How have you used the internet recently? Maybe you searched for information, read an email, paid a bill, attended a meeting, collaborated on a project, created a presentation, or consulted a doctor. Convenient internet access makes these and other actions quicker and easier.
In this modern era, not using the internet puts people at a significant disadvantage in many aspects of life, including education. The chasm between the haves and have-nots of internet access is called the digital divide. Optimizing the internet’s capabilities requires three components: 1) a computer or other internet-capable device, 2) reliable high-speed internet, 3) sufficient digital literacy skills.
Unfortunately, far too many students in the US lack one or all three components. This video shows the stark difference between students searching for information with internet access versus without it. As dramatic as this video is, searching for information barely scratches the surface of how technology, or EdTech, enhances student learning.
Research from the Pew Research Center, the National Education Association, and the International Computer and Information Literacy Study all tell a similar story. Personal factors heavily influence students’ access to computers and the internet. These factors often compound each other and include:
- Income level
- Education level of parents
- Racial /ethnic background
Not surprisingly, families on tight budgets allocate limited funds to shelter, food, and healthcare over broadband internet service and computers. Even the least expensive devices cost a significant amount of money, and cheap devices often break and lack enough processing speed to be truly useful. Many low-income students do not have a device at home, or multiple household members share one device preventing students from having enough time to finish their homework.
Internet providers typically charge by the speed of the internet they provide. Streaming videos, attending virtual meetings, and uploading and downloading media require about 1.5 megabits per second, or 1.5 Mbps. Cable tends to be the cheapest way to get broadband internet. Texas residents pay about $.12 per MB per month for cable internet, whereas Wyoming residents pay $1.00. Many families cut costs by paying for slower internet that allows students to read and answer emails but not watch videos.
The cost of broadband does not tell the whole story. The availability of high-speed internet varies dramatically depending on where you live. Students in areas such as rural West Virginia and Montana lack broadband infrastructure, making their internet connections too slow to be useful.
The NEA study ranked states based on students’ access to broadband internet. Complete access meant that they had enough working devices and reliable high-speed internet at home. Mississippi ranks 50th, with only 64% having full access. Meanwhile, 87% of New Hampshire students enjoy complete access. The geographic discrepancy is partially due to students living in rural versus suburban conditions and partly because some populations and policymakers do not prioritize access to the internet. However, even in top-ranking New Hampshire 25,000 students lacked enough access to take advantage of many digital education tools.
- Education Level of Parents
Children of parents with limited education have significantly less exposure to computers and digital literacy skills. This trend holds true globally. Higher education typically leads to careers that use computers and technology, whereas a lack of education often leads to jobs involving manual labor.
Ninety-one percent of students with parents with advanced degrees have sufficient internet speed and devices, compared with only 48% of those whose parents did not finish high school. More educated parents are also significantly more advanced in digital literacy skills and can guide their children’s learning.
- Racial and Ethnic Background
Finally, there is a high correlation between digital haves and have-nots according to students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds. Eighty-six percent of Asian American students have sufficient access to the internet and devices, compared with 50% of Native American students.
How Schools and Communities Provide Access and Training
While the digital divide in schools correlates with personal factors, community and school infrastructure can help bridge the gap. US municipalities that include broadband as a public utility are rare but quickly growing. State laws with strict requirements about cable providers are a big roadblock for towns wanting to provide broadband as a public utility. There are valid reasons for why public utility broadband is not right for every community, but it often gives more families access to reliable internet at home. This allows lower-income students to work from home instead needing to travel to a library or school. School districts might advocate for state and local measures that would provide more families with low-cost options for internet.
Changing state law and convincing local governments to invest in broadband infrastructure may be great long-term goals. Still, many students’ families need more immediate relief. Some schools are innovating creative solutions. The Coachella Valley Unified School District sends buses with WiFi to underserved neighborhoods to provide access. Some schools work out discounts with commercial internet providers. For more ideas, check out the Discount Internet Guidebook put out by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Schools are also doing a lot to help families acquire devices. A common method is that the schools buy devices using monies from grants, Title One, CARES ACT, or other special funding. Many of these schools then allow teachers and students to take school devices home for homework. Another method is working with non-profits that refurbish devices to help families buy low-cost devices. Partners Bridging the Digital Divide lists many great resources, including where to find refurbished devices.
Overcoming the hurdle of internet access for students and teachers at home is tremendous, but it is not enough. Teachers and students need explicit technological training to take advantage of the tools. Without detailed training, teachers are less inclined to introduce technology in the classroom, so EdTech becomes more frustrating than solving problems. Students of undertrained teachers will get fewer opportunities to advance their digital literacy skills, limiting the closure of the digital divide which could dramatically affect their higher education, career, and daily life. District and state leaders can find professional development resources at the Office of Educational Technology.
A Partner in EdTech
At Harris Education Solutions, we are firm believers in the power of digital solutions for education. We understand that Investing in EdTech is a massive undertaking because it requires carefully considering your desired student outcomes and how to maximize teacher effectiveness. We hope our blogs help guide you in your EdTech journey. Try our Solutions Tool to see which products will help the people at your schools most.