This story is the first installment of a four-part series examining the digital divide's impact on K-12. For the rest of the series, click here.
For educators, the digital divide is a growing source of concern that has demanded greater attention amid an influx of digital resources and technology into schools over the last two decades. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and forced an emergency transition to remote learning for public schools nationwide in the spring of 2020, it thrust the issue into the spotlight, making it a household topic of conversation nationwide.
While programs like the Federal Communications Commission's E-rate have long helped subsidize school connections and telecommunications infrastructure, students who lack a connection once they leave school grounds posed a challenge prior to the pandemic. "The fact is the current-era program, by design, really does not address that," said John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, a consultancy that helps schools navigate E-rate funding.
It's an issue that has been top of mind for Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, since she was first appointed as a commissioner at the agency in 2012.
"The pandemic has put a spotlight on so many equity issues we need to address, including the lack of internet access for too many students and families," Rosenworcel said via email.
Rosenworcel is often credited with coining the term "homework gap," describing the facet of the digital divide in which students whose families lack home access to reliable broadband or devices are unable to complete assignments dependent upon those tools.
"Our classrooms have internet access, but when our students go home at night, not all of them have reliable internet access," Rosenworcel said. "The more that I talked to teachers, the more I heard the same stories repeatedly: Kids sitting in the school parking lot with school laptops they had borrowed, late into the evening, trying to peck away at homework because that was the only place they could get online. Kids writing term papers on smartphones. Or kids sitting in fast-food restaurants and doing their homework with a side of fries."
In locations like Middletown, Ohio, where some families live in rural locations where infrastructure for a reliable connection might not be available, these challenges can be even more pronounced.
"I mean, you're talking about academic-appropriate devices being accessible to students throughout the day. The homework gap really shines a light on that," said Marlon Styles, superintendent of Middletown City School District. "Who is able to continue to remain logged in and continue that learning? Who's logged out after the moment that they step on the bus and go home?"
While Styles is encouraged by the attention given to the issue over the past year — with districts able to connect students during remote learning through take-home hotspots or Wi-Fi and hotspots provided via strategically parked buses, for example — he also says short-term successes must not distract from the need to seek long-term solutions. It's a stance echoed by Rosenworcel and others K-12 Dive spoke with.
"To put this in context, consider that it wasn't all that long ago that every student didn't always get textbooks or a grammar workbook," Rosenworcel said. "We need to start recognizing that for students who don't have internet access at home, having the school loan out a wireless hot spot is the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. We can do something to fix this."
Decades of attempts to address the divide
Recognizing technology's potential to differentiate learning and enable students to achieve in new ways, policymakers have increasingly woven it into the fabric of major education laws and initiatives over the course of several presidential administrations.
Research published in the journal Contemporary Educational Technology in 2016 traces the most recent wave of tech in schools back to the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Part C of that legislation, for instance, tasked the U.S. Department of Education with:
- Crafting a national strategy to integrate technology in education.
- Improving understanding of how tech could improve teaching and learning.
- Showing how it could create equal opportunity for success for all students.
- Creating high-quality professional development opportunities for integrating tech in instruction.
In 2002, technology's presence in education was further expanded by President George W. Bush's signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. That law sought in part to decrease digital divides between students along socioeconomic and racial lines, while also encouraging the integration of tech in teacher training programs to identify research-based teaching methods. Part D of NCLB, the Enhancing Education through Technology Act of 2001, required:
- Assistance to states for tech implementation in elementary and secondary schools.
- The development of initiatives to improve access to technology.
- Assistance for schools to acquire technology to expand student access.
- Professional development for teachers and administrators.
- Support for initiatives to involve families in these efforts and improve communication.
Finally, under President Barack Obama, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 established a $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund that prioritized instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A 2010 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also acknowledged the technology's promise for supporting educational innovation while simultaneously cautioning that it cannot replace the need for great teachers, and that providing adequate tech infrastructure for schools and students would demand significant attention and resources.
The Obama administration's ConnectED initiative also sought to have 99% of America's students connected to reliable next-generation broadband in schools and libraries by 2018. In 2019, the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway declared "mission accomplished" on the goal of having affordable and reliable broadband connections at a minimum speed of 100 kbps in 99% of U.S. schools, with capability to scale bandwidth for future needs.
"When I was at the White House, we had a massive problem with the lack of connectivity," said Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education and former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. "So there was a lot of effort around that, and it got much better. Clearly, as we saw when we went into COVID, it was not all solved. It was solvable, generally, because so much work had been in place on improving bandwidth."
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, most school districts nationwide that hadn't yet implemented 1:1 device programs — in which every student is issued a notebook, tablet or other device at the beginning of the school year — had plans to do so over the course of several years. The transition to remote learning, however, forced massive investments to fast-track those efforts and ensure access.
"A lot of the success of what the schools were able to do, sending students home last spring, and then this — most of this school year was [possible] because of what had happened in the E-rate program, in the run-up from 2015 to 2020," Harrington said.
