There are no schools or communities in the United States that weren’t impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, those located in rural and economically disadvantaged areas continue to struggle with bridging the digital divide.
To bring awareness to the issue, lets start by looking at the scope of this long standing problem, highlighting inspiring responses from academic institutions, and begin a dialogue about long-term solutions.
Why it Matters
Lacking access to basic technology and the internet can significantly impact students' academic success. In fact, Michigan State University's (MSU) Quello Center found that students without immediate access to the internet, laptops, or tablets are half a grade point below those with access.
The ramifications for these discrepancies in education could have profound implications across an entire generation. For instance, The Quello Center's research also indicates that students without high-speed internet access at home are less likely to plan to attend college than those with reliable connections.
Students with internet access also have higher digital literacy, which often translates into higher scores on standardized tests. Conversely, a lack of digital literacy and skills will profoundly affect rural and disadvantaged communities as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) and the global digital economy evolve.
How Bad is the Problem?
The MSU Quello Center found that only 47 percent of students in rural areas have high-speed internet access at home compared to 77 percent of those in suburban areas. Of those who do not have internet access at home, 36 percent also live in a house with no computer.
MSU's research also indicates that students who rely only on a cell phone and have no home internet access had a digital skill gap similar to the capabilities between an 8th and 11th grader. To make matters worse, those relying on cell phones for internet access struggle to leverage all the available online resources their schools provide due to slow connectivity caps on data.
Other research from Common Sense Media, an educational media technology company, found that, as of February 2022, around 16 million students in the U.S. are without access to the technology they need to participate in distance learning. However, it’s not just students. Approximately 400,000 teachers lack adequate internet access for teaching remotely.
Additionally, Common Sense Media found that rural communities and people of color are disproportionately affected by the digital divide.
Students who lack adequate internet access:
● 21% Urban
● 25% Suburban
● 37% Rural
● 18% White
● 26% Latino
● 30% Black
● 35% Native American
Keep in mind, these numbers are national averages. The severity differs significantly state by state. For instance, in Arkansas, a staggering 46 percent of students don’t have access to the internet. These figures also demonstrate the many systemic inequalities associated with race.
An Old Problem with A New Name
It’s important to note that disparities and inequalities in education are rooted deeply in the fabric of the U.S. The pandemic simply brought them back into public view. What is now an issue of accessing computers and the internet was once a lack of books and other supplies.
Further, many students are simply not signing in for class due to weak internet connections, slow load times, and antiquated devices. Teachers in the highest-poverty schools reported that nearly a third of their students are not logging in or otherwise making contact. That's almost three times higher than the percentage of truant students reported by teachers in economically advantaged districts.
It's not just about getting educated, either. Many students in rural and disadvantaged communities are missing out on the real-time interactions that occur with synchronous classes—the blend of live instruction and remote learning. The opportunity to confide in a teacher, see a friend, or talk with support staff is an essential social-emotional component of schooling.
How to Bridge the Digital Divide
Many school districts have been creative in helping students access the internet and devices. For instance, some schools:
- Set up Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots around their counties
- Sent mobile hotspots home with students
- Partnered with internet service providers to offer free or low-cost internet
- Delivered USB drives with pre-recorded lessons to students’ homes
- Sent work home via snail mail
- Printed out work for parents to pick up
Texas introduced Operation Connectivity, allowing the state to leverage their bargaining power and conduct a bulk purchase of 1.3 million devices at a 40% discount from the market rate. This is a remarkable feat and strategy and the beginning of an opportunity to address access and equity among all K-12 learners in Texas. Perhaps other states can initiate these kinds of efforts too and broaden the digital learning opportunities among populations that are typically under served.
“Every K-12 student in Texas now has access to a working digital device at home, thanks to a coordinated effort among district superintendents, the state education department, state legislators, and the governor’s office.”
Small Features Can Make a Big Difference
As a nation, we have many hurdles to overcome before our education system is entirely equitable. However, there are small changes districts can make to ensure their students get the support they need. Curriculum directors and decision-makers should invest in a curriculum that provides both a hardcopy and digital copy of all resources, ensuring all students have access to educational materials regardless of technological access. Further, digital copies must be downloadable so that they're always accessible, even if Wi-Fi is not.
Picture Courtesy of eSchoolMedia & eSchool News. (2019). https://www.eschoolnews.com/2019/02/21/spotty-internet-access-for-rural-students-limits-achievement/.
Hampton, K., Fernandez, L., Robertson, C., Bauer, J. (2020). Broadband and Student Performance Gaps.
“Teaching Through the Digital Divide.” Common Sense Media. (2022). https://www.commonsensemedia.org/digital-divide-stories#/state.
Herold, Benjamin. (2020). “The Disparities in Remote Learning Under Coronavirus (in Charts). Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/technology/the-disparities-in-remote-learning-under-coronavirus-in-charts/2020/04.
Opalka, A., Gable, A., Nicola, T., Ash, J. (2020). “Rural school districts can be creative n solving the internet connectivity gap – but they need support.” Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2020/08/10/rural-school-districts-can-be-creative-in-solving-the-internet-connectivity-gap-but-they-need-support/.
Lieberman, Mark. (2021). “Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don’t?”. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/technology/most-students-now-have-home-internet-access-but-what-about-the-ones-who-dont/2021/04.