There’s a limit to what children from lower-income homes can learn in school. The reason: lack of internet access. Whether you refer to this as the “Homework Gap,” “Digital Divide” or “Digital Insecurity,” the fact remains, as we push towards technology-focused education, many kids are left behind.
A recent Pew survey estimated 15% of US households with school-aged children don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home. Not coincidentally, one-third of households with children aged six -17 and whose annual income falls below $30K don’t have high-speed internet connection at home.
Digital Insecurity: The Online Classroom
As a student in university, I remember professors warning against using the World Wide Web — in its infancy at the time — for research-based citations. Instead, we spent hours in the library, poring over reference books. The curriculum was dependent on book-based research.
The rules were simple: these resources were available to all students.
As a parent and tech user, I’m hyper-aware of how the landscape of education has changed. The internet, once thought of as a “nice to have,” is now a mandatory part of most school curriculums and an increasingly integral part of education.
My son’s school resembles a biodome of socio-economic diversity; all kids from all walks come here to learn. Our solidly middle-class kids have access to iPads and iPhones. However, not all students have access to the same resources.
Louise Plourde, director of Manor Montessori School in Toronto, Ontario, has observed this development in her own children. She tells Parentology, “I’ve definitely seen a shift from the traditional method of using worksheets, reading books and using textbooks with more project-based learning and research requiring the use of internet.”
Plourde imagines this widens the gap between digital ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in both the “practical approach to homework and expectations of what should be achieved.”
In fact, 90% of high schoolers say they have to do homework that requires the internet a few times per month, if not more. Plourde says not having access to the internet at home would “certainly put them at a disadvantage.”
Jennifer Trinh, an international baccalaureate math and student success teacher for the Peel District School Board, agrees current education curriculum doesn’t always set students up for success.
“As an educator, I’m aware of the varying socio-economic, cultural and educational backgrounds of my students,” Trinh tells Parentology. While she doesn’t expect all students to be “wired,” she relies heavily on Google Classroom to supplement her lessons. “Those who cannot access it at home will be disadvantaged if they miss lessons.”
When one considers 70% of teachers in the US assign homework online, it’s not surprising that 17% of teen students don’t have the resources to complete assignments. Nearly half of teenagers in the bottom income bracket have to complete homework via cellphone. “We can’t deny this creates invisible barriers; whether due to finances or accessibility,” Trinh laments.
Potential vs. Opportunity
While children can access free WiFi at public libraries, some internet cafes and coffee shops, they need a safe, reliable environment for completing homework in order to achieve goals and realize potential.
In his Op-Ed piece titled “Divided, We Learn,” John Branam, executive director of the 1Million Project writes: “During the last many years, governments and nonprofits have made terrific progress wiring America’s classrooms, but learning should not end when a student leaves the school building.”
Perry Monaco, senior customer success leader at LinkedIn, concurs. “Being connected isn’t just about what you learn, but where you’re able to learn,” Monaco tells Parentology. “Proper internet usage can increase children’s creativity, independence and vocabulary when they have safe, proper access to it.”
Branam equates lack of access outside school grounds with locking a gate that limits potential and “prevents students from achieving success in high school and life.”
Leveling the Playing Field
When tracking my son’s educational success through an iPhone app or setting up his online reading program, it’s easy for me to forget we all live and teach in the same digital realm. A realm to which five million US families don’t have access.
“Setting children up for a healthy adoption of technology is a real-life skill they can carry through to adulthood,” Monaco says, “so long as they are provided the same resources as everyone else.”
While the US has made great strides in equipping nearly 99% of schools with internet access, this needs to trickle down to the homes of vulnerable students, a step towards ensuring the connectivity gap doesn’t become a chasm.
Pew Research Survey
Pew Research: Nearly one-in-five teens can’t always finish their homework because of digital divide
Tomorrow/Speak Up: How America’s Schools are Addressing the Homework Gap: Speak Up 2016 findings
The Atlantic: Why Millions of Teens Can’t Finish Their Homework
The Hechinger Report: Opinion: Online homework is a problem for 5 million families without internet at home
The 1Million Project Foundation
The Atlantic: When Students Can’t Go Online