The digital divide is the difference in access to technology suffered by students from poor families and low income school districts compared to students from middle class and wealthy families from higher income school districts. In this article, we will explain how a new laptop called the Acer C910 can help close this digital divide – and what this technology revolution means for Learning Equity, Social Justice, Low Income Students and Cash Starved School Districts - by giving lower income students better access to state of the art computers!
Until recently, students and school districts had only two choices. They could purchase inexpensive Chromebooks such as the Acer C710 – or pay huge fees for fully functioning Windows or Apple laptops with MS Office. For cash strapped school districts, the choice was obvious. More than 500 school districts across the US bought more than 4 million Chromebooks in just the past 2 years. While costing only a couple hundred dollars per student, Chromebooks suffered from several problems. First, they only worked online - requiring every student to have a school assigned Google Drive account to store their school related projects. This raises important privacy concerns about Google and others data mining student documents.
A second problem is that many low income students do not have Internet access in their homes. Their parents simply cannot afford $50 to $100 per month for Internet access. These low income students therefore are at an extreme disadvantage to students who are able to access the Internet from home in terms of completing and turning in their homework assignments during evenings and weekends. For example, a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that out of America's 30 million families with school age children, nearly 20% or 5 million families lacked Internet access. This lack of Internet access was most pronounced among lower income families. Almost half of all low income homes with school aged children lacked Home Internet Access. Even one in four medium income families lacked Home Internet Access. But of those families making over $50,000 per year, over 90% had high speed Internet access in their homes. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/20/the-numbers-behind-the-broadband-homework-gap/
A similar study found that families with Home Internet access also had student access to a computer at home while low income families without Internet access also lacked student access to a computer at home. Half of all low income students lacked access to a computer at home while only 6% of middle to high income students lacked access to a computer at home.
“As part of an effort to bridge the so-called digital divide—the gap between rich and poor when it comes to access to technology—the Kent School District has for six years given every student a laptop, beginning in seventh grade. But some of these students don’t need to carry the bags home—because they can’t get online there. It’s a problem that districts are increasingly facing as they turn to technology to revolutionize their teaching. In Kent, about 9 percent of students, or roughly 2,500 kids, can’t access the Internet once they go home, district surveys show. Many of them are the poorest students, the very ones district officials believe would benefit from more exposure to technology to help them catch up to their more advantaged peers.”
“It becomes a civil rights issue. Low income students are being denied equal access to knowledge and information that is part of education in the 21st century.” Edward Vargas, Superintendent of the Kent School District
Another study found that lack of home Internet access not only prevented students from completing their homework assignments – but also reduced their ability to participate in class discussions the following day. Nearly all parents recognize the need for home Internet access. However many low income families simply cannot afford the monthly cost. Wealthier students not only had Internet access but their parents were able to buy them more expensive Windows or Apple computers that could work offline as well as online.
A third problem of the Acer C710 is a very small screen size. Although it is called an 11 inch laptop, the actual dimensions of the Acer C710 screen is only 10 inches by 6 inches for a screen area of 60 square inches.
By contrast, the Acer C910 is called a 15 ½ inch computer with a 14 inch by 8 inch screen – giving it a screen area of 112 square inches or nearly twice the screen area of an Acer C910. This is extremely important when having two document or browser windows open at the same time for side by side editing.
A fourth problem of the Acer C710 is a limited battery life of less than four hours. This means that students have to carry a battery pack to school with them to charge their computers and that schools need to have dozens of electrical extensions in classrooms to keep the computers charged. By contrast, the Acer C910 has a battery life of 9 hours meaning students can leave their chargers at home and charge them in the evening. Schools also can charge computers after school rather than during school hours.
The most important problem with Google Chromebooks is that there are only a limited number of programs available for Chromebooks. MS Office and many other programs simply will not work on a Google Chromebook. Chromebooks are therefore pretty limited in terms of what a student is able to do and learn. Again, students who have wealthier parents have access to a more complete line of software programs. Thankfully, the new Acer C910 is made in such a way that we can easily upgrade this laptop to the a fully functioning Linux Mint computer in less than one hour – for free. The result is a laptop that can run almost any programs – including MS Office - and comes with access to over 70,000 free open source programs.
Best of all, there is no longer the need for Internet access for students to get their work done and no need for storing documents on Google Drive as students can store their documents locally in the Linux Mint File Manager.
What about low cost Windows laptops?
