The digital divide separates the haves and the have-nots when it comes to computer and internet access. As the internet becomes more ubiquitous in education, business, and daily life, the ability to access the internet becomes ever more important.
Dr. Edward Lee Vargas spent six years as the superintendent for the Kent School District, the fourth largest and one of the most diverse districts in the state. Vargas saw firsthand the effect of the digital divide on student learning. For his leadership, Vargas was named the 2014 State Superintendent of the Year. Vargas is now an executive vice President at education nonprofit AVID. The International Examiner caught up with Vargas to learn more of the effect of the digital divide on students.
International Examiner: What’s at stake in terms of addressing the digital divide, and who exactly is being left behind as a result?
Edward Lee Vargas: What’s at stake is the American democracy. And, I say that because, if we can’t educate all of our kids, to compete in a hyper-connected global economy, our ability to sustain a democracy is severely at risk. Let me explain why. Public schools were created with two core purposes in mind.
If you look at our founding fathers and mothers, the common school movement, they wanted to build public schools accessible to all to, one, educate a nation of immigrants to become literate, civic-minded citizens that could participate in this experiment, that we were calling at the time, democracy. They had to have a literate society.
And, two, in order to acquire a quality of life unlike anywhere else in the world, which is what people were looking for was an improved quality of life, you had to be able to compete economically. And, of course, in an agrarian culture that was very different. In an industrialized economy, obviously there’s a different set of skills. And, that’s really how the public schools really flourished during the industrial economy. …
But I say that because today that purpose of public education continues to hold true and continues to play a profound and significant role in America’s ability to compete and sustain a democracy. Because, while the industrial economy is disappearing before our eyes, a new knowledge and global economy is emerging at a hyper speed.
So if we can educate all of our kids, and I underscore all because there are only about 313 million people in the U.S. There are 7.2 billion on the planet. And, if you dig down, 80 percent of them speak languages other than English. So in a hyper-connected world, you have 2 billion people already connected to the internet.
And they project in the next five years, some folks from Google were sharing with me, there will be 4 to 5 billion people connected. So when you think about the exchange of goods and the economic transformation that is occurring, our kids need to be able to compete with those 7.2 billion people that are out there. Who’s being left behind? Certainly the American public, and the American Dream, if you’re not educated, and all of our citizens, and our democracy and our quality of life.
It’s more than just a moral issue, and it is a moral issue, because in America all kids should be provided with an equal education, and an equitable one, because equal doesn’t always mean the same. And, so there’s a moral issue there, but there’s also an economic imperative and a democratic imperative, that lets public schools fulfill their mission so … our children, your children, your grandchildren, can continue to have a quality of life unlike anywhere else in the world. …
Our nation’s being left behind in the global economy and our young people and their children and grandchildren are going to be left behind if we can’t equip them with the basic necessities of public education.
And I underscore the basic necessity. It used to be that public schools used to be the depository and distributors of knowledge. You had to go to this place, you had a book, a pencil, a piece of paper. And, that’s how you learned. Now you can access information and knowledge 24/7 anywhere you have internet connection, but it’s no longer a school day that limits your learning, it’s unlimited, in terms of access to information and knowledge, and also the availability to it.
It’s a basic necessity because when you look at public schools of today and you look at STEM, science, technology, engineering, math, even art, everything you look at is linked to our ability to access and utilize our technology. So thinking about the equity issues, too … horizontal equity means the equal treatment of equals, everybody gets the same [treatment].
Vertical equity is what we’re talking about, [which] is the unequal treatment of unequals. So if you have young people, because of their life position or their economic situation, that don’t have that equal access to technology and internet connection, then that becomes an inequity, because they all don’t get the same.
The basic requirements now, it’s kinda like a three-legged stool, for anybody who sits to benefit from public education, they need three things. First you need the content, the lessons, all of the materials, that are now digital. Two, you need a device, an Apple iPod, an iPad, or a smart surface or a laptop, or whatever, you need a device.
