Beginning in the earliest colonial times, U.S. children have been required to attend school. That means for nearly 400 years, education in the US has been a social good. Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have shut their classrooms and moved teaching online. Until we have effective testing, treatments, and vaccines, it’s likely to stay this way. If kids are required to attend school, and school is now online, then kids are required to be online. Does that make universal online access a social good?
Compulsory Education + Online Access
General education in the U.S. is public and compulsory. Kids are required to complete some sort of regulatory-compliant education: public schools, charter schools, private schools, home schooling. Community tax dollars pay for much of education.
Education might be compulsory and publicly funded, but online access is unequal. The Pew Center has documented several types of digital divides: rural vs urban and suburban, poor vs rich, old vs young, people of color vs white.
We can’t punish kids who don’t have online access. Heck, just lacking access is punishment enough these days. And we can’t expect kids to do all their lessons on a smart phone, if that’s their only online access. You try writing a term paper on your iPhone. We can’t have a two-tiered system, either. That’s still not fair to all kids in all schools.
Delivering Universal Online Access
- Online access through public school districts. Districts can be the distribution hub and the payment vehicle for online access. This is already happening. The website Insider reports that districts in multiple states are equipping school buses with Wi-fi and deploying them in neighborhoods that lack access. (This isn’t a new idea, either. The Hechinger Report covered this topic in 2014.)
- Online access through public libraries. Our public libraries could serve as the distribution and payment organization for online access. Many already offer computer labs and online access in their branches. This would be a big expansion of the role of libraries. It would also take universal online access beyond compulsory education.
- Online access through local utility services. Utilities already run sophisticated digital networks for operating their equipment and gathering data. Online access could be another network that they operate. Today, multiple cooperative utilities are offering online access as part of their services.
- Online access through public-private partnership. Universal access is an issue of scale and not all communities or public institutions can handle that scale. One option is existing private vendors offering universal service with funding help from tax revenues or ad revenue. One possible example is the NYC Link kiosks located throughout New York City.
I’ve previously written about public digital infrastructure as a social good. Having robust online infrastructure provides benefits beyond education. During the pandemic, we’ve seen big increases in teleworking, tele-medicine, and other online services. Universal access would help multiple sectors of society thrive during, and after, the pandemic.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)