In response to the rising popularity of Chromebooks in schools, Microsoft has come out with a series of inexpensive Windows laptops such as the HP stream which has an initial cost of only $200 and comes with one year of MS Office. I guess they figure that people cannot do math – because the five year cost for MS Office is still $500 in addition to the $200 for the laptop. But huge long term costs are just the beginning of the problems with cheap Windows computers. First, the Stream is only 10 inches wide so it has the same limited screen size as the Acer C710. Second, it has a low resolution screen making it harder to read text. It costs nearly $2,000 for a full functioning Windows laptop with the same screen size and resolution as the Acer C910 with Linux Mint. Third, the HP Stream has only 2 GB of RAM versus 4 GB of RAM for the Acer C910. This meaning that the HP Stream cannot run complex programs without the risk of constant freezing. Fourth, the HP Stream is extremely slow. For example, it takes 34 seconds to load versus a Chromebook with Linux Mint that takes under 8 seconds to load. This slow loading time is due mainly to the bloated Windows operating system which is five times larger than the Linux Mint operating system. The bloated Windows operating system also means that the HP Stream has a much lower battery life than the Acer C910. Finally, there is no real storage on the HP Stream as the Windows operating system takes up nearly the entire 32 GB on the hard drive. By comparison, the Acer C910 still has over 20 GB of storage space on the hard drive thanks to the much smaller file size of the Linux Mint operating system. All Microsoft is doing with their low cost laptops is selling people a crippled computer with a very high longterm cost.
The Acer C910 with Linux Mint is a true revolution in computer technology. It is better than any current $2,000 laptop from either Microsoft or Apple - at a price of less than $400 – the first fully functional laptop at a price that low income students and cash starved school districts can afford. To learn more about the Acer C910 and how to install Linux on it, visit the following page:
The One Percent Solution… A Plan to Provide Every Middle School and High School Student in Washington state with a Fully Functioning Laptop
There are one million students attending school in Washington state – with about 80,000 students in each grade. This makes 240,000 students attending Middle School grades 6 through 8 and 320,000 students attending High School grades 9 through 12. This is a total of 560,000 students. The Acer C910 can be bought for about $200 in large lots of one thousand or more. Thus, the total cost for purchasing every middle and high school student in Washington state this revolutionary laptop would only be about $100 million. This is only one percent of the $10 billion our state spends annually on public schools. The ongoing annual cost for each new class of 6th graders would only be 80,000 times $200 or $16 million – which is much less than we currently spend on worthless unfair, unreliable high stakes tests.
Students always respond better to rewards and incentives than to threats and punishment. To help low income students get their homework assignments done, we should allow every student to bring their laptop and charger home. As an incentive for students to stay in school and get their high school diploma, we should give each graduating senior their Chromebook as a gift from the state. This gift of a state of the art laptop would be something that could actually help our students become career and college ready.
Closing the International Internet Gap
Giving every student access to a high quality fully functioning state of the art laptop only solves half of the problem. As we have already noted, half of all students from low income families in Washington state - and the rest of the United States - also lack high speed Internet access. Billionaires constantly talk about the need to compete with other nations on International tests (despite the fact that these tests are unreliable). What the billionaires fail to point out is that the Internet system in the US is not only among the most expensive in the world, it is also among the slowest in the world. It is unfair to expect our kids to compete with kids from other nations, when kids in other nations have access to a much better Internet system at a much lower price. It is like handing our kids a bicycle and expecting them to win a "Race to the Top" against kids who have been handed a race car! Here is a chart showing the average download speed in various nations around the world. According to a study by the OECD, the average Internet speed in the US is about half the Internet speed in other developed nations.
Only it is even more unfair than this because students in the US have to pay much higher prices for Internet access than students in other nations. A 2014 study by a group called New America found that for 25 MBPS access, a modest high speed connection, the average price in the US was about $60 per month while in many nations the same service was less than $40 per month. (See below for link and next page for graph).
What is Causing the High Prices and Low Speeds of Internet Access in the US?
There are two factors driving high Internet access prices and low Internet speeds in the US. The first is that many Internet Service Providers are granted a monopoly over local markets by corrupt government officials. With a monopoly, a corporation has no incentive to improve service or lower prices. Second, nations with the highest speeds and lowest costs have had governments that invest in building the Internet structure in their country. This has resulted in some countries, especially Scandinavian countries, having both very high speed service and very low prices. These same countries offer students free access to high quality computers and the students in these same countries are among the highest performing students in the world on International tests. So if the billionaires really want to help our students compete on International tests, instead of attacking our schools, billionaires should offer to pay some taxes so that we can afford to build an Internet structure similar to that found in other nations.
Learning from History
We can take a lesson from the private electric monopolies that dominated the nation 100 years ago. They were nearly all corrupt and spent huge sums electing and bribing corrupt politicians. Then in 1932, the voters booted the corrupt corporate owned politicians out of office and elected a group of progressive "Roosevelt" Democrats. Over the course of the next 20 years, this group built Public Power systems all across the nation - resulting in the best electrical system and the lowest prices in the world. Franklin Roosevelt said that electrical power was too important to the nation's economic prosperity be left in the hands of greedy corporate bosses.
The Internet matters as much to our modern economic as electric power did 100 years ago. We should do like other nations and invest in a Public Internet system in order to offer all Americans better Internet access and lower Internet prices. We should think of the Internet as the modern version of the Public Library and invest in the Public Internet just as our parents and grandparents invested in public libraries, public schools, public roads and public power systems in the 1940s and 1950s. Other nations have understood the important of a public Internet system. It is time for the US to join in the knowledge revolution.
Now that we understand why the Acer C910 is a revolution in computer technology, in the next article we will explain how to modify the Acer C910 to make it even better.