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Report Finds Some Visible Minorities Left Out of Internet Access At Public Libraries

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Photo of Jennifer McQuown from the American Library Association

March 9, 2021 – The Open Technology Institute and New America’s Education Policy program released a new report this month on visible minority experiences at public libraries and how those institutions are combatting the digital divide during the pandemic.

Over 2,600 people were surveyed on how they use public libraries. Though the report found increased usage of public libraries—specifically among white, older, and higher income respondents — it also highlighted the need for more inclusivity for Asian, Black, and Hispanic households.

In the report, “when asked about specific barriers, Asian respondents were more likely than other racial groups to say, ‘I feel like I don’t know where to begin,’” when accessing public library resources.

For Black, African American, and Hispanic respondents, they “were less likely to say, ‘I generally have no problem getting online resources’ from the public library,” the report said.

These challenges were not experienced as much by white respondents, who were “less likely than any other group to report needing help navigating the library website, struggling to find what they are looking for, and experiencing an inability to access the internet from home.”

The Mandel Public Library of West Palm Beach in Florida, the report said, applied for funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in late March 2020. West Palm Beach is a city with a poverty rate of 17.5 percent and has a median household income of just over $51,000 a year.

The Mandel Public Library was awarded a $99,447 grant, which it used to buy a hybrid minivan and attached a Wi-Fi emitter on it. The library also bought 12 Wi-Fi hotspot devices and 10 laptop computers to provide mobile library and internet services to its community. The van brings the equipment every day to serve different parts of the community. “It’s literally popping up library services with a tent and chairs, and, in addition, loaning the hotspots,” said Jennifer McQuown, Mandel Library’s youth services manager.

“The FCC should adopt proposals from organizations like OTI and the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition, as well as state education agencies, to expand E-Rate funding to support internet access by patrons and students ‘off campus’ to better serve the needs of educators and students,” the report said.

On March 6, the Senate passed the $1.9-trillion stimulus bill, which includes a $7.6-billion connectivity component that would extend the E-Rate subsidy for libraries and schools to households to close the so-called “homework gap.”

In a comment to Broadband Breakfast, policy program associate Claire Park from the OTI at New America said this project to survey “end-users of digital resources” with regard to public libraries “parallels a lot of our existing research and findings on disparities in broadband access.”

The report concludes with recommendations to invest in libraries and increase access to their resources, and to make permanent the new $50 per month discount towards broadband service for eligible households under the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

Born in China and adopted to American Fork, Utah, Reporter Derek Shumway graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in international strategy and diplomacy. At college, he started an LED lightbulb company. word

Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group the Self-Insurance Institute of America. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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Education

FTC Approves Policy Statement on Guiding Review of Children’s Online Protection

The policy statement provides the guiding principles for which the FTC will review the collection and use of children’s data online.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2022 – The Federal Trade Commission last week unanimously approved a policy statement guiding how it will enforce the collection and use of children’s online data gathered by education technology companies.

The policy statement outlines four provisions in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, including ones related to limiting the amount of data collected for children’s access to educational tools; restricting types of data collected and requiring reasons for why they are being collected; prohibiting ed tech companies from holding on to data for speculative purposes; and prohibiting the use of the data for targeted advertising purposes.

“Today’s statement underscores how the protections of the COPPA rule ensure children can do their schoolwork without having to surrender to commercial surveillance practices,” said FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan at an open meeting on Thursday.

Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter added Thursday that although COPPA provides the strongest data minimization rule in US law, it’s enforcement may not be as strong, saying that “this policy statement is timely and necessary.”

Slaughter, who was the acting FTC chairwoman before Khan was approved to lead the agency, said last year that the commission was taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling privacy and data collection practices of ed tech companies, which has seen a boom in interest since the start of the pandemic.

Thursday’s statement comes after lawmakers have clamored for big technology companies to do more to prevent the unnecessary collection of children’s data online. It also comes after President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address earlier this year that companies must be held accountable for the “national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

Lawmakers have already pushed legislation that would reform COPPA – originally published in 1998 to limit the amount of information that operators could collect from children without parental consent – to raise the age for online protections for children.

Thursday’s FTC statement also seeks to scrutinize unwarranted surveillance practices in education technology, such as geographic locating or data profiling. Khan added that though endless tracking and expansive use of data have become increasingly common practices, companies cannot extend these practices into schools.

Review is nothing new

“Today’s policy statement is nothing particularly new,” said Commissioner Noah Phillips, saying that the review started in July 2019.

Commissioner Christine Wilson, while supporting the statement, was also more withdrawn about its impact. “I am concerned that issuing policy statements gives the illusion of taking action, especially when these policy statements break no new ground.”

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