Digital Divide Forces Students to Flock to McDonalds for Free WiFi

ARE YOU LOVIN' IT? First McDonalds replaced Happy Meal toys with books in the UK. Here in the States, it's a de facto library once the public one closes. As the Wall Street Journal reports, fast Internet connections have become a pre-requisite for using online programs in and out of schools. Yet it remains inaccessible for many in rural parts of the country, leaving students to flock to the nearest Mickey D's or Starbucks, sipping on sodas and coffee while taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. (The businesses are certainly lovin' it: "It's hard to sit there and watch people eat McDonald's french fries and not go buy your own," says one franchisee.)

This unfortunate--and unhealthy--scenario was on the government's mind two decades ago. But, as the article points out, legislation like E-rate and attempts to enforce rules on telecom companies to provide affordable service have so far been less than fruitful.

Clearer skies may be ahead. The non-profit, EducationSuperHighway, is neck deep in its ongoing project to measure schools' bandwidth speeds around the country. (You can read more about project here.) CEO Evan Marwell shared that, with the cooperation of state education officials in Wisconsin, they've done over 70,000 test runs in the course of six weeks. It's valuable data that will help him, along with officials and policymakers, better visualize the scope of the problem and inform them on their next courses of action--which Marwell hopes include major changes to the E-rate program. One interesting finding: "the biggest problems tend to be in middle-size districts (1,000-5,000 students) that are not big enough to have the dedicated expertise to manage networks, but big enough that there's enough complexity and stress in the system."

Not many edtech bloggers addressed the digital divide in their yearly prognostications. Perhaps the findings from Marwell and the EducationSuperhighway will jolt this fundamental issue back to the forefront of discussions on tech adoption and implementation.

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