The Urgency of Closing America’s Technology Gap
Twenty-five years after coining the term “digital divide,” Larry Irving says the country needs imagination and big ideas to finally get every student and family connected
Larry Irving is an internet hall-of-famer, the man who popularized the term “digital divide” in the first-ever study proving that access to the internet is a modern civil rights issue. Serving under President Bill Clinton as assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, Irving documented the “have nots” of the digital age in a series of reports, Falling Through the Net.
More than two decades later there’s a new generation of digital “have nots,” students and families with no reliable access to the internet and the educational tools it brings. As school districts across the country plan for another semester of online learning in response to covid-19 concerns, Irving is demanding urgent action from policymakers. “For 25 years, I’ve been trying to push this rock up a hill,” he told me. “And it keeps rolling back down on me!”
I’ve known Irving for much of those 25 years. We first met during sessions for a Gates Foundation project to bring fast internet to public libraries, and Irving still speaks with the same rapid, New York-accented urgency he did back then.
We covered a lot of ground in our hour-long conversation, but there was a simple takeaway. “It’s insane that a country as rich as ours still has millions of families that aren’t connected, millions of kids going to school without the tools they need,” Irving said. “Let’s solve this.”
Larry Irving speaks during the TAG2018 conference.
This summer is the 25th anniversary of your groundbreaking report on the digital divide—and we still have millions of Americans without reliable internet access. How can we finally make this a real priority?
It’s about the kids. It’s always been about the kids. Imagine students in some of the toughest possible situations at home, and then deny them a year and a half of education. That’s what we’re going to do for millions of students over the next year if we don’t find a way to get them online.
You’re only a seven-year-old once; you’re only a seventh grader once. If you don’t get the education you need this year, right now, you can’t make up for it at 18. It’s like compound interest; people don’t seem to understand that. Either we find a way to make education possible for students this year, even with schools partially closed down, or we’re causing damage that will last a lifetime.
We’ve already had at least a few months of disrupted school in most places, with very little sense of how that affected students.
I think those effects are already severe. I was a pretty smart kid, but I remember every September I had to get back up to speed. For the kids who are already struggling in May or June, it’s got to be even harder. In those three months away, there’s a loss.
Now, with no summer schools or camps, we have kids who effectively lost six months. Whatever they knew before, they’ve retained much less of it now. Now we’ve got to get them back to where they were and begin to rebuild. Do we need a different style of teaching to help those kids who couldn’t get online? Do we need different content? Do we even know where they’re starting from?
taff members at Woodlin Elementary School distribute computers to parents of Montgomery County students who do not have them on March 26, 2020, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
How would you start to answer those questions?
I think we look to some of the places that are ahead of us in dealing with the pandemic. Germany is open, Denmark is open, New Zealand is open. What are they learning? What are they finding about the effects of shutting down schools and trying to open up again? I’m a data nut, but I’m also a big lessons-learned believer. What are those countries learning about special needs communities; about low-income or immigrant students? Are particular populations of students struggling more than others? Can we take what they’re learning and help our teachers understand the new way they’re going to have to educate kids this year?
We also need to convene the smartest people in this country to figure out how we can teach differently in this year of disruption. We have more teachers than any country in the history of the world, and we need to benefit from their creativity, their thoughtful analysis about what needs to happen right now. Get the smartest people in the world—start with Mr. Sal Khan of Khan Academy®—and figure out what works. Set up a meeting with every minister of education in every country that’s open, and say “What are the four or five things you’ve learned in the last few months?” Let’s bring that wisdom to the millions of kids right here in America.
Parents of students in the Plainview - Old Bethpage school district pick up Chromebooks at the district administrative office to allow students to continue their studies at home on March 16, 2020.
We need more information about learning loss and more ideas on how to teach differently for the year ahead. But we still have the basic problem of internet access. A report by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group estimates there are 15 to 16 million students without access to the internet or the devices they need to complete online schoolwork. That’s about 30% of students nationwide. What can we do about that right now?
Completely solving that by mid-August is impossible—you’re not going to connect the 5 million or so families who are truly disconnected, in areas that just aren’t served by broadband. You can fill some of those gaps with satellite, but that’s largely a long-term infrastructure problem.
For everyone else—those who don’t have devices, those who can’t afford to access broadband where they live—there’s a lot we can do right now. In the next round of federal stimulus, give a $50- or $60-a-month subsidy to any family that meets a host of different means-tested cutoffs: SNAP, unemployment, whatever. If you’re already eligible for any other form of assistance, you get a $50 check to get broadband in your home. And we need to be thinking about real broadband. Slower-speed access is a joke when you’re talking about two or three kids in an apartment trying to listen to video classes and use online learning platforms.
One way to get a lot of students connected quickly is to put an antenna on top of every public building in America that has gigabit internet access. Every library, every housing project, every community college, every fire station, every tribal office. Anywhere you’ve got a gigabit connection, put a stick up there and broadcast that connection to everyone within a couple miles.
Where I grew up in Queens, right here in New York, is a gig desert. Right there near the airport, in these low-income communities, there are no gig networks. You could solve that tomorrow by turning public buildings into Wi-Fi broadcast towers.
Larry Irving on the cover of the April 1998 issue of Civic.com, the "magazine for IT professioonals in state and local government"
And what about devices? How do you make sure kids aren’t trying to write essays or attend Zoom class on their cellphones?
We can find a way to give a $200 device to every kid who doesn’t have one. Back when we made the transition to digital television, we gave everybody a voucher so they could walk into a store and get a new conversion box for their television. We could do that for digital devices and broadband. You attest you don’t have a laptop for your kid, we give you a voucher to go get one. This is not a hard thing to do. We’re not talking trillions of dollars.
You seem more optimistic about tackling all of these challenges than many of the people I’ve talked to lately.
I think we’ve got a lot of very smart people very focused on this right now. The longer I’ve worked in technology, the more I’ve realized that imagination matters. It really does matter. You need people with big ideas that no one else is thinking. And now’s the time for those people to step up. It’s insane that a country as rich as ours still has millions of families that aren’t connected, millions of kids going to school without the tools they need. Let’s solve this.