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Digital Equity: Investigating the Homework Gap

Do all students have the tools they need to complete their assignments at home?

Keith Krueger | December 2, 2015

In the political world, digital equity has been framed as "closing the homework gap." In other words, as education becomes increasingly digital, we must ask ourselves: Do all students have the at-home tools they need to complete their assignments?

This blog series and focus arrive at an exciting moment for the CoSN team. The CoSN board authorized my participation in a work-study program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, under the tutelage of Professor Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies.

Over the course of six weeks, I explored digital equity and its implications for education, with an emphasis on strategies that extended learning beyond the classroom.

My goals for the work-study program were to find out:

  • how innovative school districts and governments are undertaking digital-equity strategies that connect homes and locations outside of school to enable learning;
  • new financial models that could be deployed to connect low-income families to broadband networks; and
  • the importance of new partnerships with community foundations, governments, and nonprofits working with school systems to address digital inequities.

To begin this exploration, it's important to first review the most recent research on student access to broadband and devices in the home.

How Big Is the Problem?

In 2009, the Federal Communications Commission's broadband task force reported that about 65 percent of students used the Internet at home to complete their homework, a statistic that has likely increased given the growing trends of digital learning. Approximately 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband.

Pew concludes that low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle- or upper-income counterparts.

Some of the best information available is from the Pew Research Center.

graph of households with school age children who don't have broadband access

The good news: Most American homes with school-age children do have broadband access -– about 82.5 percent (about 9 percentage points higher than average for all households).

The bad news: Five million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service at home. Low-income households -- and especially black and Hispanic ones -- make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million.

Pew concludes that low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle- or upper-income counterparts.

Race and ethnicity are also significant -- low-income black and Hispanic families with children are disproportionately more likely to lack broadband.

This past spring the Hispanic Heritage Foundation survey found:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Hispanic students who did not have regular access to a computer at home used their smartphones to access the Internet.
  • Nearly 50 percent of all students said they were unable to complete a homework assignment because they lacked access to the Internet or a computer. Hispanic students reported this more frequently.
  • Overall, 42 percent of students surveyed believed they received a lower grade on an assignment because they lacked access to the Internet. Hispanics were most likely to feel they had received a lower grade because of this.

Only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that their students had the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments.

Research by the Alliance of Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that teachers in high-poverty schools were more than twice as likely to say that their students' lack of access to technology was a challenge in their classrooms. Only 3 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools said that their students had the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments, compared to 52 percent of teachers in more affluent schools.

Research from Other Communities

The Miami-Dade school district received a $3.5 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to provide laptops and a computer connection for use at school and home. A survey found that 90 percent of parents indicated that having the computer and home access enabled them to stay more informed about their children’s academic performance.

Finally, while educational leaders are focused on reducing digital inequities for learning, there are many other reasons why broadband networks are important to low-income families. A really impressive site for research around digital-inclusion strategies for gigabit cities is available from Denise Linn, who authored this policy analysis while at the Harvard Kennedy School.

What Are the Statistics in Your Community?

National statistics are great, but education leaders must also have statistics for their communities. When I ask technology leaders and superintendents about their communities, they typically respond with generalities, such as "our students don’t have broadband at home" or "only wealthy students have devices."

Unfortunately, those generalities don't provide facts to galvanize a community to act where there is a digital-equity problem/homework gap. And these generalities are not persuasive in trying to change policy.   

Ironically, with free or low-cost online survey tools, every school system could document the digital-equity reality school by school and most importantly disaggregate the data by poverty, race, and ethnicity. That is today's digital imperative.

Please email me if you have other important statistics or research on digital inequities and their impact on learning.

This piece was originally published on the CoSN blog on September 9, 2015.

CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) is the premier professional association for district technology leaders and is well positioned to shape the conversation and achievable efforts on this front. For the past 24 years, CoSN has empowered educational leaders, primarily in U.S. school districts, to leverage technology to support engaging learning environments. CoSN is at the forefront of encouraging wise investments of resources to support smart education-technology leadership and enable robust education networks.