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Improving Digital Equity: The civil rights priority libraries and school technology leaders share

This blog post, written by Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) CEO Keith Krueger, is first in a series of occasional posts contributed by leaders from coalition partners and other public interest groups that ALA’s Washington Office works closely with. Whatever the policy – copyright, education, technology, to name just a few – we depend on relationships with other organizations to influence legislation, policy and regulatory issues of importance to the library field and the public.

Learning has gone digital. Students access information, complete their homework, take online courses and communicate with technology and the internet.

The Consortium for School Networking is a longtime ally of the American Library Association on issues related to education and telecommunications, especially in advocating for a robust federal E-rate program.

Digital equity is one of today’s most pressing civil rights issues. Robust broadband and Wi-Fi, both at school and at home, are essential learning tools. Addressing digital equity – sometimes called the “homework gap” – is core to CoSN’s vision, and a shared value with our colleagues at ALA.

That is why the E-rate program has been so important for the past 20 years, connecting classrooms and libraries to the internet. Two years ago the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) modernized E-rate by increasing funding by 60 percent and focused on broadband and Wi-Fi. This action made a difference. CoSN’s 2017 Infrastructure Survey found that the majority of U.S. school districts (85 percent) are fully meeting the FCC’s short-term goal for broadband connectivity of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students.

While this is tremendous progress, we have not completed the job. Recurring costs remain the most significant barrier for schools in their efforts to increase connectivity. More than half of school districts reported that none of their schools met the FCC’s long-term broadband connectivity goal of 1 Gbps per 1,000 students. The situation is more critical in rural areas where nearly 60 percent of all districts receive one or no bids for broadband services. This lack of competition remains a significant burden for rural schools.

And learning doesn’t stop at the school door. CoSN has demonstrated how school systems can work with mayors, libraries, the business community and other local partners to address digital equity. In CoSN’s Digital Equity Action Toolkit, we show how communities are putting Wi-Fi on school buses, mapping out free Wi-Fi homework access from area businesses, loaning Wi-Fi hotspots to low-income families and working to ensure that broadband offerings are not redlining low-income neighborhoods. A great example is the innovative partnership that Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has established with the Mecklenburg Library System in North Carolina. CoSN also partners with ALA to fight the FCC’s misguided plans to roll back the Lifeline broadband offerings.

Of course, the most serious digital gap is ensuring that all students, regardless of their family or zip code, have the skills to use these new tools effectively. We know that digital literacy and citizenship are essential skills for a civil society and safer world. Librarians have always been on the vanguard of that work, and our education technology leaders are their natural allies. Learn about these efforts and what more we can do by attending CoSN/UNESCO’s Global Symposium on Educating for Digital Citizenship in Washington, DC on March 12, 2018.

As we start 2018, I am often asked to predict the future. What technologies or trends are most important in schools? CoSN annually co-produces the Horizon K-12 report, and I strongly encourage you to read the 2017 Horizon K-12 Report to see how emerging technologies are impacting learning in the near horizons.

However, my top recommendation is that education and library leaders focus on “inventing” the future. Working together, let’s focus on enabling learning where each student can personalize their education – and where digital technologies close gaps rather than make them larger.

Keith R. Krueger, CAE, has been CEO of the Consortium for School Networking for the past twenty-three years. He has had a strong background in working with libraries, including being the first Executive Director the Friends of the National Library of Medicine at NIH.

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Shawnda Hines

Shawnda Hines is an assistant director of Communications at ALA's Washington Office. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Evangel University in Missouri. Before joining the ALA in 2016, Shawnda worked as press secretary and local media organizer for the national advocacy group Bread for the World.

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