By Susan Bearden
It’s easy to forget, while attending an education technology conference such as FETC, that many students lack the high speed home internet access that most educators take for granted. Whether due to cost, geography, or other factors, Pew research indicates that 5 million households with school age children do not have high speed internet access at home. Even If students have a cellphone, they may have a limited data plan and may not have easy access to another computing device, such as a tablet or laptop, on which to do homework assignments.
While there is no one silver bullet to address the challenges faced by students without home internet access, innovative districts are exploring a variety of strategies to close this digital divide. For more information and examples, check out the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) digital equity toolkit as well as their digital equity blog series.
Low cost internet plans: Many major carriers ofter low cost internet plans (around $10/month) designed for low income families. Non-profit organization EveryoneOn serves as a clearinghouse for low cost internet plans and affordable computers. Users enter their zip code, confirm basic information about income levels and/or participation in government programs that serve low income families, and get a customized list of low cost internet plans for which they are eligible as well as organizations providing inexpensive computers. www.everyoneon.org
ConnectHomeUSA: EveryoneOn also leads ConnectHomeUSA, a program that aims to bridge the digital divide for public housing residents in the United States. ConnectHomeUSA helps residents in participating communities get connected at home and provides access to digital literacy training and educational content. While limited to select cities, schools with students in participating public housing programs could leverage ConnectHomeUSA to help bridge the digital divide in their communities. www.connecthomeusa.org
Identify and publicize community wifi hotspots: Some districts map out community hotspots where students can go to do homework. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia created this interactive map and list of community internet access sites in school neighborhoods and surrounding areas.
Provide wifi hotspots: Some districts, like Green Bay Area Public Schools in Wisconsin, make wifi hotspots and laptops available for students to checkout from school libraries. Other districts, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools in North Carolina and New York City Public Schools, have partnered with public libraries to make hotspots available for checkout. Non-profit Mobile Beacon provides hotspots with unlimited data to schools, libraries, and other non profits for $10/month. Their Bridging the Gap program, in partnership with nonprofit PC’s for People, helps schools, libraries, other nonprofits educate community members about high-quality, discounted computer offers and opportunities to purchase uncapped, low cost mobile internet broadband.
Install wifi on school buses: Another innovative approach to addressing the homework gap involves installing WI-FI on school buses, allowing students with long bus commutes or who spend hours traveling to sporting events to access the internet to do their homework. Some districts even park buses overnight in low-income communities to provide students with internet access in the evening hours. The U.S. Department of Education’s K12 Technology Infrastructure guide, Building Technology Infrastructure for Learning, highlights how the Salamanca School District in New York State leverages bus wifi; additional case studies are available at Kajeet.com.
Homework Gap Grants: The Sprint 1 Million Project, which provides devices and free high speed internet access for high school students in Title I schools, is currently accepting applications for the 2018-2019 school year. Applications must be submitted by a high school or district. The T-Mobile EmpowerED program also provides off campus devices and data plans to low income students. Districts and eligible elementary, middle, and high schools can apply on a rolling basis. Check out their program FAQ’s. In addition, Kajeet provides this list of Homework Gap funding resources.
Although the challenges faced by students without home internet access can be considerable, they are not insurmountable, Amidst the hubbub and buzz surrounding FETC, as you head home after the conference, be sure to implement your technology initiatives in such a way as to help close the digital divide, not expand it.