Technology Access Gap Leaves Millions of Students Struggling to Keep Up

Twenty-one-year-old Mirka Mendez, a petroleum engineering student at the University of Texas-Austin (UT), has a deep understanding of the US’s technology gap. Without easy access to the internet while in high school, she often had to leave home at 4 a.m. and sit on a bench outside her school so that she could use the building’s hotspots to do research, study or write papers before the opening bell.

“There was no internet where I was staying,” explained Mendez, who left Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — alone — in 2012. She was 15 and planned to live with relatives who had agreed to let her stay with them for $300 a month. It was her dream, she says, to study in the United States. Almost immediately, however, she realized that the arrangement was fraught. “Sometimes I walked to the public library three miles away,” she told Truthout. “I would stay until it closed and then walk back home.”

Despite the personal and academic difficulties she faced, Mendez always completed assignments and graduated high school in 2015 with a 3.7 GPA. Since arriving at UT, things have improved, she said. Nonetheless, she concedes that students in straits similar to hers often fall through the cracks and leave high school without a diploma, let alone enrolling in college.

Students Are Set Back Without In-Home Internet Access

A 2017 survey of more than 400,000 K-12 students, teachers, librarians and school administrators conducted by Project Tomorrow, a California nonprofit dedicated to educational equity, found that lack of in-home internet access is an enormous problem for students in all 50 states. This has been corroborated by researchers at Pew Research who discovered that 17.5 percent of school children in grades 6 to 12 have ongoing difficulties completing school work due to a lack of internet access.

The situation is especially bad in rural school districts. Some allow students to come to school early and stay late, and some have installed Wi-Fi on school buses. Despite this, more than a quarter of respondents told interviewers that they spend part of each day doing homework in coffee shops or fast food restaurants.

Academic difficulties are clearly compounded by the fact that broadband access is now essential for all students. This is not new. The Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force sounded the alarm almost a decade ago, in 2009, when they found that approximately 70 percent of teachers assigned homework that required internet use, whether to submit assignments, utilize bulletin boards, take practice quizzes, share documents for group projects, do research, check grades, or communicate with teachers or peers.

Needless to say, not having access to in-home, high-speed internet puts 5 million US households with school-aged children at a huge disadvantage. Worse, this completely ignores the fact that, even in homes with internet service, numerous family members may have to share one device.

Julie Evans, the CEO of Project Tomorrow, is focused on promoting the equitable distribution of technology and, simultaneously, making sure that teachers are equipped to use this technology in the classroom. “Educational equity is an important social justice issue,” she says. At the same time, she is aware that in-home internet access is just one piece of a far more complex array of concerns impacting how students are educated and supported in their learning.

“There are innumerable issues that have to do with how we use resources within schools,” Evans continues. Parents, she says, are often driven crazy by how much tech use varies from class to class, teacher to teacher. “Some teachers show students virtual experiments, Skype or Facetime with professionals, or have students create a blog. Other teachers don’t incorporate technology into their teaching at all, as if they don’t recognize its importance. This means that apart from in-home access, students are not being introduced to technology in an even way,” Evans says.

She believes that aspiring teachers must be prepared to use technological tools regardless of whether they’re teaching algebra, European history, physics or something else. That said, she admits that there are no one-size-fits-all strategies for making this happen.

Multiple Strategies Utilized

In the rural Southern Columbia School district in Pennsylvania, between 22 and 23 percent of the district’s 1,400 students receive free or reduced-cost meals, meaning that they come from families with incomes between $32,630 and $46,435 for a household of four. “Some students are impoverished and do not have access to broadband,” Paul Caputo, superintendent of the district, says. “Plus, in more rural areas, cell access is troublesome. Service is spotty and there are pockets where there is no service at all. On the plus side, these areas are fewer and fewer, but some still exist.”

District schools, he explains, are now fully wired, and thanks to various federal grants, have been able to “shift how we teach to include technology.”

In addition, Caputo told Truthout that not only are schools being kept open for expanded morning, evening and weekend hours, but every student in grades 7 to 12 has also been issued a computer. This technology was paid for by the sale of the district’s bus fleet several years back. “We realized we could not sustain our own transportation system so we sold our buses for $460,000 and earmarked $250,000 for tech implementation. We bought laptops which have been issued to more than 600 students.” The laptops are turned in at the end of each year, or if a student moves away, and the district currently outsources bus service for the students who need it.

