When Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Darryl S. Adams proclaimed at the Consortium for School Networking’s 2016 opening plenary session that “we’re moving from ‘leave no child behind’ to ‘leave no child offline,’” it elicited applause and a chorus of “amen!” from the packed audience.
The sentiment echoed throughout the second day of the conference, becoming a theme. For years, officials have been struggling with how to close the digital divide — the gap in access to technology that affects students from low-income areas and makes them less competitive than their more urban and affluent peers.
Now, IT directors and school superintendents are tackling the next generation of inequity: the homework gap — as in, what happens when children from low-income families don’t have Internet access to complete their schoolwork at home?
“We’re having this conversation because education is digital,” CoSN CEO Keith R. Krueger said during Tuesday’s session, “Digital Equity Challenges: Strategies for Bridging the Home/School Connection.”
Modern Education Requires Connectivity at Home Too
Thanks to the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to focus on broadband and robust Wi-Fi in schools with a 60 percent increase in funding, Krueger predicted that every classroom will be connected to high-speed Internet in the next four years.
“But what happens when students leave school?” he asked. “There’s a homework gap and an opportunity gap.
“There are about five million families that do not have high-speed Internet at home,” Krueger continued. “Low-income families are four times more likely to lack broadband.”
While these students can get connected in other, less ideal ways, it’s just not enough, he argued. “Could you write your paper, your essay — or could you apply for college — on your smartphone?”
Why the Homework Gap Is a Community Issue
Three quarters of those who responded to CoSN’s recent infrastructure survey reported they are not doing anything to address connectivity issues outside of school, Krueger said. In addition, the 2015 Speak Up Survey found that 68 percent of teachers are reluctant to assign digital homework out of concern that their students don’t have safe and consistent Internet access at home, said Julie Evans, chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow, which conducted the survey.
“When we started to ask about digital equity, administrators said this is a top challenge today,” she said.
To combat this issue, schools can work with businesses, philanthropic or nonprofit community programs and economic development officials to address connectivity issues in surrounding neighborhoods, Krueger said.
“We think this isn’t an issue for schools alone to solve,” he said. “This is at the heart of whether your city or community is competitive.”
Workarounds for students include coming in early or staying late to use the school’s Internet, using the public library’s Wi-Fi access or going online to do homework at fast-food restaurants or cafes that offer free Wi-Fi access.
Other schools encourage students to download their web-based assignments onto USB sticks at school so they can do them at home without needing access, Evans said.
Dereck Rhoads, chief instructional services officer at Beaufort County School District in Beaufort, S.C., said the homework gap might be solved if it’s thought of as a community problem, rather than a school issue.
“We have connectivity in our schools,” Rhoads said. “We’re trying to have connectivity in our communities. We see it as a human rights issue.”
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