The $1.5 billion increase in E-rate funding in 2014 may be providing more schools with high-speed internet, but now districts must address a new side to the digital equity issue — the homework gap.
Millions of students (many of whom are economically disadvantaged or live in rural areas) don’t have reliable high-speed internet and technology access at home. This is a major issue if you consider that within the next three years at least 50 percent of learning resources and content will be digital, according to CoSN’s 2016 K–12 IT Leadership Survey.
Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, calls it “the civil rights issue of our time.”
“Imagine the disadvantage of a student who is applying for college and has to go to McDonald’s and fill out their college admission on their smartphone. Are they really having an equitable shot at that entry exam?” Krueger says.
But how can cash-strapped schools afford to provide students with internet access and technology at home, especially when some have just managed to bring high-speed internet to their classrooms?
Regardless of budget, the first place to start is gathering the right information from students.
When teachers complained that students in blended learning programs weren’t turning homework in on time because of problems with internet access at home, Cincinnati Public Schools surveyed students to determine the extent of the problem. Seventy percent of CPS students said they had internet access at home.
“But when we dig in and ask more detailed questions, only 52 percent of our students say they have regular, stable internet access that’s uninterrupted and they can use for homework if needed every night,” explains CIO Sarah Trimble-Oliver.
The district has since provided 1,000 blended learning students with hotspots and laptops.
Trimble-Oliver says, along with asking students if they have internet access at home, schools can dig deeper with questions like:
Whether it’s a library that loans out hotspots or a local church that acts as a safe Wi-Fi hotspot, schools are finding ways to partner with community organizations and businesses to offer affordable, or even free, reliable high-speed internet access to students after school.
Trimble-Oliver says her district is currently working with the local housing authority to determine if it’s more economical to build wireless networks in housing units where dozens of the district’s students reside, rather than provide each students with a hotspot.
After applying to the state to approve internet hotspots as a device the district can purchase with Title I funds, LCISD provided 200 high-school AP students with hotspots and laptops. Over the summer hotspots and laptops also help pre–K and kindergarten students prepare for the new school year.
Trimble-Oliver says that some funding programs also specifically target the digital divide, such as the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program directed by Digital Promise.
EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit organization, provides a tool to search for low-cost internet access and affordable computers. CoSN has also created a comprehensive Digital Equity Action Toolkit that includes sample surveys, examples of schools that have successfully tackled the homework gap, and ideas for funding.