As we enter summer and close the books on the 2019-20 school year—one sure to be more than a footnote in history texts in the future—there’s a new consensus that all students should have the technology they need to stay connected to learning. But why did it take a global pandemic and national school closures to reach this point?
For many Americans, going without broadband Internet would be like giving up water or electricity because it’s a means to their livelihood.
Yet as this crisis has demonstrated, millions of children live in homes without reliable access to an Internet-connected laptop or tablet that can be used for schoolwork. Specifically, over 9 million children don’t have broadband at home.
The consequences of that are now clear.
Eighth-grade students without access to computers or the Internet were already more than two years behind their classmates, according to the Urban Institute. These gaps likely expanded over the past three months.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can eliminate the technology gap—what’s often also called the homework gap—the first step toward ensuring that all students have equitable access to remote-learning opportunities.
As schools across the country closed in March, it became clear that districts and charter networks that had invested in one-to-one technology programs prior to COVID-19 were better prepared to make the transition to remote learning. A review of prominent charter networks found that most distributed devices to students, which allowed them to “expect more from students and families in their remote learning plans.”
A few large, traditional districts also shined. Miami-Dade County Public Schools distributed more than 100,000 devices to students and ensured that nearly all students could get online. Thanks to clear expectations, adequate technology, and ongoing support, the district achieved attendance levels with remote learning that were comparable to in-person schooling.
The Internet connectivity and device gap is a problem that can be solved. Our nation has solved something similar before.
In 2012, a new organization called EducationSuperHighway launched with an audacious mission: to upgrade Internet access in every public school classroom in America. Back then, fewer than a third of school districts had Internet connections sufficient to support digital learning, and many classrooms lacked WiFi. Today, more than 99% of districts have fiber connections, and 42 million more students have access to the broadband they need for digital learning.
EducationSuperHighway has been so successful that the organization is shutting down this year. “There aren’t a lot of things in the nonprofit sector where people have actually accomplished a goal,” said founder and CEO Evan Marwell on a recent episode of the Class Disrupted podcast I co-host with Diane Tavenner. “One of the things that I think enabled us to actually complete this mission was that we defined our goal in a very finite way.”
Of course, connecting all students outside the classroom may prove even more challenging than connecting all schools, but Marwell isn’t deterred. His group launched a new initiative to help districts provide their students with devices and high-speed internet. As Marwell sees it, there are four critical issues to address:
- Define the problem: Most school districts don’t know which children have access to a device and broadband Internet at home. Through surveys and one-on-one follow up, districts must get a detailed understanding of the size of the problem.
- Connect service providers to families: The next step is to identify which Internet service providers can connect families—and which ones offer the best price. When districts have accurate information about pricing and geographic availability, they can connect families to the best deals.
- Transition devices from the classroom to students: In many cases, schools have computers, but they are tethered to classroom laptop carts and computer labs. Districts must develop lending programs that put devices in students’ hands with guidelines for acceptable use, maintenance, and other considerations.
- Get policy right: Even with existing resources, it’s clear that more money is needed. Marwell estimates that it will take nearly $2 billion per year to keep all kids connected to learning today and in the future. Future federal stimulus bills should include dedicated funding for education technology. In addition, the E-Rate program can be reconfigured to provide funding for students to learn at home, not just in times of national emergency, but on an ongoing basis. That would unleash a pool of money that already exists, rather than trying to find new funds to help.
In the longer run, disruptive innovation in Internet-connected devices—the advance of more affordable devices like smartphones, connectivity, and mobile-learning applications—will help. As a result, any policies that promise new funding for equipping families with devices should be revisited through sunset provisions and the like every few years to make sure they remain helpful and efficient.
But in the immediate term, we still don’t know what the next school year will look like and whether students and teachers will be able to return to the classroom full time or at all. Many districts are likely to adopt a blend of in-person and distance learning—an Enriched Virtual model of blended learning—and some parents may not feel comfortable sending their children back to school at all. This uncertainty is why schools have to act quickly to close the technology gap.
But there’s another, more important reason to get this done: when each student has access to an Internet-connected device, it opens all sorts of opportunities for learning inside and outside the classroom. It’s the first step toward paving the way for a more learner-centered model of education when students can learn at any time, any place, any path, and any pace—and it’s long past due.
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