Reports earlier on in the week that government schools may soon be expected to pay for improved internet access might have come as a surprise. While we are regularly told of astonishing advances in digital education, the question of who pays for it all is rarely – if ever – mentioned.
Of course, there are clearly long-standing problems with school internet access. Most teachers or students are well aware of the variable quality of internet access in schools. Schools find that their internet bandwidth is so slow or unreliable that they are often unable to do many of the things that they would like online. Attempting to download an application or stream a video will often push a school's internet capacity to the limit.
So the key question now appears to be one of simple economics – who should be paying to bring our schools fully into the digital age?
As individuals we are used to having to fund our own internet access. From a market perspective, then, it seems to make sense that schools (or even parents) pay for the privilege of fast broadband access just like the rest of us.
But if we see schools as a public good, then this idea quickly makes less sense – particularly in terms of helping disadvantaged schools and students. History shows that the poorest schools are more likely to resort to cutting back on technology spending when budgets get tight. There is every likelihood that proposals to charge schools for improved internet access would hit those schools and those students who stand to benefit most from digital education.
A strong argument can therefore be made that in 2013, internet access is no longer a luxury. Instead it is a necessity for teaching and learning in the 21st century. As the US digital media commentator Danah Boyd argues, internet access should be seen as a basic utility – much like water or electricity.
This notion of the internet certainly rings true in education. Schools are now expected to use the internet for all aspects of education – from setting homework through to providing information to parents. With NAPLAN testing due to come online by 2016, many schools will feel that they have no choice but to spend what little money they have on internet access, and less on other areas. In these terms, we need to think of more innovative ways of funding educational internet use rather than hitting schools with ever-increasing bills or organising parent whip-arounds.
So what can be done? Clearly somebody has to pay for connecting educational institutions to the internet. One solution might be to look at those organisations that benefit most from the increased levels of internet use in schools. If state and federal governments are unable to do so, then why not the IT industry and the internet service providers who make so much money from private customers?
Providing free internet access to schools (and other public institutions for that matter) could be a required part of the 'corporate social responsibility' of any company wanting to operate in the lucrative Australia internet marketplace. Contributions could also be sought from other private sector organisations – especially those industry sectors that are continually calling for schools to produce students with good IT competencies and skills.
Whatever is decided, we need to acknowledge that properly funding schools' use of digital technology is in the interest of all areas of Australian society. After all, schools produce the digital citizens and digital workers of the future. Also, from a social justice perspective, schools are playing a key role in helping introduce into the digital age students without ready internet access at home.
As such, we need to develop fairer solutions to the problem of high-quality internet access. After all, head teachers already have enough to on their plates without having to worry about paying the broadband bill each month.
Neil Selwyn is a professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. His research and teaching focuses on the place of digital media in everyday life, and the sociology of technology (non)use in educational settings.