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Free and Open eBooks Won’t Help Those on the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide

6319191649_3c063d4c72_bThe Washington Post reminded us on Friday that the recently announced federal Open eBooks program could fail to reach those who need it the most.

While this program enables educators and librarians to grant students in need access to a library of free ebooks, it does nothing to solve the problem of making sure those same students have the hardware to read the ebooks:

The White House recently announced the launch of Open eBooks, an app giving access to thousands of free e-books to any educator, student or administrator at one of the more than 66,000 Title I schools or any of the 194 Defense Department Education Activity schools in the United States. It’s an admirable endeavor and recognizes that we have a literacy problem. However, it brings to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line: “Water, water, every where/ Nor any drop to drink.”

On that list of Title I schools: Crewe Primary. The whole of Nottoway County, Va., is a high-poverty tract; there is no public transportation, no fiber-optic Internet available for the county’s 16,000 residents. In Southside Virginia, the commonwealth’s poorest region, most schools don’t have broadband; Crewe Primary School has DSL but little more than 40 usable iPads (not counting the old and obsolete ones) for its 318 students.

The Nottoway County Public Library is the only location in the 316-square-mile county with publicly funded Internet access. To use Open eBooks at home, primary school students would have to rely on their parents’ phones and tablets. Older students may have their own devices, but downloading the e-books would eat into very pricey and limited data plans.

The WaPo is making the point that this program was launched in a country where only 45% of adults own a tablet, and 68% own a smartphone. With past surveys having shown us that gadget ownership and reliable internet access is concentrated among the upper classes and the better educated, just how many of those students at Title I schools do you think will benefit?

Not enough, and in fact the situation is worse than the Post makes it sound. They went to the wilds of rural Virginia to find a Title I school to write about, but they could have found them in NYC or the District of Columbia.

I’m having trouble finding a national list, but I have found that even a wealthy school district like Fairfax County has 44 Title I elementary schools. This is the same county that tried to switch to digital textbooks a few years back, only to discover that most students didn’t have adequate internet access at home. (With 44 Title I schools, I’m surprised that they expected it would succeed.)

So yes, access to that wonderful free digital content is a problem, and that’s true even in the major metro areas. That’s why public libraries like the NYPL lend 4G hotspots, and why that municipality and others are setting up free Wifi hotspots.

Those free Wifi hotspots, and the federal ConnectEd program, are the modern day equivalent of the New Deal’s rural electrification program, and they show just how bad the state of internet access is in 2016. We don’t just need that program out in the boonies; we also need it in the major metropolitan areas.

So while Open eBooks is a laudable program with admirable ideals, it is still a case of putting the cart before the horse. Without parallel programs to address hardware and access issues faced by students at home, the Open eBooks program won’t achieve its goals.

image by nooccar


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fjtorres March 27, 2016 um 2:18 pm

It gave Obama a couple of photo ops and the BPHs a tax writeoff.
That’s a win-win in today’s Washington.

njk0i38u6jzgedui8ztngjr87ug4iujzh7hgnr8gepdgit9oi March 27, 2016 um 3:49 pm

Without having read the article, clearly, free non-physical goods are easier to copy and distribute than physical ones. We have already seen that with software. We’ll also get there with hardware (limited only by raw material). Alas, those already at a disadvantage will likely have to wait longer for it. So, just add "yet" to your headline.

Ellis March 27, 2016 um 9:19 pm

Could it be that Bezos is angling for a government mega-buy of Kindles to go along with this e-book program?

fjtorres March 27, 2016 um 11:19 pm

The deal was cooked up by the BPHs.
Amazon has never been mentioned as being involved and the "open ebooks" are apparently app-locked.

David North March 27, 2016 um 11:34 pm

This is the niche for basic, cheap, dedicated ebook readers. In public schools as part of school gear.

you dont have to have all the bells and whistles of a tablet or laptop and some company could get a contract to crank out educationsl readers if the gov simply decided to do it.

Peter March 28, 2016 um 3:31 am

They could all downloaded to one pic at school and students load to their devices with wifi , USB or network access no need for students to have dsl

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