Future Tense

What Net Neutrality Means for Digital Inequality and Schools

Digital inequality is about more than equipment.

Photo by Tom Wang/Shutterstock

In announcing the recent ruling on net neutrality, Federal Commications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler contended that the policy enshrines the idea “that no one—whether government or corporate—should control free open access to the Internet.” The new regulation settles—at least for the moment—a critical question about how the Internet works, by requiring service providers to be a neutral gateway rather than handling different types of Internet traffic in different ways—and at different costs. The two Republican commissioners who cast the dissenting votes said that the FCC was inappropriately interfering in commerce to solve a problem that doesn’t exist—a charge that Republican legislators have vowed to carry forward by trying to roll back the FCC’s ruling.

As researchers studying the impact of digital media on children’s learning and development, we welcome the FCC’s action—and not just because it protects fair access to the world’s information. Those protections lay the groundwork for the success of efforts aimed at resolving inequalities that low-income U.S. families face when it comes to access to, and meaningful engagement with, broadband and digital technologies. Our research indicates that digital inequality remains a critical issue for low-income families with school-age children—and that resolving it has potential to solve real problems that do exist. However, policymakers and education reformers still have limited understandings of why and how technology investments can be a game changer for underserved students.

We recently completed a study focused on Latino families in three states, in an effort to understand how digital equity policies play out on the ground. We interviewed more than 300 parents and their school-age children who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch and therefore for reduced-cost broadband access through a national digital-equity program. Our findings should help policymakers retool initiatives designed to address gaps in access to the Internet and Web-enabled technologies.

While digital equity initiatives often presume that low-income families lack access to the Internet, we found the reality is much more complicated. One-third of families in our Colorado study did not have Internet access at home, revealing that providing them affordable opportunities to get online remains an urgent issue. But we also interviewed many families who had made considerable sacrifices—including delaying needed home or car repairs, or forgoing Christmas presents—to afford broadband or to save enough money to purchase iPads, laptops, and smartphones. Parents were motivated by their perceptions that tech skills are critical for their children’s academic, and later professional, success. We need to recalibrate digital equity programs that begin from the premise that poor parents either cannot provide their children access to tech, or are not interested in doing so. Our research documents parents’ considerable will and ingenuity to connect their children to a digital world.

But ingenuity isn’t going to be enough to close educational opportunity gaps. One solution: Integrate a digital-equity emphasis into the upcoming reauthorization of the nation’s largest federal education program, the Elementary and Secondary Act. One priority would be to fund high-poverty schools and districts to create spaces in every community where children can gain technology skills. Innovative models from informal education leaders like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers should have gold-standard access to broadband, new devices, and adults who can guide children’s skill development.

Opponents of net neutrality charge that the FCC is attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist—and in the process, is creating a problem by stifling innovation and competition. However, providing low-income families with affordable Internet access promises to increase innovation, not decrease it. Prior research shows that children have a tremendous capacity for innovation when they have access to quality technology programs and adult support. Such opportunities have often been reserved for more privileged children, partly because school-provided technologies usually restrict what students can use those technologies to do. This needn’t be so. Highly successful school networks, like High Tech High in San Diego and Rocketship Education in the Bay Area, demonstrate the power of disrupting the typical academic fare that low-income youth receive in the “dropout factories” that are all too common, particularly in urban centers across the country. These innovative schools rely on technology-enabled, project-based learning or a flipped classroom, in which kids prepare at home with instructional content online. That sort of education helps youth gain the types of job skills needed to compete and cooperate in a digital age. State and national policies should be scaling up these learning models in low-income communities.

Finally—and perhaps, most importantly—net neutrality has the potential to strengthen family learning and communication. While most digital-equity programs focus on students and schools—for example, the Obama administration’s ConnectEd program—we need to remember that children’s first teachers are their families. Internet access at home serves children by extending their learning well beyond the classroom by supporting activities they do on their own, with siblings, and with parents.

Opportunities for family learning online do not only benefit children. The FCC’s ruling can help support pathways to social inclusion by safeguarding families’ access to the kinds of niche Web content that throttling would have likely slowed, including the Spanish-language websites that the families we interviewed valued highly as resources for local and national news. We also found that children often engage online content with their parents, helping to broker their families’ connections to resources that support their engagement with their adopted environments. The FCC has always been charged with ensuring that Americans have access to information they need to fully participate in civic life; net neutrality is an important part of keeping that promise.