More than a million classrooms in the United States do not have access to Wi-Fi. That statistic from the nonprofit Education Superhighway is quoted in a new documentary that details the digital divide in American classrooms.
90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider spoke to the film’s director Rory Kennedy.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
SARAH SCHNEIDER: In producing this film and being in classrooms, how would you say this disparity in the access to technology in schools fits into the more historical context of inequity in education?
RORY KENNEDY: I mean I think it falls pretty consistently along class lines in the same way that our education system--the public education system--even in this country really is much more beneficial towards wealthier students and populations than it is to poor groups of people. In that sense it's sort of common sense because if you're at a school where you don't have the resources necessarily even to put a fan up when it's a hundred degrees outside, or the kids don't have enough erasers or even smart boards, that they're not going to have the resources to invest in computers and getting wired and training teachers.
SCHNEIDER: And in the film you lay out that part of the problem is getting the equipment, but it's also then connecting to the internet, and you actually illustrate that with the Sto-Rox School District, which is just north of Pittsburgh. The district's superintendent Frank Dalmas walks you into a room full of laptops that were grant-funded, but aren't being used by students in the schools:
It makes me kind of sad every time I walk into this room. I try to avoid it sometimes of even coming in here. We have a room here with boxes after boxes of Chrome books. We can’t use them. We can’t use them because we don’t have wifi.
KENNEDY: He goes on to talk about how it would cost $25,000 for them to invest in wireless and Wi-Fi internet infrastructure in the school. And they simply don't have the resources. It shows that you can't just dump a bunch of computers in the school and expect them to be computer-savvy. I think it also helps demonstrate how limited resources are on a federal level (because) $25,000 to a school like that could make all the difference in the world. Yet, we decide not to do that. We decide not to make that investment. I think it sends a message to these kids, "we don't care about you." Then on the other side, there are four million jobs in this country right now, STEM jobs, that we're not filling because we haven't educated our population on how to do STEM. There's a pretty simple equation here to fix this problem. We know how to do it. We know what needs to be done. It's just getting the political will and focus to actually invest in the solutions.
SCHNEIDER: What do you want people to take away from this film?
KENNEDY: When I talked over the course of the last year in making that film, I would say I'm making a documentary about the digital divide, about kids who don't have access to computers and the internet. And they would say, "oh are you filming in Africa or in South America?" I would say, "no I'm filming in New York City and Georgia and California where this is a problem in this country right now." I think helping people understand that it's a problem is a big hope of the film. And what about the people here in this country who are being left behind? Should we not be investing in them?