By Frank Blair, Director of Technology & Operations, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.
Blair co-wrote “Give all kids a chance to be curious,” which appeared in The Charlotte Observer on Oct. 22, 2015, and highlights the importance of digital inclusion. The co-author of the piece was Valerie Truesdale, who serves as Chief Technology, Personalization and Engagement Officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
As Valerie and I wrote in our Charlotte Observer article, we celebrate the fact that all CMS students are now able to access the Library’s digital resources on-line just by using their student account number. About 300 new students each day are taking advantage of the wealth of opportunity provided by the Library like free, on-line tutoring from tutor.com. Speaking from personal experience, if you’ve got a middle-schooler who is running into trouble with Algebra I, this is the ‘must-use’ resource for homework help!
As we researched the article, thanks to the resources on digitalcharlotte.org, we learned that about 19% of households in our community have NO access to crucial on-line educational, economic mobility and workforce development resources at home. Students in households without on-line access are, increasingly, locked out of learning once school lets out. Adults in household without on-line access do not have the same opportunities to innovate or start new businesses. Wage-earners do not have the same opportunity to develop their workforce skills using free Library access to Lynda.com. Older adults do not have the same opportunities to connect with loved ones living far away. Some households without on-line access will use expensive services like payday lenders because they do not have same-day access to funds through on-line banking. Other will pay more to call on expensive landlines because they do not have Skype or Facetime.
Why? Because 19% of households in our community have no Internet connection at home.
Unlike their peers, students in these households cannot access tutor.com from the Library’s digital platform, which provides, at no charge, an on-line tutor who will help them through a difficult math problem or grammar exercise. These students cannot check out a college placement exam prep e-book from home on a Sunday evening that will provide the extra practice time needed to get that critical SAT score for college admissions. After school is out, these students cannot use CMS’s phenomenal Atomic Learning resources. Students with no access from home cannot continue to develop the research skills that allow them to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources of information in the Internet. All because they have no Internet connection at home.
Some may say, “Let them go to the Library, there’s free WiFi there.” True, and if you have visited any of our twenty Library locations after school lets out, then you will know there’s not a seat left in the house. The Library exists, in part, to support the educational needs of our community, but we have neither the bandwidth, nor the physical seats, to host every student who does not have a connection at home.
Others may say “Let them go to McDonald’s, or Starbucks.” Aside from the contradictions involved in educating our kids to be part of Fast Food Nation, can you imagine your favorite coffee shop filled with hundreds of middle-school students? Thought not. It is not sufficient. It is not enough. As a community, as a city, we are not doing enough. We are transitioning from an era when bandwidth is expensive, slow, and limited to a future when it is cheap, fast, and everywhere. Whether we do so in a way that ensures no-one is left behind is up to us.
Cities in some parts of the world are already feeling the benefits of high-speed Internet in a highly-connected landscape. While some parts of our community already have high adoption rates, we are not leading the way, we are lagging both globally, and nationally. If we want to remain economically competitive, ensure economic mobility, and continue to attract talent to our city, we cannot afford for anyone to be left behind. There are parts of our city where as many as 40% of our households are not connected.
William Gibson said it well: The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. We hope you will join us as we advocate and work together to co-create the digital inclusion solutions that will work everyone in our community. Attend your neighborhood association meeting and ask how you can help ensure everyone in your neighborhood is connected. Talk to your faith community about how you can help each other out. Ask your elected officials how they are supporting digital inclusion efforts in your community.
Check out the resources on digitalcharlotte.org. Log-in and join the conversation.