Historically, the term digital divide referred to a lack of access to hardware and Internet connectivity. Basic technology access is less of an issue today; however, as we have increased the numbers of available devices and Internet-connected schools, we are discovering that solving the digital divide challenge is more complex than making ‘stuff’ available. We are discovering that, in addition to connectivity issues on campus, we also must address students’ use of technology outside the traditional school day, especially as technology-supported homework activities become increasingly common. Failure to attend to this challenge results in a phenomenon called the Homework Gap—a situation where, for a variety of reasons, students lack sufficient connectivity to complete assignments and then, in some instances, are penalized for not getting their homework done. What do mindful educators need to think about as they consider the current status of the digital divide off-campus and how it might be impacting teaching and learning?
It’s not uncommon for educators to form false assumptions about students’ access to technology at home based on information provided by parents and students themselves. This often happens when students and/or parents are asked questions in surveys or other data collection activities that fail to get at the information educators actually need. For example, it’s not enough to know that a student has home access to a tablet device that is used 30 minutes daily. It’s also necessary to know what type and model of tablet, what operating system it is running, how it connects to the internet, its screen size, if there are peripherals (e.g., a keyboard) and if the student is sharing the device with one or more other people as well as what the student is doing while using the device. The same is true for laptops, desktop computers, and smartphones. These specifics are needed to fully understand the quality of students’ off-campus connectivity.
There are similar concerns related to Internet connectivity. If there’s home access, what type and how robust is the network? If there’s no home access, where do students need to be to get online and is it possible for them to get there? If they are relying on a data plan for connectivity, can the plan support the required work and what is the monthly data allowance? Is the plan shared with other devices?
Equity concerns off campus often result in students not being able to complete homework as assigned or in them having to go to extreme lengths to keep up with their work. Students who are sharing a device with other family members or who have limited or no Internet connectivity at home may want to do their work, but not be able to due to circumstances beyond their control. Not only does this hurt them academically, but may have detrimental impacts on family relationships.
Quick fixes aren’t the solution
What can educators do to resolve Homework Gap concerns? Arriving at solutions requires effort and flexibility along with a recognition that quick fixes may take care of problems in the short-term, but are not ongoing solutions. For example, you may have heard about schools that enter partnerships with companies that will provide tablets with free 3G or 4G connectivity for one year or some type of WiFi hot spot. This is a generous offer that may immediately address lack of Internet access at home, but what happens at the end of the year? Typically, schools that take advantage of this kind of donation cannot afford to assume the cost of these accounts at the end of the year. With no back-up plan, users are reduced to relying on limited WiFi connections resulting in little or no use of the devices off campus.
Ongoing solutions require a lot of work and ingenuity. One way to begin might be to seek out agencies, organizations, and schools within the community that might be willing to partner with you to design long-term solutions. For example, Next Century Cities supports mayors and city leaders who are willing to partner with local businesses and schools to bring affordable Internet to local residents. Another possibility may be to work with local your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to learn about affordable options for families that cannot afford expensive Internet packages. It may be necessary to negotiate short-term immediate connectivity solutions such as access to WiFi networks at the public library or an after-school program, but if this is the case, be clear from the beginning that it is a temporary solution and plan for how you will follow-up with a more permanent solution.
Given the information above, how does the Homework Gap impact your students and what permanent solutions can you identify that could help your student bridge this new aspect of the digital divide?
N.B. The information provided above originally appeared as part of a longer article on digital divide issues in Today’s Catholic Teacher Magazine (Winter 2017).