No access, no class: Challenges for digital inclusion of students

In the United States, the pandemic made obvious what has long been a problem – students without access to the internet or computing devices at home are at a serious disadvantage. Bianca Reisdorf (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) and Laleah Fernandez (Michigan State University) discuss the “homework gap” and what recent research shows about its consequences.

This article is part of our dossier "Digital classrooms - Transatlantic perspectives on lessons from the pandemic".

When Covid-19 forced school closures across the United States, the media was full of stories of kids doing homework in coffee shops or in parking lots outside fast-food restaurants in order to access WiFi they didn’t have at home. The lack of internet or devices has in fact been a serious issue for millions of students in the United States and across the world. Although many initiatives have worked to provide students with Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops during the pandemic, large numbers of students are still unable to connect with their teachers and classmates. Even before the pandemic, the issue of digital inclusion for students was identified as the “homework gap” – a lack of internet access at home that affects students’ ability to do homework after school.[1]Various projects have tried to establish the extent of this problem,[2] and others have offered potential solutions. However, nothing has made the uneven nature of digital inclusion among students in the United States more obvious than Covid-19 and the resulting shift to online schooling. The pandemic has dramatically highlighted inequities that have existed for a long time.

The second aspect of digital inclusion is digital skills. Although students are often touted as “digital natives” who grew up with technology and seem to know intuitively how to use it and how to use it well,[3] research (by Cabello-Hutt et.al., Helsper & Eynon, or Pérez-Escoda et al.) has shown that – as with any other societal group – there are variations in how well students can use digital media. These two aspects – access and skills – often go hand in hand with socio-demographic factors, such as parental income and education, race and ethnicity, and immigration status.

Access matters in schools and at home

Internet access is virtually useless without device access. To be able to do homework well, students need at minimum a dedicated tablet, but ideally a laptop or a desktop computer. Research has shown that relying only on mobile devices, such as smartphones, leads to less diverse use and does not allow users to complete complex tasks. In addition, having to share devices with other family members limits the amount of time a student can spend on school-related work. Pew Research data from spring 2020 shows that 35% of teens sometimes or often had to do homework on their cell phones, rising to 45% among those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year.

Second, access to technology differs in schools and at home. Whereas all schools in the United States can receive assistance in connecting to high-speed internet through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate program, low connection speeds and old computer equipment are especially prevalent in low-income school districts, as a large volume of school funding comes from local sources, such as local property taxes. This often means that students living in low-income areas lack adequate access to high-speed internet and functioning devices both in their schools and at home, compounding their digital exclusion. Given that a large number of students are currently learning online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, home access is critical to student success.

Between May and June 2019, researchers from Michigan State University conducted a large-scale survey on internet access and digital skills with 3,258 students in grades 8–11 in 15 predominantly rural school districts in Michigan. Students were asked what kinds of internet access they had at home, such as broadband and/or mobile device access, what kinds of devices they had available, and whether they considered the access at school and at home to be adequate for performing schoolwork. The survey also asked students to self-rate their digital skills across a number of different types of online tasks and social media use. In addition to taking the survey, students completed a speed test of their home internet, which was matched to their survey data. Eight school districts that participated also provided de-identified standardized test scorethat were then matched with students’ survey responses. This complex dataset offers first-hand insight into the extent of digital (dis)connection among students and how their digital inclusion is associated with their school performance.

In rural Michigan, like in other rural American areas, many students do not have internet access, often because the broadband infrastructure is lacking. Only 53% of students who live in small towns or rural areas had high-speed internet access compared to 77% of those who live in suburbs, and 70% of those in cities, according to the Michigan study. Overall, 44.2% of students in this study had no internet, slow internet, or only cell phone internet (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Home Connectivity among Students (in %)

Missing media item.
Source: Quello Center Broadband Gap Survey, N=3,258.

 

Unconnected students and those who rely on cell phones were less likely to complete homework, had lower grade point averages, and reported lower intentions of attending college compared to those with broadband internet access. Interestingly, however, students who had no home internet access or depended on cell phone access only did not make more use of the internet at school aside from emailing, using Skype at school, and messaging a teacher – and in some cases they were online less at school less than those with (fast) home access, as is shown in Table 1 below. This might be the case because students who do not have easy access at home are not as attuned to working with digital tools all the time, so they may not consider broad and frequent internet use at school an option.

 

Table 1. Activities at School and Connectivity

Missing media item.

Source: Quello Center Broadband Gap Survey, N=3,258.

Digital skills map with socio-economic status

Not all students are fully proficient in the digital skills required to successfully participate in online education, be it navigating current virtual learning environments or completing online homework assignments. Even if internet access is adequate and students have a device at home, better digital skills are associated with higher socio-economic status, higher age, and often also gender, with girls displaying better technical and higher-order skills than boys.

