Do students need access to technology to succeed?

iPhone 5s with MacBook ProDuring beta 2 of The Ghosts of Reseda High, I will post spoiler-free commentary about issues and themes I cover in the book. This is the second of the series. The survey is now closed, but you can still download the beta. Use the form on the download page to send any feedback you have.

We had a catastrophe at our house: Our Internet access went down. It took a few days for a technician to come out to fix it. In the meantime, we reacted as if the plumbing failed. No Netflix! No YouTube! We had to resort to using our smartphones to check Facebook. The horror!

Yes, this is a first-world problem, but a lack of technology does affect students who can’t afford it.

In my children’s first-world high school, students are dependent on technology. Our school district has a website where students and parents can track grades and missing assignments. Each teacher has a website where classroom assignments and supplemental materials are posted. Teachers may communicate to teachers and students by e-mail. Students have to research on Google and Wikipedia. Students are expected to write their essays and papers on a word processor and often must submit them through a special Web portal that includes plagiarism checkers.

It is assumed that every student has a computer or tablet with Internet access. But what if a student can’t afford it? The least expensive laptops still cost USD 250, but a family on the financial edge will find it more than they can afford. Students could use computers in a public library if one is available, but people are typically limited to a hour of Internet access per day.

To address the technology gap, the Los Angeles Unified School District came up with a plan to supply every student in the district with an iPad. Not only would this give every student an Internet-capable device that could be used for writing and research, the district could also use it in place of printed textbooks. This has not worked out well. First, there was the problem with the devices being hacked. Then, there were issues getting the curriculum materials on the devices. Now, the district has come up with a plan where high schools can pick which laptops to give out to students.

However, the biggest issue is how the school district could justify spending USD 1 billion for technology when schools are in dire need of repair. With district budgets squeezed, schools closed, and teachers getting laid off or forced to take furlough days, supplying students with technology seems low on most districts’ priorities.

Yet, children who do not have access to technology are at a disadvantage compared to students who don’t. If schools make access to email and websites a requirement for classes, students who don’t have that access won’t be able to complete their classwork. As one of my characters said, “Would I wind up flipping burgers and mopping floors — not because I wasn’t smart or couldn’t do the work, but because I couldn’t afford the technology?”

Some would shake their heads and say, “Too bad. If parents were committed to their children’s education, they would make the investments so their children could succeed, including technology.” That’s easy to say when you make more than minimum wage and don’t have to choose between buying groceries and paying the gas bill. Also consider that we may be denying ourselves the next Steve Jobs or Oprah Winfrey because we don’t give talented and motivated students the tools to succeed.

Students need access to technology to succeed. To provide that access and make sure that our campuses are safe and well maintained, we have to provide public education adequate funding. We must remember that public education is a worthwhile investment that will ensure our future security and prosperity. We need to provide students with the tools they need, including access to technology.