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Home Connectivity and the Homework Gap
In 2013, President Obama launched the ConnectED initiative with the goal of connecting 99 percent of K-12 students in America with access to broadband Internet in the classroom by the year 2018. Since ConnectED was launched, 20 million more students have gained access to broadband at school, according to Joseph South, director of the Office of Educational Technology of the United States Department of Education. At the same time, more and more schools have implemented laptops, tablets and online educational resources. While initiatives such as ConnectED are helping to close the digital divide in the classroom, that divide reopens once the school day is over.
As of 2014, nearly one quarter of American households still did not have Internet access, according to a March 2016 Issue Brief from the Council of Economic Advisers . Low-income households are far less likely to have Internet, "with just under half of households in the bottom income quintile using the Internet at home, compared to 95 percent of households in the top quintile," according to the report.
This disparity in home Internet service has lead to the "homework gap," where economically disadvantaged students "go from a digital oasis to a digital desert when they go from school to home," as Chike Aguh, CEO of EveryoneOn described it. Some of these students are going to extraordinary lengths to complete their assignments, standing outside their schools at night trying to pick up WiFi signals through the wall, or going to the public library or local businesses to do their homework.
"I applaud those students, but that is not an acceptable solution, and it's tremendously inequitable in providing them an education that's similar to their peers," South said.
Reasons for the Homework Gap
Some people have attributed the homework gap to the lack of Internet infrastructure in rural and remote areas. However, the majority of families that are not connected to the Internet live in urban areas that do have infrastructure. They simply can't afford it.
"There are 64 million Americans who are not connected to the Internet. Only 16 million of those are offline because there's not infrastructure," Aguh said. "The other 48 million are living in big urban metro areas where they have offers available to them. It's just that they cannot afford them. So we need to change our thinking and our mindset and our stereotype that this is a rural problem. It's not. It is really an urban and suburban problem."
But the homework gap can exist even in households that do have Internet service, according to Sarah Trimble-Oliver, the chief information officer for Cincinnati Public Schools . A couple of years ago, that district surveyed its students to ask if they had Internet at home, and 75 percent of students answered yes. However, Trimble-Oliver soon discovered that they hadn't asked the right question.
"What we're finding is that, even though they answered yes, there was a large percentage who only have access through a smartphone," she said. "Or they have access but it's too slow. Or they have a computer in the home, but it's shared amongst five or six family members, so actually getting time on that Internet-enabled computer is difficult in order to complete homework. And then we have families who may have Internet access one month but then the next month it's interrupted because either the bill wasn't paid, or the data plan on their phone ran out. It's not a simple yes or no question."
Fortunately, schools, government and other organizations are working to find ways to close the homework gap.
Dedicated Mobile Hotspots for Students
A few years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an advanced placement (AP) blended learning program to expand AP courses to students who previously did not have access to them. With the blended learning program, about half of the instruction occurs online through the district's learning management system and the other half is face-to-face with the teacher. Since some of those students don't have Internet access at home, the district purchased mobile hotspots for those students.
The Kajeet SmartSpot devices are portable 4G LTE mobile hotspots that provide broadband Internet connectivity for any WiFi enabled laptop, tablet, netbook or Chromebook. The devices have built-in content filtering, so students can't use them to access inappropriate or non-educational content.
Trimble-Oliver has discovered that the students are using the Kajeet SmartSpots not just for their AP class, but for other homework and enrichment activities. "They are saying that they are able to get more work done at home, and that they're actually also able to get more informal learning," Trimble-Oliver said. "So maybe it wasn't even a homework assignment, but they're able to do research on things that they're interested in themselves, related to the subjects in school, because now they do have that hotspot."
Mobile Hotspots for Check-out
Green Bay Area Public Schools in Wisconsin also adopted Kajeet SmartSpots to help close the homework gap for its students. Unlike Cincinnati Public Schools, which supplies students with a dedicated SmartSpot device, Green Bay Area PS makes SmartSpot devices and laptops available for students to borrow. Students can check them out from their school library, use them to complete their homework assignments, and then return them.
"About 60 percent of our kids are on free and reduced lunch, so that tells us that there are going to be families who do not have means to have the Internet at their home. I would just hate for kids not to have the resources to complete their assignments and to learn because they don't have technology at home," said Diane W. Doersch, chief technology and information officer for Green Bay Area Public Schools. "It's not just the financial part, but we have instances where kids might go to grandma's for the weekend, and she doesn't have Internet at her house. Or we have instances where there are a couple of kids in the family, and a sibling is working on the family computer all night. So we felt that this was one way that we could address that issue."
The district initially purchased 125 Kajeet SmartSpot devices two years ago. At the start of the 2015-16 school year, it increased that number to 375 and plans to purchase more as needed. According to Doersch, the purchases have been worthwhile. "We know that more students are completing homework due to their use of the check out devices," she said. "The students who check these out are very grateful that they're able to use them."
