I spoke with one of Atlanta’s former mayors last week about the new advocacy organization she had just joined. Shirley Franklin, the first black woman to run the city, seems to be enjoying life after City Hall as a professor at Spelman College. Though she is selective about the causes she works for these days, she has recently joined the Alliance for Digital Equality (ADE) as a senior advisor. The most impressive thing about the interview was when she told me about Learning Without Walls, a pilot program the ADE administers in three cities. In fact, the library based broadband project sounded so good that after the interview, I decided to do a little digging.

I often joke with a buddy of mine that I would have never gotten any sleep as a child if the internet had been around. Just the thought of all that information out on the world wide web would have driven me crazy. It seems the creators of the Learning Without Walls (Learning WOW) program figured that kids today would feel the same way. But they went further than simply handing kids laptops with internet access -- they designed a program that takes into account many of the other variables likely to influence how well a student incorporates broadband usage into the educational process.     

Under Learning WOW operational procedures, students post assignments, communicate with other students, teachers and create blogs.  This is all done within a safe environment via a school defined community.  In the classroom, student computers can be monitored from the teacher’s computer to ensure each student is keeping up with the assigned lesson plan. 

Alliance for Digital Equality program description

This may not sound like a big deal in some areas of the country, where new schools are digital ready, almost everyone seems to have a laptop, local coffee shops and restaurants offer free broadband access, and the community has its own network of wi-fi hotspots, but places like these are not the norm. According to the Pew Internet Project survey, home broadband penetration remained in a narrow range between 54% and 57% in 2009. In disadvantaged areas like the ones the learning WOW pilot programs serve, the broadband penetration percentage is 40% or less.

The pilot program that ADE administers in Georgia is in one of metro Atlanta’s least prosperous counties. Where I am really impressed with this initiative is in the attention paid to the time a student spends away from the classroom.

Learning WOW tutorial provides homework assistance in the areas of math, science, social studies, and English. This innovative tutorial is offered to English and Spanish speaking students and utilizes broadband technology to research reference materials and receive online homework assistance from live tutors who are available for live chat tutorial services 7 days a week.

Alliance for Digital Equality program description

The program attempts to tackle head-on one of the biggest obstacles these kinds of efforts often face -- parental inertia -- in a way that seems to be less intrusive into family life than many of the traditional enrichment programs. And the students seem to feel good about the experimental approach.

Seventh-grader, Nwamaka Nnadi, 12, a student in North Clayton's all-female academy, said she and her fellow students use the computers during the school day to write essays; participate in online science projects; practice math problems, and read books online.

"I think it's great that we were chosen for this ... We are going to be able to have another tool at our disposal to help us in our learning."

Clayton News Daily

The future is always closer than we think. The cost of implementing and maintaining a system as comprehensive as Learning WOW nationwide may seem to be prohibitive, but in a nation whose manufacturing base is quickly shrinking, we may have no other viable alternatives if we intend to continue to develop a competitive workforce.