But the stool would totally collapse if you don’t have the third, which is the connection. You have to have a transport. The connection [is what] will transport that content, those lessons, that learning, those tutoring, those units, the homework. … So when you leave out the connection the three legged stool will collapse.
When I mention that digital learning and technology are a fundamental part of education today it holds true more than ever and it’s accelerating at light speed.
So our kids are being left behind, our nation is being left behind, our economy is being left behind, and the future of our country in a global knowledge economy. We represent 5% of our planet’s population.
I take this stuff dead seriously because my kids and now my grandkids, their future is severely at risk if we can’t compete globally and maintain our place in the global world. Public education has been the backbone of our democracy and the backbone of our economy. Doesn’t matter that we’re 5% of the population when you think about the creativity and the economic positions we hold in the world, it’s because as we’ve been creating a society of individuals and groups that can create and can compete in this economy today.
IE: There are many in the community who aren’t necessarily aware of the impact of the digital divide, what’s at stake, or even what digital equity is. How do you go about communicating about this to people?
Vargas: Public education is a public good and so is technology and connectivity. I use the analogy of electricity, it’s as basic to education right now as electricity is to our homes. Keep in mind there was a point in time where it was a dream that every home in America would be connected to electricity, especially in the rural parts of the country. … Some people thought it was impossible.
So if you think about the fundamental need of public good—public goods are those things that benefit everybody—like police protection. What if we didn’t have police? Would our neighborhoods be safe? What if we didn’t have electricity? What if we didn’t have firefighters to put out those fires and save lives? Those are all public goods. Public education is a public good.
For those individuals who maybe don’t understand how critical this is, without internet and access to technology 24/7 it would be like limiting access to electricity in your home to just 180 days a year, 6 hours a day, because that’s how long kids have to go to school. They only have to go to school 180 days. They only have to be there about 5 hours a day. There are 365 days in a year and there’s 24 hours in a day. And, if you look at those numbers, our kids are only in school 20% of the time. 80% of the time they are not in school. They are in their communities, they are at home, they are in other environments. … So if we limit their learning by limiting their connectivity and their access to technology, that would be no different than me saying you can only have electricity 180 days out of the year. That’s how fundamental it is. … Learning is now 24/7 anywhere, anytime. That’s the reality of learning and education today.
IE: What have you observed during your time as the Kent superintendent, in such a diverse school district, that speaks to the need for bridging the digital divide?
Vargas: Well, I walk into a classroom in Kent, everyday the globe comes into the classroom. There are 138 languages in the Kent School District. And, I tell the students, “You are so lucky you are being educated in the Kent School District because you’re in classes and schools that represent the future workforce on the planet earth.” …
I observe people coming from Korea, Australia, from other parts of the world, come to Kent to ask the question: “How are you educating such a diverse population so effectively?” They have some of the highest graduation rates … “And, how did you manage to get so much technology into the teachers’ hands and the students’ hands and the community?”
What I observed is they had a school board and a community who recognized the need, well before I got there, who passed a tech levy back in the early 2000s, that put between 4 and 5 million dollars a year into only classrooms and for infrastructure. By the time I got to Kent in 2009, we already had the backbone of connectivity. …
So I observed a community that understood the value of education. A board that had the vision and the leadership to put the community and kids first and not the adults and the politics. And, I also observed a tremendous synergy with teachers and principals to make this work everyday in the classroom.
IE: The Asian Pacific Islander community in Washington state is so diverse. What’s it going to take for these communities to overcome barriers and to have digital equity?
Vargas: Every ethnic group we are talking about came from another ethnic group. We are a blended society. … We have more in common than we can imagine and unless we come together and put our children who need to live together, and for this society and democracy to work and function, they all need to come together and understand it’s about the whole, not the individual. Unless they do that, their children won’t have the opportunity they want them to have.