The computer lab at Silverthorne Elementary is filled with the sound of mice. Computer mice, that is, as a group of first-graders click away. Their screens show snapshots of math problems or puzzles. Some of them are reading books, following along by sight and sound with the highlighted text, large padded headphones engulfing their petite heads.
As technology, particularly computers and the Internet, become more pervasive in the everyday world, the importance of teaching digital skills in the classroom increases. The problem is that technology isn't necessarily cheap. Some families can easily afford computers and Internet access while others cannot. Not having constant access to technology can put children at a disadvantage, one which schools across the nation have been struggling to mitigate.
Schools aren't the only ones working to solve the problem, however. In 2011, Internet provider Comcast created a program called Internet Essentials, which provides broadband service at a low monthly rate, computers for $150 or less and access to free digital literacy training. Those eligible for the Internet Essentials program are families with at least one child who participates in the National School Lunch Program and therefore qualifies for free and reduced lunch.
"Unfortunately, about 30 percent of Americans, many of whom are living below the poverty line, are living on the wrong side of the digital divide," said Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen. "Those families face profound disadvantages."
Cohen said that the purpose behind the Internet Essentials program was to attempt to lessen the gap between students that have computers and Internet access and those that don't.
Since the program's inception, more than 150,000 families nationwide have signed up for the low-cost access. Denver is No. 6 six on Comcast's top 10 list of metropolitan areas signing up for Internet Essentials (6,100 families) and has the highest penetration rate of customers signed up for the eligible population.
"We couldn't be prouder with what we have accomplished, but we are not resting on our laurels," Cohen said.
Comcast is now expanding eligibility of its program to include parochial, private and homeschool students.
More than 1,000 students in Summit County qualify for free and reduced lunch and therefore the low-cost Internet Essentials program. While all school district classrooms provide access to technology, there's not much they can do for students who don't have computers or Internet connectivity at home.
"The digital divide is definitely alive and well in Summit County," said Dianna Hulbert, principal at Silverthorne Elementary. "Because kids, they might have Wiis and Nintendos and things like that, but they don't have the actual computer that's useful for research and word processing and all those kinds of things."
Silverthorne Elementary offers the chance for students to rent out laptops, for up to the entire school year, so long as Internet access can be provided at home. That's when programs like Comcast's Internet Essentials come in handy, Hulbert said. The school doesn't require parents to sign up for Comcast specifically, but lets them know that it's an option.
"Learning doesn't stop when the bell rings," she said. "A lot of times they'll be interested in a subject and we want them to be able to continue to pursue their interest and have those resources at home. We definitely want them to be inquirers and curious, and if they're really excited about it, we want them to be able to (learn more)."
Teaching students digital literacy is a priority and one that will embue them with skills useful later in life, says Bethany Massey, director of instructional technology at Summit School District.
"I always use the analogy of comparing it to reading literacy," she said. "If you're illiterate, it really impedes what you can do and how effective you can be at certain things, and I believe the same is true with technology."
This year, each school within the district developed its own technology team. The teams are working on refining a plan to improve technology learning and access in the classroom.
"The focus is student preparation for technology readiness for the future," Massey said. "Student achievement is the main goal. It's not technology for technology's sake - it's for student learning."
Back in the lab with the Silverthorne first-graders, tech support and substitute Tyler Bunnelle walks from monitor to monitor, assisting students with opening programs and navigating the screen.
Bunnelle said that though some of the children seem hesitant and unsure with computers at first, they quickly improve as time goes on. He also said the students seem to enjoy reading and math problems more on the computer than with an actual book or blackboard.
"It's a little more interactive and the immersion factor is going on," he said. "It just brings that fun element to learning."
First-grader Jazmine Lopez is eager to talk about what she does on the computer, both at school and at home.
"I have a computer, but my mom and dad work on it a lot," she said. "Sometimes I play on it. I play games."
Her classmate, Ava Miller, says that she also plays games on the computer. "I play fun and learning games," she said, claiming the math games to be her favorite. Typing was hard at first, but she says now she's good at it because she practices a lot.
"You can tell right away when you're in a class which kids have the technology at home and which don't," Hulbert said. "Initially, at the beginning of the year, kids that don't have that technology, we have to teach them, OK, here's how we get on the Internet."
Though the learning process doesn't necessarily take long, Hulbert says that not having continual access does slow the students' ability to understand and efficiently use the technology. Massey agrees that home access is important.
"That's always a benefit," she said. "Anything that we can do to support students getting access and extended hours is going to benefit them. Just like reading, the more access they have to books outside of the school day, the more it's going to benefit them."
The key to solving the problem, Massey said, is to keep access to technology as open as possible.
"We are getting technology into the hands of kids. It's one of those things, is there ever going to be a spot (where we say) 'ok we're finished?' No. Technology is constantly changing, it's changing over night, it's a moving target, and we're making sure we stay on top of that."