Organizations Working to Close the Homework Gap
Not all students are lucky enough to have access to a school-provided mobile hotspot, but there are other options available. Organizations such as the national nonprofit EveryoneOn are working to eliminate the homework gap by partnering with Internet service providers (ISPs) to make high-speed, low-cost Internet service and computers available to American households that can't otherwise afford it. "We work with Internet service providers, like Sprint, like Comcast, like AT&T, like Google Fiber, to help them craft, refine and deploy offers that a family can actually afford, usually priced around $10 a month," Aguh said.
EveryoneOn also strives to make it as easy as possible for eligible families to find out about these offers and sign up for them. "We create a easy access digital platform, where a family can text us, call us, email us, go online through our website, if they have that opportunity, to go search for it and sign up for affordable Internet service, in a really easy, streamlined way," Aguh said.
As part of the ConnectED program, Sprint has committed to offer 50,000 lines of service to families with a child in primary or secondary school. Through the program, the school designates a WiFi hotspot to each student. Students can take the hotspot home and use it until July of 2020 with no monthly bill. "We help increase awareness about that program and work with schools who want to sign up for that," Aguh said. "Since the middle of last year when we started that partnership, we've been able to give away about 21,000 lines of service."
To help make families aware of these low-cost services, EveryoneOn has people and partners "on the ground" in libraries, schools and public meeting places. "They're meeting families where they are so that they can get them signed up directly and get them online," Aguh said. Since EveryoneOn launched four years ago, it has already connected about 200,000 low-income families to the Internet.
Building on the ConnectED initiative, in March 2015 President Obama convened the Broadband Opportunity Council , "which is an interagency group that spans more than 20 agencies and departments," South said. "It's been charged with finding ways that several offices can work together to bring connectivity to all spaces in America."
The Broadband Opportunity Council is coordinating ConnectED and two related initiatives. In July 2015, President Obama announced the ConnectHOME initiative, which aims to connect 275,000 low-income households with the support they need to access the Internet at home. And in March 2016, he announced the ConnectALL initiative, which aims to connect 20 million more Americans to broadband by the year 2020.
As part of ConnectHOME, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is working through existing programs and partnerships, including collaborations with EveryoneOn and ISPs, to connect families living in HUD-assisted housing in 28 communities with the low-cost Internet service. "Most of the research tells us that price is the biggest barrier, not just the price of an ongoing Internet subscription but also the cost of owning a tablet, laptop or desktop computer. So those are two things that ConnectHome is trying to address," said Michael K. Liimatta, the ConnectHOME manager for HUD.
"Just to give you a sense, the average family in public housing makes about $12,500 a year, or about $1,000 a month," Aguh said. "These are literally the poorest of the poor and the most likely to be unconnected."
"It's the goal to make sure that within our HUD assisted housing, families with children K through 12 can get a decent Internet plan for $10 a month," Liimatta said.
One of those low-cost plans is the Comcast Internet Essentials plan, which is available at a cost of $10 per month to families with schoolchildren who qualify for free or reduced lunch. "Internet Essentials is a program that Comcast has had for a very long time," Liimatta said. "What we're trying to do is make sign up easier by providing data that can be used to confirm eligibility."
ConnectHOME is still in the early stages. HUD spent six months in the planning phase and has begun implementing the service over the last few months. So far a few thousand families have been connected to the service, according to Liimatta. "ConnectHome is a four-year effort," he said. "We hope it will eventually close the digital divide among the residents of HUD assisted housing. That's over 10 million families in America."
FCC's Lifeline Program
In March 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced an update to its Lifeline program to help low-income households afford access to the Internet. "Basically, the FCC updated a Reagan-era phone subsidy program that was originally designed to make sure every American had a telephone," South said. "They've now updated it to provide the lowest-income Americans with a subsidy that provides them broadband at home for an affordable price. So for less than $10 a month, they can get 10 Mbps, and that has essentially provided $1.5 billion per year to help address that gap."
Although schools, government and other organizations are actively working to close the homework gap, low-cost Internet service has the potential to do more than help students complete their homework. Closing the homework gap isn't just about preparing students for college and career. It's also about preparing them for life in the digital world.
"A lot of the way we communicate with each other, a lot of the way we collaborate, a lot of the way that we relate, the things that we understand about the world around us, the things that make an informed voter, those are all reliant on a digital infrastructure, and it's so important that every American have access to that infrastructure, not just to be successful in school, but to be successful in life," South said. "I think that's why the administration feels like this issue is extremely urgent. And at this point, there's really no reason why we shouldn't have every American online. We're doing our best to move that forward and really need the help and ideas of everyone involved to close this gap."
Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at email@example.com.