In the Michigan case study, students were asked to “rate their familiarity with sixteen computer-and internet-related items” based on a 16-item scale laid out by researchers Hargittai and Hsieh. These included questions about students’ familiarity with tasks, such as advanced search, PDF, JPG, cache, malware, followers, and hashtags. The Michigan researchers found that older students displayed more advanced digital skills, and boys scored higher than girls, which goes against the results of researchers Aesaert and van Braak, who found the opposite. This difference can be explained by different measures of skills, as Aesaert and van Braak used a performance-based test to measure skills, whereas the Michigan researchers used self-ratings. Prior research has found that women tend to rate their digital skills as lower even when they perform at the same level as men. In addition, the Michigan researchers found that not having internet access at home or relying on cell phone access only were associated with lower digital skills scores.

 

Figure 2. Digital Skills Scores by Home Connectivity

Missing media item.
Source: Quello Center Broadband Gap Survey, N=3,258.

 

Access and skills are, in turn, related to student test scores. Those who have stable and fast internet connections at home score higher on standardized tests than those who have slow access, no home access, or home access only through a mobile device. Students with inferior skills also scored significantly lower on standardized tests than students with superior skills, even when those tests were written with pencil and paper. Students with lower digital skills also expressed less interest in STEM careers. This compounds digital exclusion for students who lack home access, as this is associated with a lack of skills, and both are associated with lower school performance.

Ways to ensure equitable access and skills

Addressing digital inequities for students requires an approach that follows the general description of digital inclusion as a three-legged stool. This includes ensuring stable and fast home internet access for students, guaranteeing devices that are appropriate for doing schoolwork, such as laptops or desktop computers, and providing all students with digital skills training that allows them to proficiently use the digital tools they need to succeed in school. As the lack of proper access is often related to low socio-economic status, teachers fear this may lead to a vicious cycle of students falling behind.

To fully address these issues, communities across all socio-economic strata need to have fast and reliable access to the internet in their homes – not through stop-gap solutions such as Wi-Fi hotspots with spotty internet access. This would require internet service providers to provide fast, low-cost access across urban, suburban, and rural communities, although some low-cost programs are available, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. This service is not available in all areas across the United States, and families have to be eligible for public assistance programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, Housing Assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, or SSI, and they must not have had Comcast internet services in the past 90 days. For rural areas, these kinds of offerings are often not available at all. Solving the rural homework gap will require considerable investment by federal, state, and local governments, such as through the FCC’s Connect America Fund, as well as allowing local municipalities to offer their own broadband services, which is currently difficult or impossible in 22 states across the United States.

Students also need dedicated devices on which to complete their schoolwork and homework. Having to share a device with several others limits the amount of time that students can spend on school-related work, as there may be multiple family members who also need to use them for school, for work or for household-related tasks. Various non-profits in the United States are working to provide families and individuals with (refurbished) laptops, such as human-I-T, and local groups, such as E2D in Charlotte, North Carolina. These groups often receive hardware donations from individuals and corporations, and work with students to refurbish devices, which are then sold at very low cost to community members who could otherwise not afford a laptop. Some non-profits, such as E2D, have shifted their focus to distributing laptops only to students during the pandemic, so that they can do their homework on a dedicated device. 

Finally, students and families, as well as teachers, need easy and readily available access to digital skills support and training. This could be provided through dedicated IT staff in schools or school districts, through libraries, who already provide some of these services, and through non-profits, such as Digital Charlotte, which provides virtual digital skills training in multiple languages to residents of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted these challenges, students worldwide have been grappling with digital inequities for years, leaving behind those who are already disadvantaged. If governments are serious about solving digital inequities for students, they will need to make serious financial investments in infrastructure for both schools and communities, in digital devices for students provided through schools, and in digital skills training and support that provides students, their families, and their teachers with the necessary tools to navigate the digital learning environment. This is immediately imperative during the current pandemic, and it will remain important even when students and teachers return to the classroom full-time, as online homework will continue to be an integral part of students’ success.

Although a detailed discussion of general social inequalities is beyond the scope of this piece, we would be remiss not to mention the impact they have on students, even if the playing field were leveled regarding digital access and skills. Students who receive support from their parents or tutors to succeed in their schoolwork will perform better on standardized tests than those who are unable to receive this kind of support. Equally, teenagers and children who have to work in part-time jobs or take care of younger siblings to support their families will have less time to dedicate to their studies. To fully address digital inequities for both students and the general population, governments need to address economic, social, and digital inequalities at the same time.

This article is part of our dossier "Digital classrooms - Transatlantic perspectives on lessons from the pandemic".

 


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[1]Meyer, L. (2016). Home connectivity and the homework gap. THE Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), 43(4), 16.

[2] Bolkan, J. (2017). Home Connectivity and the Homework Gap: Is the Internet Destined to Become Just Another Wedge Pushing the Achievement Gap Wider? THE Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), 44(5), 19.

[3]Palfrey, J.G. & Gasser, U. (2011). Born digital: understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books.