'The digital divide is about something more profound than just a lack of home internet access'

25th February 2016 at 18:41
boy holding a smartphone
As teachers know, what happens in a child’s home often carries over into the classroom.

Lack of access to a speedy, reliable internet connection at home can limit learning opportunities for poor students.

This problem, dubbed the “homework gap,” has been the topic of national conversations, and is set to undergo a comprehensive study by the federal government. And some advocates for education technology say that school leaders ought to take a pro-active role in championing for reliable internet access — not only at school but also at home.

“We have a responsibility as educators to lead on this issue,” said Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington, DC, nonprofit membership organization for school technology leaders.

The consortium has created a new support system to help elevate the voices of school leaders, featuring a “Digital Equity Action Toolkit.” It offers steps leaders can take to engage the community, to measure local needs and to use creative solutions to help students get online outside of schools.

Nine out of 10 low-income families with school-aged children have access to the Internet at home, but they’re often forced to rely on mobile devices, such as smartphones, to get online, according to a recent survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Rutgers University. This can present a challenge for students who are assigned homework that requires the use of a device or a program that works best on a computer, the researchers said. And programs that were created to help poor people get online are doing a poor job of delivering on that promise, according to the survey.

To help solve this problem, school leaders need to assess exactly what’s happening in their community. To identify local needs, they can use a well-designed survey from the CoSN toolkit. Instead of asking simply “Do you have the internet at home?” it suggests asking “How do you access the internet at home?” and gives five options for answers. Instead of asking “Do you have a computer?” it suggests asking, “Are you able to access and use your device to do schoolwork?”

The toolkit from CoSN offers sample surveys, created in partnership with The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University; school leaders can download it for free.

The lack of home internet access may be called the “homework gap,” but that term fails to adequately describe the challenge, Krueger said. The internet provides an opportunity for children to learn anywhere and any time. Children and parents who don’t have it miss out.

“What we are talking about is more profound than just homework,” Krueger said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion.


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