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Anguish in the library for kids without computers

You must go to our education page and read its lead item---Annie Gowen's heartbreaking examination of impoverished students in wealthy Northern Virginia who can't afford their own computers and find school perilous as a result. You will find kids struggling with the limits of library computers. You will be angry to read of a 15-year-old who lost his eight-page paper on the Bill of Rights because his computer session timed-out before he had saved his work. I thought we had solved the digital divide back in the 1990s, when celebrities were popping up everywhere, wiring inner city schools for the Internet. I was wrong.

By Jay Mathews  | December 7, 2009; 1:12 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Annie Gowen, digital divide, library computers  
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The lack of 100% digital access at homes severly limits modern educational methods throughout the country. I'd like to assign homework using Wolfram|Alpha or HeyMath! or ..., but I can't out of fairness.

Rough Cut Fixes:

Since school networks aren't used after 5 PM or even 3 PM very much, after hours student usage of a school network should be close to free to a school district. A host that can only be signed into from let's say 5:15 PM through 2 AM M-F and open during weekends would suffice.

The problem is connecting to the network from home. Home computers are readily available through organized donations, they all surf fast enough. However, the real issues include 1) the monthly cost of private Internet access, 2) accessing the school host and 3) reliable, everywhere access to software. Installing an operating system such as (Ubuntu with easy Adobe Flash updating) and using Google Apps or Dropbox would work fairly easily on donated computers. This helps resolve the third issue.

The second issue can be resolved by realizing that a school/community network has many school sites spread throughout a district. As a result, a short-range wireless network could be reliably established, where each school would serve as a hub (so to speak). Certainly, one of the mesh networks could be used. Sadly, the most appropriate hardware would be from, if this company is still in business (I don't know).

Another alternative would be for each school site to start a fon ( network and encourage students to install this on their home networks (Great community service opportunity). With some hardware donations, students without Internet could piggyback on this without disclosing their wealth or lack thereof.

The first issue could be addressed, but not in our political climate. Quite frankly, like water and electricity, the web on a practical basis is a necessity, if only for education. An organization like a water or sanitary district could/should manage it.

All of the above may have been doable with stimulus funds also.

Posted by: OrangeMath | December 7, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but I can't feel that bad about this. These are immigrant families who came here in large part to take advantage of free public education. They can fork out the money for internet access. If nothing else, they can fork out money for a laptop and then pay for wireless access in public as needed. Not a perfect solution, but oh, well.

Low income kids from uneducated families have much bigger problems than internet access, so that's a different issue altogether.

But heartbreaking? Not so much. Think she had such a great deal back in Lithuania?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 8, 2009 12:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm confused about why the school library might be insufficient. When I was in school, not everybody had home computers, but hand-written papers were never accepted. Are you going to try to convince me that the less fortunate were using typewriters?

Between school library time, public library time, and free dialup internet services (yes, in 2009 NetZero still offers free dialup internet service), kids ought to be able to quit whining and complete their school projects.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 8, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Reading the comments above it is obvious that they are totally missing the point. They must not use computers where they work. I know where I work if the network is down, most of us are down. Computers are getting that important as part of education, especially in the upper grades. If you want to remain indifferent to the achievment gap, ignore this problem, but I need these kids to be high quality workers to help pay for the communities they live in, I would perfer they had the education and skills rather than continue to struggle in minimum wage or unemployment.

What this article raised for me was how important intergrating services between libraries and schools is becomming and both are recieving pretty serious cuts.

Posted by: Brooklander | December 9, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Brooklander. Additionally, many systems are requiring the use of online databases for research and the State of Maryland would like to move toward phasing out hardcovers in favor of electronic textbooks.

School libraries have access opportunities, but are not open indefinitely (a situation which will worsen with the budget crisis) and public libraries have limits to the time you can use them and often long waits to get on.

Let's take this discussion out of the immigration debate. These are poor kids no matter where they come from. If we want them to grow up to be middle class adults, we need to educate them.

Sure, back in the day, we hand typed our papers and there wasn't even white out. Well, those days are over.

Kids without internet access are at a huge disadvantage and we need to find a way to level the playing field.

Posted by: amanda2315 | December 9, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

"They must not use computers where they work. "

I fear that this unfounded assumption reveals very clearly who's missing the point.

"Let's take this discussion out of the immigration debate. "

Let's not. They had enough money to come over here and get set up. They have enough money for a computer. The parents just don't consider a computer and broadband important enough to come out of their discretionary income. That's their choice. But it's not a reason for spending public monies to bail their kids out.

"If we want them to grow up to be middle class adults, we need to educate them"

Immigrant kids with educated parents will grow up to be middle class or higher adults, whether we fork out money for their computers or not. And low income kids (immigrant or no) whose parents are uneducated and are starting with a profound deficit are not going to be helped by computers. We've been trying to crack that nut for years, as you may know. Forking out funds for a computer won't be the magic bullet.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 9, 2009 11:50 PM | Report abuse

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