by the pandemic. creates a situation of clear social exclusion. “

Sanders added: “For those of us who have easy access to broadband every day, you take this for granted only in terms of the day to day tasks of our lives like banking, job applications and all of these kinds of things that others really could struggle with, it puts them at a disadvantage in terms of the opportunity structures. “

Sanders said it’s important to think strategically when it comes to dealing with this problem on a larger scale.

“Thinking about partnerships and making sure there is some intention to fund these particularly disadvantaged communities in terms of pulling them out of the digital divide (is important),” she said.

Perry and Sanders both expressed hope that the Murray District LTE implementation could serve as a model to create connectivity for those falling into the digital divide.

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