Jun 19 2020

Expert Q&A: Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, on the Home Access Gap

Marwell’s nonprofit launched Digital Bridge K–12, a new initiative to help school districts navigating the new normal of remote learning.

The homework gap, characterized by the technological barriers and disparities students face when doing schoolwork at home, is a long-standing issue in education. It impacts millions of students nationwide, particularly black and Latino students and those who come from low-income families.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, those pre-existing inequities were magnified for the most vulnerable students. Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps are expected to widen because many of those students still lack essential access to devices and internet connections at home, preventing them from participating in remote learning activities largely delivered online.

School districts today continue to address that challenge as they prepare for the upcoming school year and the possibility of continuing remote or blended learning in the fall. Many have teamed up with service providers, technology companies and nonprofit organizations to find cost-effective solutions to deliver laptops, mobile devices and broadband internet to those who need them.

Yet school districts need long-term solutions rather than stop-gap measures. “With the pandemic, what we’ve seen is that the homework gap has now become an education gap,” says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit helping bring high-speed internet broadband to all U.S. schools. “If you haven’t had internet access at home, you really haven’t been able to participate in learning and in education.”

When EducationSuperHighway started in 2012, only 10 percent of U.S. classrooms had a decent internet connection for students and teachers to use technology in the classroom, Marwell says. In 2020, that number reached 99 percent, finally laying a stronger foundation for digital learning.

But when the coronavirus pushed schools to close, his organization started getting calls from government and school officials asking questions about getting students at-home internet access for remote learning. In response, they launched the Digital Bridge K–12 initiative, a playbook for school districts and policymakers working to close the home access gap and navigating the new normal of remote learning.

EdTech had an in-depth discussion with Marwell about the homework gap’s current state, ways to bridge that gap today and in a post-pandemic world, and what school leaders need to know about connectivity as they plan for heading back to school.

DISCOVER: Learn how schools can continue remote learning for students without internet.

EDTECH: What does student connectivity look like today?

MARWELL: Our estimates are that roughly 9.6 million out of 50 million students in public schools — around 20 percent of kids in this country — don’t have internet access at home. Around 80 to 90 percent of those folks don’t have it mostly because they can’t afford it, while the last 10 percent or so don’t have it because there may not be any internet service where they live.

EDTECH: What do you think that will look like in a post-pandemic world?

MARWELL: Well, the pandemic has only made the affordability issue much worse. We expect to see that 9.6 million number actually increase as a result of the tens of millions of families losing their jobs. Those instances have primarily been concentrated among disadvantaged communities that did not have internet access in the first place. Now, even more of them probably won’t have it.

Evan Marwell, CEO, EducationSuperHighway
With the pandemic, what we’ve seen is that the homework gap has now become an education gap."

Evan Marwell CEO, EducationSuperHighway

EDTECH: What about their access to devices? What sorts of challenges are you seeing there?

MARWELL: There are estimates that roughly 25 percent of students don’t have a device they can use for learning at home, and the numbers may be higher when you think about each student needing to have their own device. So, in other words, they can’t share it with their siblings, who are trying to get into online school at the same time, or their parents, who may need it for work, if you really want them to participate in learning.

The good news is that over the last few years, school districts across the country have bought somewhere around 30 to 45 million devices to be used in school, so it’s not like there are no devices available. There are some communities that don’t have them in their schools at all, for sure. But there’s also the challenge of school districts sending devices home for the first time. That involves setting up policies, figuring out how to maintain the devices and deciding who gets one. Those things have been a real struggle for many schools.

EDTECH: What can school districts do to make online remote learning possible for students?

MARWELL: One solution people are looking into, particularly for students in vulnerable populations such as those facing homelessness, are mobile hotspots. Many school districts have purchased them from wireless carriers and gave them out to students as part of their strategies for getting them online.

But when it comes to remote learning as a whole, I think we’re now moving into phase two, where school leaders are thinking about how they’ve had varying degrees of success with it, but the reality is they’re not ready. Everyone’s asking themselves how to get ready for school in the fall because almost every reopening scenario they’re looking at will need to be supported by remote learning. It may be that schools can’t open in the fall or that they’ll be using staggered schedules where kids are in the school two days a week and learning from home three days a week.

There definitely is no one-size-fits-all solution, so I would encourage them to check out Digital Bridge K–12. We have a lot of primers about the different solutions available to you, whether it’s wireline solutions, home cable modems or broadband or mobile hotspots.

Watch Michael Flood, senior vice president of strategy at Kajeet, discuss how to improve connectivity for K–12 students.

EDTECH: What exactly is Digital Bridge K–12, and how can districts use it to their advantage?

MARWELL: Digital Bridge K–12 is an effort to really close that remote learning gap as quickly as possible. What we’re doing is we’re building a playbook, a set of tools to help districts do three things: figure out which of their students don’t have internet access or a dedicated device, get those kids connected to the internet by helping them work with service providers and assist schools in device distribution and management.

It turns out that school districts are really struggling with figuring out which of their students can participate in remote learning. Most schools tried to answer that by sending out a survey, but what we’ve found is they don’t work, especially if you’re sending out digital surveys to people who don’t have internet. We’ve been working with a number of school districts on some alternatives, such as using information they have about who is attending Zoom classes or logging into Google Classroom and then taking a phone banking approach — calling or sending out an SMS text — to reach students who weren’t able to participate.

We’re also helping districts find service providers in the area that can serve their students, what the best deals are and how families can sign up. Plus, we’re providing budget calculators so districts can estimate costs for solutions such as wired or wireless connections. Lastly, we’re helping schools figure out how to send devices home, like setting up a lending program where students who need them can safely and effectively use all of the devices you’ve purchased.

Adjacent to those three things is doing work on a federal level — trying to get government funding for home connectivity and devices in the next stimulus bill. We’ve also been doing a lot of work at the state level to help states understand what role they can play in helping close this remote learning gap with their school districts. The one piece of good news is that schools are getting a little over $13 billion of funding from the CARES Act, and connectivity solutions are eligible under that. But a lot of that money is probably going to be used to plug holes in a school district’s budget, so that’s why we think it’s so important for the federal government to step in and provide resources, at least for the coming school year.

EDTECH: What are other key considerations school leaders should keep in mind as they’re working on solving this issue?

MARWELL: One of the things that we’ve observed is that even in situations where schools are willing to pay for internet access or devices, they’re running into adoption issues where families just don’t take them up on their offer. One way you can overcome that is by partnering with teachers who have relationships with families, as well as trusted community-based organizations to get the word out and make sure families take advantage of those offers.

The second thing I would say is that you’ll need to make sure internet access at school is also up to snuff. If educators are teaching some kids in the classroom and some at home, those at home will need to be able to watch and listen to what their teacher is doing. It’s important to look at your internet access and do some upgrades to make sure that it doesn’t become a bottleneck and that teachers can have live video broadcasting happening in their classroom when they need it.

EDTECH: What do you hope school leaders learned from their experience with remote learning last spring?

MARWELL: I hope that the biggest lesson learned is that we weren’t ready and that we need to be. There are school districts that were pretty well prepared. The ones that were in the best positions were the ones that made a concerted effort to go one-to-one, for example. That probably isn’t an option anymore. It just needs to become part of every school strategy for teaching and learning. I hope more schools will see that and that school boards and communities will support that.

Natalya Matyushina/Getty Images

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