Networking & Wireless

How Digital Equity Can Help Close the Homework Gap

According to a CoSN survey, 82 percent of school districts don't have a plan to address students' Internet access outside of school. That needs to change.

How Digital Equity Can Help Close the Homework Gap

Does educational technology close the achievement gap or widen it? Even in the best-case scenarios, when the potential of digital learning is fulfilled and all student achievement increases, the gap is likely to increase. Why? As Tom Vander Ark points out in his book Getting Smart, when we use ed tech to raise the floor for student achievement, the ceiling is raised even further.

Unfortunately, educational technology leaders often see only the best-case scenario. In reality, when the achievement gap increases, sometimes it is because the absolute performance improvements may be limited to select students due to a number of factors.

First, many describe digital learning as an amplifier of teaching, especially in our increasingly mobile world. Great teachers accomplish amazing things with this technology, guiding students to cognitive improvements and increased self-efficacy. Unfortunately, poor teaching is also amplified. In the hands of unskilled teachers, technology can actually decrease student performance.

Second, the promise of 1-to-1 and bring your own device (BYOD) strategies enables changes in teaching and learning. Yet in all too many implementations, teachers use these new technologies to support traditional teaching methods: PDFs replace textbooks, apps replace worksheets, PowerPoint presentations replace poster boards and the Internet replaces library searches. The classroom structure, however, remains unchanged. Without changing teaching and learning, student outcomes don't improve as compared to those implementations where authentic student-centered techniques leverage technology to shift teaching and learning.

Third, while school culture has a critical impact on whether educational technology is accessible and how it is used, so does home culture. In many communities, particularly those with high immigrant populations, a distrust of technology and government oversight limits technology use in the home. In some lower-income families, parents can only offer limited support after school hours, and often create a home culture in which academic achievement isn't valued. This home culture gap gives students whose parents are supportive and knowledgeable about technologu an advantage over those who don't.

Fourth, the homework gap affects both individual students and entire classrooms and buildings. Several studies have indicated that more than 75 percent of teachers assign homework that requires the Internet. This puts students without home access at a disadvantaged, and also puts the burden on teachers to find a way to allow those students to complete homework without the Web. This has a dual impact: The additional time and resources required to support two homework mechanisms are costly; and if one student does not have technology in the home, teachers are constrained from shifting their teaching to the new pedagogies that depend on connectivity in the home to raise student achievement.

Finally, there is an inequity beyond the homework gap that is seldom considered as part of the national connectivity conversation. The 2010 National Educational Technology Plan called for "anytime, anywhere" learning for students. Today, there is a "mobility gap" between those students who have access to cellular broadband 24/7 and those who don't.

Having even a single student who lacks home broadband access perpetuates the homework gap. When student can't rely on adequate Internet access, they must continue to support old work habits and processes in addition to the new, digitally based processes. Of course, not all schoolwork will be digital, but for those learning experiences that are, a lack of access is costly.

Many students don't enjoy the luxury of going home to Internet access. Whether they attend afterschool childcare, have afterschool jobs or are involved in sports or activities, students who are unable to connect to the Internet for several hours between school and home are at a disadvantage.

It can also be difficult to assess whether students have adequate Internet at home. Many students report that they have Internet even if they only have shared access to a parent's cellular device or slow Internet connections. There are roughly 11.6 million American households with children ages 6 to 17 with incomes below $50,000. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of those households do not have a high-speed connection at home. Without sufficient access to broadband, students may not be able to watch and digitally reflect on educational videos or recorded lectures, or experience interactive content the way their peers do.

How Can Districts Close the Gap?

The CoSN 2014 Infrastructure Survey indicated that 82 percent of school districts do not have a current initiative to address Internet access outside of school. Digital equity and the homework gap are community challenges that cannot be entirely fixed by school districts. Yet there are numerous steps that districts can take to support mobile students, mitigate inequities and start a conversation with their business partners, philanthropic partners and parents.

Districts ought to first ensure that devices outside the school network, including those from home Internet providers and cellular data networks, can access student digital tools and resources. Generally, this process involves using collaborative tools and digital resources that are hosted in a private, public or hybrid cloud. This means that students who have access at home and/or data-enabled mobile devices can access their learning communities and resources anywhere they already connect.

Districts have developed a number of creative approaches to help students who don't have the ability to connect outside the school networks. Many districts work with Internet providers that offer low-cost home Internet access to qualifying families. These programs often cost around $10 to $12 per month. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering plans to modernize the Lifeline program, which has traditionally provided basic telephone service to low-income families. The changes would likely expand the program to provide home broadband connectivity options, possibly using new metrics such as free and reduced school lunch to determine eligibility.

Many districts are mapping the libraries, coffee shops, fast food restaurants and other places in the community where students can find free Internet access after school hours. Some of these sites are branded with a seal indicating that the business is a WiFi Homework Partner with the school district.

Some districts are providing WiFi on school buses so that students can connect on the long rides to and from school. Some, like Coachella Valley Unified School District (CA) even park the buses overnight in locations such as trailer parks where there is a high density of students from low-income families without Internet access. Kent School District (WA) is installing free Internet kiosks in subsidized housing buildings to reach low-income families. Albemarle County Public Schools (VA) is repurposing frequency allocation from commercial use and developing a 4G wide array wireless network that will provide high-speed at-home Internet access for thousands of students within two years.

Still other districts provide laptops or mobile devices with cellular data modems that allow students to access the Internet at any time or place. Others provide mobile hotspots that students can keep for the school year or check out as needed from the library.

Such admirable efforts move K-12 educations toward digital equity. They not only provide connectivity right now but also lead districts to build networks that will support any time, any place teaching and learning. These initiatives also demystify the Internet and computers, building student and family support for the educational use of technology.

As with all ed tech challenges, equity is more a human issue than a technological one. Education technology can raise the floor of student achievement, but only if both the technological and human infrastructures to support that transformation are in place. This is not a problem that will be "solved" in the near future, but we must begin by making every effort to connect our current students, and continue by laying out a roadmap toward equity.