Many of us take internet access for granted. But statistics tell a different story for some communities — a 2020 report from Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group found that nearly 30% of all K–12 public school student households are without either internet connection or an adequate learning device. Much of these effects are felt unevenly. The report revealed that 18% of white households lack broadband compared to 26% of Latino, 30% of Black and 35% of Native American student households.
While the impacts of the digital divide were felt by many low-income students and those living in rural areas long before the pandemic, the abrupt switch to fully remote learning last spring has created a new urgency to address a long-standing issue. Whereas in the classroom, students had the same access to technology, distance learning eliminated this opportunity for a more equal playing field.
In rural areas, connection often isn’t strong enough to stream classes and complete online homework assignments — especially if there are multiple people in the same household trying to connect at once. And even if an area does have the bandwidth, many low-income families cannot afford the monthly subscription fees or the hardware devices necessary for remote learning. Students facing these challenges experience significant learning loss as a result.
In the 2020 Insight Public Sector EdTech Forum, education IT pros discussed the ways they’ve worked to bridge the technology divide. Some schools have opened their networks, allowing students to visit campus for connection. Others have prioritized procuring more devices and distributing mobile hotspots. While the solution varies depending on the needs of the individual community, the panelists did agree on one thing: We must do more to address digital inequity.
In the short term, many schools have focused on providing access to as many students as possible — a result of the desperate need created by the pandemic. For long-term solutions, schools and communities intend to view wireless as a necessity, aiming to become their own service providers. This not only supports remote schooling, but also telehealth services and smart city initiatives.
Like many others across the country, students in rural Hidalgo County, Texas, found themselves without the bandwidth necessary for successful learning in the switch to online instruction. Determined to reduce digital inequity, lawmakers allocated money from federal funding to a public Wi-Fi solution. This helped give students the connection needed to encourage learning, and the county was able to provide internet access to more than 30,000 students and teleworkers.
As wireless connection becomes increasingly important for students and remote workers, community wireless broadband solutions like Hidalgo County’s play a critical role in providing large-scale, secure connection. And with the right system in place, residents will continue to benefit from these solutions long after the pandemic.
In the spirit of education, it would be a loss to not evolve from the lessons learned over the past year of distance instruction. With greater attention to this issue, schools are finding new ways to adapt to remote and hybrid learning — and even developing innovative approaches to incorporate technology back in the physical classroom.
New funding sources such as the CARES act and the American Rescue Plan Act are enabling school districts and communities to begin addressing the needs of underserved areas. The Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund in conjunction with the E-Rate program seeks to ensure that every student has the technology tools they need at home as well as on campus.
With the expansive capabilities of today’s technology, the quality of a child’s education should not have to suffer due to a lack of resources. While certainly not an overnight fix, focusing on this issue and embracing available IT solutions is a critical step toward democratizing internet access and creating a more powerful education experience. Transforming the future of education for our children starts today with working to bridge the digital divide — one step at a time.