Educators have been talking about the “digital divide” for two decades, and while some progress has been made in closing the gap, inequities persist in communities across the country. Major efforts have been undertaken to improve access to new technologies in lower-income school districts, but as more teachers turn to digital learning, Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) worries that “technology will be one more way to expand inequities rather than a bridge to narrow. ”
Krueger points to the so-called “homework gap,” or the barriers students face when working on homework assignments without a reliable Internet source at home. This gap has widened as an increasing number of schools incorporate Internet-based learning into daily curriculum. Three-fourths of school districts, however “are not doing anything about ensuring outside of school access to broadband,” Krueger says, citing CoSN’s recent infrastructure survey.
In 2009, the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force reported that approximately 70% of teachers assign homework requiring access to broadband. In addition, about 65% of students used the Internet at home to complete their homework, which could include submitting assignments, connecting with teachers and other students through group discussion boards, working on shared documents as part of a group project and doing online research for a school paper. Parents rely on the Internet as well to be fully-informed on their child’s academic performance, with many schools turning to online grading systems.
But what does this mean for the 5 million households with school-age children that do not have high-speed Internet service at home?
The homework gap forces students in these household to head over to the library to squeeze in two more hours of homework instead of going home for dinner after a long sports practice. Some may decide to forgo the safety and warmth of their home to venture out to the commercial parking lot with free Wi-Fi access in order to complete and submit their assignment. Or many students are simply unable to finish the work.
According to a recent study from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Family Online Safety Institute and My College Options, nearly 50% of students say they have been unable to complete a homework assignment because they didn’t have access to the Internet or a computer. Furthermore, 42% of students say they received a lower grade on an assignment due tol ack of access.
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The homework gap is real and has serious life-long implications. Millions of low-income students are unable to access the tools necessary to succeed in and outside of the classroom, creating an uneven playing field in the classroom. The dilemma has become, says Krueger, “the civil rights issue of today.”
Bridging the Homework Gap
For Terrence Vitiello, a 6th grade teacher at Alvin Dunn Elementary in San Marcos, CA., improving student access to technology-based learning is simply a matter of duty. Almost 90% of Alvin Dunn’s students qualify for the federal lunch program and 65% are considered English language learners.
“The world is changing and the skills that students need to thrive are changing,” says Vitiello. “At the end of the day we have to do what we can so that our children will thrive in a global economy. We would be doing them an extreme disservice if we didn’t prepare them. But it is essential that students have access to the proper materials 24/7.”
Nancy Hayashi, a Distinguished Teacher in Residence at Cal State
and a former Alvin Dunn educator, believes the lack of access to broadband is robbing millions of students of their full potential.
“You can have a child, who attends all the intervention programs a school can offer for years, be a highly motivated learner in school and have supportive parents, but is unable to truly reach their academic potential due to lack of access,” explains Hayashi. “This child, with so much potential, does the best they can during school hours to complete work, but misses the window for advancement due to time constraints.”
This past year, Qualcomm teamed up with AT&T and Samsung to run a pilot program at Alvin Dunn that provided the school’s sixth-graders with tablets connected via AT&T LTE mobile broadband service. While for some students this may sound like just a fancy new upgrade, for Alvin Dunn students it means much more. More than half of the sixth grade class do not have wireless access at home. With these connected devices, they no longer have to arrive at school 45 minutes early to finish an online assignment or stay later to get through some online reading.
Alvin Dunn Elementary students show off their LTE enabled tablets.
Vitiello credits the program with leveling the academic field in a way no other intervention has achieved. “Our students now have the same access to materials that other students have. Our team is seeing our students close the achievement gap.” says Vitiello.
According to a report by Project Tomorrow, 96% of Alvin Dunn students specifically impacted by the homework gap stated that these LTE enabled devices helped them to become better students, and 78% stated they “worked together with my classmates more often” as a result of taking a device home.
Despite its success, the program is not self-sustaining and funding is limited. After the pilot ended, however, AT&T agreed to work with Alvin Dunn for another school year year.
The Coachella Valley Unified District in California has equipped school buses with Wi-Fi routers, allowing students to work on homework assignments as they travel to and from school. These school buses also serve as public study locations for students. After bus drivers finish dropping off students, buses are conveniently parked in public spaces where students can study in a safe place close to their home.
And educators, of course, are doing their part by opening school doors early and keeping the library open late. Some teachers limit the amount of technology-based homework they assign and others even print hard copies of all the readings so students will not have to struggle to access them later online.
Needed: Less Workarounds, More Long-Term Solutions
These and other initiatives, however valuable, are seen more as stop-gap measures until comprehensive strategies emerge to improve access to broadband in every community.
In 2015, the FCC announced plans to upgrade its Lifeline plan that provides telephone access to low-income households. This upgrade would extend support beyond voice service to allow participants to choose between applying the same support to either voice or broadband service. This simple change would both update the program and help bring more broadband to low-income households with school-aged children. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that while closing the divide requires more than just updating the Lifeline program, “it’s a start …because the homework gap is the cruelest part of the digital divide.”
