School Internet in a Time of Pandemic

My sister teaches third grade in Los Angeles. Her classes have now moved completely online. She is at a private school, and students have access to computers and bandwidth at home.

That is often not true. School districts across the US are scrambling to make sure students have devices and internet access. Some districts, including Philadelphia, are not moving classes online due to equity issues.

But what about the millions of schools across the planet that have yet to receive bandwidth? For them, moving online is not an option. Already weak instruction will now be completely suspended as countries impose lockdowns. Students without internet access will now fall further behind.

This likely will not be true in coming years. As broadband expands globally, particularly through LEO satellites, companies and governments will have the option to provide free or subsidized connectivity during crises (as is happening with telecoms in the US during Covid-19). Today the digital divide grows during a Pandemic. In the next few years that may not be necessary.

Prioritizing Schools

Over three billion people currently have no access to the internet — but soon will. In my 2019 book, The Great Connecting, I explore the profound opportunities and the daunting challenges that the rapid extension of the internet will introduce.

So how as a society do we best enhance the opportunities and mitigate the challenges? In the book I outline a long list of policy recommendations that governments, companies, non-profits and individuals can take. The more I was asked about this, however, on the book tour and in interviews, the more I decided there is one step that should take precedence:

Prioritize schools.

If an early adopter in a community is a school, that is a great way to introduce the power and promise (and peril) of the internet.

  • Schools can immediately benefit from curricular materials for teachers, and learning materials for students
  • Schools can train students (and the community) to effectively use online tools
  • Schools can teach the challenges of the internet
  • Schools can often provide devices (phones or tablets) for loan
  • Kids learn technology skills quickly
  • Schools tend to not be politically sensitive
  • Schools are respected institutions in the community

If the internet, as it arrives to a community, is perceived as helping students, that is useful. In contrast, if it is perceived as only bringing, say, gambling and pornography, that is a problem.

The extension of the internet to the half the world’s population currently offline is a world-changing event. And it will be much more effective if we intelligently and aggressively target schools.

Future Posts

This blog has been developed in conjunction with the publication of The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband, and How That Changes Everything. Now that the book has been released, this blog will pivot a bit.

As I’ve traveled the US on a book tour, I’m frequently asked what we should prioritize in The Great Connecting. There are many reasonable answers, but my answer is this:

Schools.

If schools are first adopters, that is good. Schools can make immediate use of curricular materials. Schools can teach students (and the community) the promise and peril of the internet. Schools are respected institutions, and generally not political.

Or put another way, if the first usage of the internet in a community is for gambling and porn, that’s bad. If the first use is for assisting teachers and students, that’s good.

There are many initiatives underway that will facilitate broadband expansion across schools in developing countries. My efforts at this point will include assisting these efforts. I anticipate that I will focus on schools and broadband until Starlink is reaching developing countries — which should be in 2021. At that point there will be a lot to discuss!