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Now Is the Time to Invest in Broadband and Close the Digital Divide

COVID-19 has impacted nearly every country around the world, and no one knows for sure how long this pandemic will last. However, it has shone a spotlight on distance learning, broadband access, and under-connected lower-income communities.

Most of those who are new to distance learning probably think the term refers only to video conferencing or some other specific type of technology. In fact, the term distance learning encompasses the full array of current and emerging technologies that organizations are using to deliver educational experiences and products.

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According to Holden, Westfall and Gamor (2010), “Distance learning includes e-learning, texting, social networking, virtual worlds, game-based learning, webinars, and a lot more. It’s the Internet. It’s Google. It’s broadband and satellite and cable and wireless. It includes corporate universities; virtual universities; blended learning; mobile learning. It’s using our phones and computers and whatever technology comes next, all in new and different ways not yet realized. Distance learning brings education and training to where students or trainees are, connecting their world to worldwide learning communities.”

We live in a globally connected world that can provide unprecedented opportunities for one to take advantage of now. Yes, distance learning has existed in the United States for more than 120 years. However, one of the biggest and most common misconceptions prior to the pandemic was that the term “distance learning” applied only to K-12 learners, and only to K-12 learners in rural areas specifically. In reality, distance learning today is not just for kids.

Access for all

Distance learning is about using available technologies and technology infrastructures to make more effective learning opportunities accessible to all learners — whatever their age, location, or reason for learning — from anywhere, at any time, and at any pace, in accordance with the individual needs of each student. It most closely resembles the manner in which work will occur and economies will expand in this century, remotely and in collaboration with multiple and diverse stakeholders.

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It is critical to America’s competitiveness in today’s fast-paced global economic environment, which requires constant innovation, upskilling, and reskilling for lifelong learning. Distance learning is the only efficient, scalable, and sustainable way to build and protect the value of our current and future workforce.

Recently, the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) joined more than 40 leading civil rights organizations, consumer groups, and private sector leaders to form a coalition to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live or how much money they make, can connect to high-speed internet. The coalition, Broadband Equity for All, aims to work collaboratively with policymakers to ensure everyone is able to enjoy the opportunities that come with internet connectivity.

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Getting connected

This coalition is advocating for Congress to comprehensively address the affordability challenge facing low-income communities with a sustainable long-term direct-to-consumer broadband benefit. This benefit will help people get connected to high-speed internet and achieve the educational and economic prosperity that comes with the ability to get online. To make sure this benefit works and has staying power, Congress needs to ensure the benefit has consistent and sufficient funding.    

Paired with this effort, there has been a groundswell of research done to highlight the lack of broadband and learning opportunities. One example is a recently released report written by Vikki Katz and Victoria Rideout via New Americaentitled “Learning at Home While Under-Connected: Lower-Income Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” According to Katz and Rideout, the report raises three calls to action for policymakers, educators, and educational media producers:

  1. The “under-connected” represent millions of families. Policymakers should make them a priority.
  2. Educators and parents partnered to keep children learning during the pandemic. Those gains should not be squandered in the “return to normal.”
  3. The pandemic year blended formal and informal learning in new ways. Further innovation can enhance families’ learning landscapes in the years ahead.

USDLA believes that the time is now to address the connectivity gaps highlighted during this global pandemic. We must ensure under-connected lower-income communities have sustainable and affordable broadband access to interconnect and harvest not only the knowledge of the United States, but the entire world for the betterment of mankind.

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