In Coachella Valley, CA., routers have been placed on school buses to enable students to do homework coming and going from school. Photo: PBS NewsHour
The FCC also modernized the E-rate program, implemented eighteen years ago by Congress, which has been very successful in expanding Internet access to the nation’s schools and libraries. In 2014, the program received an infusion of $1.5 billion to expand digital connectivity, a move strongly supported by the National Education Association.
Local communities, says Keith Krueger of CoSN, have a vital role to play in creating long-term solutions to the homework gap, and educators should be a part of that process.
“Educators need to be part of a community conversation and strategy of action that involves local elected officials, as well as the business and philanthropic community,” Krueger explains. “School systems cannot alone solve this problem.”
Technology & Its Challenges During Homework Time
6 tips to best use technology for school related work.
My 13 year old son is doing his homework on an iPad (provided by the school). While doing that, he stays connected to his teachers and classmates via his smartphone, chatting and asking questions, and (how can I forget…) sharing memes.
My 10 years old daughter gets most of her school assignment on paper, but on occasions she needs to send her work via google docs, do a research for a class project on-line, or prepare a presentation to share with her class using Power Point - for those she uses the house computer.
My neighbor’s son is in high school, where I was told kids can bring their own laptop to take notes and do homework. When her son comes home from school, he locks himself in his room (typical teenage boy behavior, so I was told), listens to music on the iPad, and chats with his friends on his iPhone, while the laptop is open for the current homework assignment.
My kids and my neighbor’s kid are not alone, we see more and more students using technology for their homework. Student surveys show almost third are using a tablet for it, while like my son, 65% are using a laptop for homework.
To make it even more challenging, 39% of 14 year olds reported using a smartphone to complete their homework, 42% of 6th graders, while 57% of 8th graders did the same (based on a study from Teen Research Unlimited, done for the Verizon Foundation found).
Thereare Great Benefits for Technology When It Comes Homework
Many schools have an interface or learning management system, like Edmodo or seasaw, in place that allows parents to view homework assignments and their own child’s progress.
Having the option to rely on technology makes scheduling easier. With tools like Google calendar, and other calendar apps, a 7th grader can have all assignment in the calendar. And Google can remind him or her to study for a test. It can also show the list of projects scheduled for the following week, making it easier to plan ahead.
Plus, teachers are more accessible as many are on social media for the students to contact with and ask questions.
For parents, it’s an easy window to see the child’s progress and keep an eye on what’s going on at school. For the child, the ability to finish and submit homework electronically, lower the chances of forgetting to submit or lose homework sheets, that make a big difference — make the already stressful life a bit easier for both.
When Getting Down to Do Homework
In a study conducted by Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University — Dominguez Hills, he surveyed high school students and asked them how often they switch from studying to doing something related to technology such as checking email, social media, texting, or even watching TV. Across all grade levels, 80% of students reported that they switch between studying and technology somewhat often to very often. Rosen calls this “Continuous Partial Attention”, meaning that most of the time, students are not focused on studying but rather are moving their attention back and forth between studying and various forms of technology.
Rosen explains, “Young people’s technology use is really about quelling anxiety…they don’t want to miss out or to be the last person to hear some news (or like or comment about a post online).” One of the major problems with texting and posting on social media sites while in class and/or studying, is that “they draw on the same mental resources — using language, parsing meaning — demanded by schoolwork”. Ultimately, he concludes, if we want students to learn and perform at their best, smartphones and other online distractions must be managed.
This, as you might expect, affected their grades, and quality of work. Students who were less distracted had higher GPAs than students who switched back and forth often and those who regularly check Facebook or text messages. Students who had strategies for studying also had higher GPAs per Rosen’s findings.
My Tips to Stay Focused
As you can see, technology use, while it has a lot to offer our kids in and out of school, has a cost. We just need to make sure we stay on top of it.
Boundaries - If we want our children to succeed at school and be able to utilize technology (and we all do), we need to set boundaries. Discuss with your child the appropriate time and place to use technology, and make sure they follow those rules. For example, when working on their huge social studies assignment, the TV and the phone with social media need to be off.
Tech breaks - Teach him or her to take technology breaks, in-order to separate doing homework from using technology. Go shoot some hoops, grab something to eat, ride the bike around the block, etc.
Tech free zone - If an assignment can be done with pen and paper, make sure technology is not in the room. Yes, they can listen to music but that’s it.
Turn off notifications while doing homework. The constant notifications are known to interfere with concentrating on the task in hand, and draw them into something they should not be doing.
Use parental control tools to block their usage on their devices when it’s time for homework.
Keep on talking - Lastly, keep the conversation going. Whether if it’s with reminding them of the need to take a technology break or refining the rules you set.
The school year is almost over, but it’s not too late to start making those changes, actually it’s even better. For those who are facing finals, it can improve their studying, and ultimately their final grades; and for the rest, it will give a head-start for the next school year, as it will already be part of their familiar routine.
Tali Orad, Founder & CEO of Screen / Founder of B.E.CPR, Inc
Entrepreneur and engineer, but most importantly, a mom to a son and two daughters, little angels that were spending way too much time on their electronic devices. That’s what inspired Tali to create Screen and reconnect with her family.