April 29, 2020— Members of the Federal Communication Commission’s working group on digital empowerment and inclusion highlighted the role that libraries can play in closing the so-called “homework gap” on a webinar hosted by the agency on Tuesday.
The homework gap, a term often used by fiery FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, describes the unequal access to the internet between rural and urban children. Since 7 out of 10 teachers now assign homework that requires internet access, the need for universal connectivity has never been greater.
The working group sees libraries as being key in addressing the gap because they are often technologically well-stocked and have fast broadband speeds. Rudy Brioché, the chair of the group, noted how when discussing the matter with industry experts, “libraries were mentioned every single time.”
However, some participants did not fully agree.
“The very benefit of libraries are worth noting,” said Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution, but focusing on them as a solution can lead to tunnel vision. “The group has to be somewhat cautious” about harboring a fixed library-solution mindset.
Turner Lee argued that libraries should just be one tool in a toolbox. She recounted from her visits of rural towns in Arizona and Alabama how some libraries are located as many as five miles away from schools that most desperately need broadband.
Turner suggested that the working group look more closely at outfitting other potentially more adjacent community institutions such as churches.
While the working group mainly discussed the role of libraries, it also did emphasize to need to partner with diverse institutions to best achieve its goals.
In addition to proposing a partnership with the American Library Association, the group also aims to make forays with the FCC Office of Native Affairs and Policy and the Minority Broadband Initiative to gather best practices.
As FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in his opening remarks for the working group meeting, amidst the pressures of the pandemic, the “closing of the digital divide becomes crucial.”
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