Utilizing SmartBuses

The much larger Merced Union High School District in California’s San Joaquin Valley — with more than 10,000 students, 64 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals — did something different. After recognizing that many students spend an hour or more on the bus traveling to and from school, they equipped the buses with Wi-Fi so that assignments might be completed in transit. The use of Wi-Fi equipped SmartBuses has spread, and they are presently in use in numerous districts throughout the country.

Still, the more than 1.3 million public school students who are homeless, and the more than 400,000 living in foster care often face monumental hurdles in getting schoolwork done in a timely and thorough manner.

Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group that addresses the educational needs of homeless youth, outlined the deficits.

“Most are focused on the needs of adults, not kids, and some require you to be out of the building during the day. The current federal push is to get single adults into permanent or supportive housing…. These policies typically do not take children’s academic needs into account,” Duffield told Truthout. “This is a glaring example of federal failure, since we know that the lack of computer and internet access contributes to the high dropout rates of poor and homeless kids. I’ve seen kids get discouraged when they are belittled by a teacher for not turning in work on time. They’re also typically embarrassed to disclose that they are homeless.”

Emotional Toll Is Enormous

Ed Vere, an Urban Studies major at Wheaton College, remembers this discomfort well. Vere came to the US from the Philippines in 2012, at age 14. After family members told him that he could no longer stay in their Illinois home, he lived with a variety of people and spent several years couch-hopping. “I told my teachers that I did not have access to the internet at home and, if I knew I’d be late with an assignment, would ask if I could turn it in after the due date. Some were gracious, but others said I should have planned ahead or not procrastinated. It made me feel really depressed and suicidal,” he recalls.

Vere now lives on the Wheaton campus and, like Mirka Mendez, says being in college has given his life needed stability. “I even have fast Wi-Fi in my bedroom,” he says. Looking back, though, he believes that his high school teachers should have been better attuned to his despair. “I excelled in school because I channeled all of my energy and emotions there. I appeared fine because my grades were not red flags to my teachers, counselors or coaches. However, mental health is invisible, and mine was falling apart. The red flags were subtle. Saying I did not have Wi-Fi was the only warning I could muster.”

Bobbie Jones, homeless liaison and grant administrator of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Harris County, Texas, never wants another student to go through what Vere experienced. This is why her district has opted to use Title 1 money — a grant allocated through legislation authorized by 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act — to provide the District’s 450 homeless students with laptops and hotspots, a wireless local area network that will provide them with an internet connection and private network access from any location. Although the program is still in the planning stages, Jones expects it to roll out in January 2019. “Many homeless students have difficulty completing homework, and it is not always possible for them to stay late at school,” says Jones. “There are real gaps in academic achievement for homeless students, and we hope this will lead to improved grades and better achievement overall.”

Money, of course, is paramount, and although most school districts now have internet in school buildings, they continue to scrounge for funds to provide laptops, iPads and hotspots to students, or expand access in other ways. Several for-profit groups — Kajeet is among the best known — have jumped into the fray, and while corporate and foundation money is sometimes available to schools or school districts, it does not come close to meeting the need.

That’s where the federal government comes in — or should come in. Not surprisingly, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not uttered a word about technological inequality since assuming the Department of Education helm in the winter of 2017. For its part, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has several programs that provide assistance to both individuals and districts. According to Mark Wigfield, deputy director of the FCC Office of Media Relations, the E-Rate program has, since 1997, provided money to public schools and libraries to connect to the internet and upgrade services as needed. The amount allocated is tied to poverty rates in a particular area; last year $3.3 billion was expended. E-Rate is administered by the Universal Service Fund; its revenue is raised by a consumer tax on telephone service.

Although smaller, the LifeLine Program provides a $9.25 per month subsidy toward the phone or internet service of more than 13 million low-income people. According to Mother Jones, LifeLine is on the chopping block, but, to date, no pronouncements have been made about the FCC’s intentions.

The stakes of this — as well as of the larger effort to make sure that every student has 24/7 internet access — are enormous, and growing. Harvard Professor of Education Chris Dede, in the introduction to Closing the Homework Gap by Daniel J.W. Neal, lays it out clearly and succinctly:

If equivalent broadband access outside of school is not addressed, then teachers are hampered in using powerful forms of digital learning. Either they must privilege some students at the expense of others, or they must forego effective, technology-based instructional strategies that could help all students. The fundamental issue is whether we limit learning to the school place and the school day, or instead make learning life-wide.