Chances are that you are reading this blog entry on a computer that uses a high speed “broadband” connection to the Internet. Broadband connections make it so easy for us to stay connected with friends and family, read the latest news, follow our favorite sports teams, track our finances, build our skills, take classes, organize communities, and do much of our work right here online that it is pretty easy to take it for granted. Many of us assume that most everyone in our country now has access to high speed Internet service the way that most of us have access to roads, water, and electricity.
Unfortunately, millions of Americans either have no broadband service where they live, or they cannot afford the access. As a result, they (and their children) are at grave risk at being left behind in an increasingly digital world. This problem is known as the digital divide.
What we collectively can and should do about the digital divide was the subject of an important event I attended this week, called the 2009 Minority Broadband Summit.
The best news about this event is that I was the least important person in the room. When I arrived for the opening breakfast I sat down next to a very nice woman. After a few minutes I realized that I was dining and chatting with the first female physician elected to the U.S. Congress – Assistant Majority Whip Donna Christensen. I quickly sat up straight and reached for the proper fork.
Also at my table were John Marks (the mayor of Nashville), Dr. Lee Brown (the first black mayor of Houston), and Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis. Other notable attendees included the Chairman of the Alliance for Digital Equality, Julius Hollis, Intel’s head of Public Strategic Initiatives, Rick Herrmann, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, Jim Shelton. There were many more luminaries and big brains that I don’t have space to list. (The full list is here for those who may be curious.) The event was moderated wonderfully by CNN Contributor Roland Martin, who clearly cares deeply about kids reaching their potential.
For the next four hours we collectively discussed what we can and should do about the digital divide. What should the government do to facilitate broadband connections for those who want them but can’t get them (due to lack of availability) or can’t afford them? What should schools and libraries do to help? How can private companies play a role? Should we focus on wiring up every home across the country or are broadband wireless services such as Wi-Max ready for prime time?
Another interesting question we explored was what to do about the segment of the population that barely knows what the Internet is and doesn’t realize how it can help them? Professor Soto from Northwestern University told a story about how she was talking with a taco vendor in Chicago about the Internet and the vendor said why should she bother with the Internet since it wasn’t needed to make tacos? How can we collectively demonstrate to her what the Internet can do for her and her family?
Rick Hermann from Intel asked us to imagine a world in which every kid has the ability to connect instantly to a math tutor for help with homework, through the Internet. Rick mentioned that Intel is doing this right now for its entire employee base – as a free employee benefit — and suggested that the federal government give all private companies a tax incentive to follow Intel’s lead. Similarly, Jim Shelton from the U.S. Department of Education talked about the power of using the Internet to connect students to experts around the country. Why should a student in rural Georgia be limited to the one physics teacher within 50 miles of her school when the Internet can allow her to connect to the very best and brightest physics teachers across the country?
We also heard from NPR analyst and former Baltimore Chief Technology Officer Mario Armstrong about how kids are using video games to learn science and math and how crucially important it is for our country’s future that we retake our previous lead in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) education. (You don’t want to know where the U.S. is currently ranked in the top twenty countries worldwide.)
All in all, it was an excellent event, and I am looking forward to working with several of the folks who attended. Tutor.com is already powering the wonderful Intel program and is excited to be working with the Alliance for Digital Equality to help the kids of Clayton County, Georgia.
Tutor.com, the world’s largest online tutoring and homework help service, works with numerous school districts and non-profit organizations to bring online homework help and tutoring to underserved communities across the country. For further information, feel free to contact Bart Epstein, Senior Vice President of Tutor.com, at firstname.lastname@example.org.