For more on current policy efforts to bridge the digital divide, check out our look at their essential role in supporting effective solutions.
Despite those efforts, as well as programs designed to provide home internet to families who needed it, an estimated 12 million students remained disconnected as of January, according to a report from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation.
"In addition to addressing the access issues that keep families offline, we also have deployment challenges — in other words, there are parts of the country where there is little to no broadband access," Rosenworcel said. "But what's crazy is that the FCC doesn't have a clear picture of where broadband is and is not. Of course, you can't fix a problem you can't measure."
For more on efforts to expand access, check out our look at how an estimated 29 million disconnected households remain an "unknown known."
As a result, one of Rosenworcel's first moves as acting chairwoman was the creation of a Broadband Data Task Force at the FCC to help build the most accurate, up-to-date maps of where broadband service is offered nationwide.
"We must use every tool at our disposal to get these kids the online access they need to go to class, communicate with their teachers, and succeed," Rosenworcel said. "This crisis has made it painfully obvious that internet connectivity at home is not a nice to have, it's a need to have."
For Harrington, the crisis has made it "game time" to address the homework gap. "Not only to address the immediate need," he said, "but I think there's a real opportunity to demonstrate to Congress, to the public, how this can be done sustainably — not just as a one-time event, but ongoing, because you and I both know the homework gap wasn't created by the pandemic, and it's not going to go away after the pandemic."
Teacher (and parent) education must become a priority
Despite the emergency investments made in connections and devices to maintain learning during the pandemic, the true success of these efforts is dependent upon sustainability going forward — not just of the funding itself to repair and replace devices or pay for services, but to provide high-quality training to educators. Maximizing the educational return on these investments hinges critically upon the latter.
"The biggest challenge now is that we have state leaders who I'm positive are like, 'We do not know what to do with the money,' and, for better or for worse, technology providers have a whole sales team, and they're very quick to call the school and say, 'Oh, let's upgrade all your servers again,'" Culatta said. "What really needs to happen is they need to have a plan for how they're going to prepare and train their teaching staff on things that they never got when they were going through school, and that they've certainly never gotten in their professional learning."
The question school leaders should be asking themselves first and foremost now, Culatta said, is, "What does it look like to invest in your people so they use the technology in transformational ways?”
This, too, is a challenge that predates COVID-19 efforts to integrate technology in learning and close the digital divide. In 2015, when Culatta was still at the Education Department's Office of Ed Tech, he emphasized to K-12 Dive the importance of tech doing more than just digitizing a traditional experience, lamenting smart boards that are used the same way as chalkboards or digital textbooks that simply recreate the same pages as the print version on a screen, rather than adding active learning elements that encourage and inspire students to design, create and engage.
"When they just are digitizing traditional practice, the stuff that gets left out are things like social-emotional — or we refer to it as 'whole-child' — learning," Culatta said.
At ISTE, he has had an opportunity to address these concerns from a different angle through certification programs and, as of last year, Summer Learning Academy programming. "That was all focused on how do you just get online, because teachers last year were like, 'Oh, we‘ve never done anything online before.' It was really focused on how to do effective online learning," Culatta said.
This year's Summer Learning Academy is set to be focused entirely on how to keep digital citizenship and whole-child learning in the forefront as educators return to face-to-face learning environments that are now using more technology.
"Our hope is that many teachers take advantage of the opportunity to just get some skills that they need, to know how to leverage these new tools they have in their hands for addressing issues of social-emotional learning," Culatta said.
"We've had districts like Fairfax County of Virginia send like 4,000 of their teachers, something like that, through our Summer Learning Academy so their teachers could have common language to talk about how they were using technology better," he added.
ISTE is also working with colleges and universities to review and offer feedback to teacher preparation programs, which can ultimately earn an endorsement from the organization.
"There are not that many teacher prep programs that have been able to get the ISTE endorsement," Culatta said. "We've got to get more schools of ed that have been endorsed in some way, whether it's through us or some other way, to show they're teaching these skills. We have to get teachers that have been in service for many years participating in programs."
He said one reason ISTE created its endorsement is that accrediting agencies were not looking at how educators are prepared to use technology as an issue.
"It is a huge miss for us to be allowing teachers to come out of teacher preparation programs not thoroughly prepared to use technology effectively," Culatta said. "We have some data that shows that, consistently, one of the No. 1 things new teachers coming out of teacher prep programs complain about really not being prepared for is not being prepared to use technology."
He added it's also critical to involve parents and ensure they understand what their role is in a digital world so they can support their kids effectively — a sentiment Middeltown's Styles echoed, saying, "We've got to find a way to keep them educated on the technology trends that are happening in education so they can continue to keep an eye on the resources and help the kids at home."
"A lot of colleagues are doing some dynamite work, and then we all keep trying to learn from each other," Styles said. "But I do want to emphasize the importance of making sure, as we close the homework gap, that we bring the parents across the country along with us to support the kids."