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Breaking Down The Digital Divide for Michigan’s Students

More than 360,000 homes in Michigan and 27% of K-12 students lack access to broadband internet in their homes. This digital inclusion discrepancy is posing a serious risk for Michigan students as the state ventures into the information economy.

On Thursday, May 30 at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference, panelist explored this issue and the action that needs to be taken to eliminate the infrastructure, affordability, and literacy barriers responsible for this gap. Michigan State University’s Johannes M. Bauer, Lt. Governor Gilchrist, and Rocket Fiber’s Marc Hudson, moderated by Merit Network’s Joe Sawasky, engaged in an impactful conversation on the digital divide plaguing Michigan students during the Digital Inclusion: #FixTheDamnInternet for Michigan Students session hosted by Merit Network.

The speakers reinforced the gravity of this issue and the risk it poses for a large—and important—population of Michiganders—children. Sawasky cited the digital inclusion issue, also known as the “homework gap,” as a crisis for the state.

In rural areas of Michigan, climate and distance remain primary barriers to internet access due to the difficulty and cost of installing the infrastructure residents need. Students are well aware of this issue and the negative effects it has on their ability to perform academically.

“We need to create the conditions for success no matter where you live in the state of Michigan,” Gilchrist said. “If Michigan’s children are better connected, our state will be better for it.”

Significant deficits in internet access are just as pervasive in urban areas as in rural communities. In urban areas however, the barriers are less related to access and more rooted in affordability and digital literacy. Based on a Rocket Fiber study, Hudson acknowledged the misconception that the digital inclusivity issues are purely access-based, as findings indicated that 40% of Detroit households don’t have a fixed broadband connection.

The necessity to close the prominent gap in internet connectivity has implications beyond underserved students’ immediate academic performance and into their career paths. Bauer describes the internet as a “general purpose technology,” access to which is necessary to support workforces in the information economy.

“For a long time it’s been underestimated how important the internet is to economic development,” Hudson said.

The speakers agreed that the path forward requires collaboration across internet providers, government leaders, and community groups to generate solutions for infrastructure, affordability, and literacy issues. Progress is being made in the research space, and Bauer mentioned a project underway to assess the impact of the homework gap in Michigan, with results to be released this summer.

“We need to think about community action to deal with community challenges,” Gilchrist said.