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Bridging the digital divide: Problems with internet connectivity, technology acute in schools

Chris Bay, Rory Kennedy and Tom Kroenung joined host Don Marsh to talk about the digital divide.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Smartphones, tablet computers and other internet-oriented devices fill today’s digital age, and yet access to these common technologies is not universal.

A full quarter of Americans were still without broadband as of about a year ago, according to TIME, and many U.S. young people experience what has become known as the digital divide on a daily basis in their schools throughout the country.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh addressed the gap between those with ready access to the internet and related technologies and those who lack it, particularly in the St. Louis region.

Joining the discussion was documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, director of Without A Net: The Digital Divide In America, which screens at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the St. Louis Public Library. She is also the daughter of Robert Kennedy.

“[The documentary] is looking at people in this country who don’t have access to the internet or to technology. Our film focuses mostly on the public school systems,” Kennedy said. “In this country right now there are 4 million STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] jobs that are going unfilled.”

Internet connectivity problems are especially acute in rural and poor areas of the United States.

“We’re really not investing in it in a significant way,” Kennedy said, explaining that when she’d mention her documentary film project to others that they were often surprised to learn about the severity of the problem in the United States.

Also joining Kennedy on the program was Tom Kroenung, director of STEM Programs at the Greater St. Louis Area Council for Boy Scouts of America, and Chris Bay, vice president of education at LaunchCode.

LaunchCode is trying to fill a need for both individuals and employers,” Bay said. “A lot of individuals have been left behind.”

LaunchCode offers technology education programs to people interested in a career in any number of technology-related jobs. Training and paid apprenticeship job placements are also part of the program.

“Employers really need these jobs to grow their companies,” Bay said.

Also involved in encouraging young people to become interested in STEM fields are the Boy Scouts of America.

“For 108 years, we’ve always been in the education business in STEM,” Kroenung said, explaining how the merit badges scouts must attain have evolved as technology has evolved.

“We can be that emphasis there to plant those seeds early,” he said, including working with school systems.

Increasing access to the internet and to devices that connect to the internet are not easy tasks, though addressing the issues in schools could make a big difference.

“I do think that when you give the kids the technology in the classrooms, they become much more interested in learning and get more excited about various fields and want to pursue it,” Kennedy said. “It not only helps them prepare for the job market but it gets them more excited about learning.

“The reality is that if you look at the people who have access to it, it’s wealthier communities. If you look at the poorer communities, they don’t have access.”

A number of parties need to be involved in solving the so-called digital divide. Kennedy explained that the federal government needs to step up, just as it did when it provided subsidies to phone companies decades ago to develop the technology in rural areas.

Corporations, nonprofit organizations, school systems and local and state governments also have a role to play.

All three guests will be panelists at St. Louis Public Library’s film screening and discussion.

Related Event

What: Film screening and conversation about “Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America”
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Where: Central Library Auditorium (1301 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.