Technology And Internet Access For Students In Underserved Communities

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Thomas McElroy is CEO and Founder of Level-1 Global Solutions, a mission-critical, technology systems integrator. getty The digital divide has been a hot-button issue for years. Although there is plenty of data to support the fact that the digital divide is alive and well, many people still do not understand the magnitude […]

Thomas McElroy is CEO and Founder of Level-1 Global Solutions, a mission-critical, technology systems integrator.

The digital divide has been a hot-button issue for years. Although there is plenty of data to support the fact that the digital divide is alive and well, many people still do not understand the magnitude of the problem. For instance, although 87% of households have access to a computer, smartphone, tablet or another internet-enabled device, only 73% of households have access to the internet.

Although these statistics have long been troubling, they became particularly dire during the pandemic. The disparities in access to technology and the internet are far more pronounced for many minority groups, low-income or homeless individuals, English-language learners and individuals with disabilities. Yet, throughout the pandemic, internet access was required for many essential daily tasks, such as grocery shopping, attending school and joining work meetings or telehealth doctor appointments. Furthermore, in many instances, the internet was also required to access basic governmental assistance programs — and, not surprisingly, it is those demographic groups with the least access to technology who often need the most help.

Throughout 2020, the impact of the digital divide on the educational system, in particular, became more glaringly obvious. As schools shifted to an online learning format, many students struggled — not just academically, but also due to the lack of access to the internet and/or to a suitable device. Even though 87% of families have an internet-enabled device, that still means that more than one out of every 10 students likely doesn’t have the technology needed to complete daily schoolwork and homework.

In many instances, school systems have been supplying devices for students. But even when schools provide the platform and the technology (often, iPads, Chromebooks or other tablet devices), students still cannot connect and participate without reliable high-speed internet access at home. Without the ability to connect, these students obviously cannot demonstrate the same academic achievement as their peers — and without addressing the digital divide within education, the risk is that an entire subsection of America’s youth will be left behind, unable to move forward academically.

Similar to digital divide trends seen in other facets of society, those affecting education disproportionately impact students of color — even among student groups who attend the same school. Following is a racial breakdown of students who either had no access to the internet or only had dial-up access in their homes in 2018:

27% Native American

19% African American

17% Hispanic

12% Pacific Islander

7% reported two or more races

7% white

3% Asian

Clearly, these percentages are not proportionate to each of these groups’ total makeup in the general population. The digital divide disproportionately impacts students from marginalized groups. Yet, access to high-speed internet is becoming increasingly important for every student to complete basic educational requirements, even in elementary school.

Because the educational digital divide has such a profound effect on students’ overall growth, safety and well-being — including the opportunity to achieve success, both now and in the future — many community and business leaders are exploring ways of addressing the problem on a local level. Although there are many technological solutions that can positively impact the educational digital divide, the following three are particularly noteworthy.

• Universal Connectivity/Enhancing Connectivity: Currently, the biggest barrier impacting access to education is connectivity. Nearly all policy recommendations that address the digital divide focus on increasing connectivity as the top priority. Inequitable access to electronic devices and reliable, high-speed internet connections has a negative impact on opportunity, achievement and equity gaps in education. Many argue that high-speed broadband should now be considered basic community infrastructure, given that access is so crucial to nearly all aspects of modern life. Programs that address internet access imbalances — including universal community-based Wi-Fi and those developed through the Wireless Reach Initiative — can improve educational opportunities and ensure that all students are prepared to succeed.

• Flexible Educational Platforms: During the pandemic, almost every school began working with a digital platform to deliver content, communicate with students and parents and provide instruction. But as with any other technological solution, the features and benefits vary between platforms, with some offering more flexibility than others. Options are available that provide offline access to content or allow content to be downloaded or stored. However, although these platforms can help improve access to certain materials, they still do not address the underlying problem of no internet access — and thus, do not benefit students who must be homeschooled during a pandemic.

• Working With Families 1:1: For communities where universal Wi-Fi isn’t an option, they may want to consider upgrading public access through facilities such as libraries and community centers. The community can also work with a variety of businesses and organizations to assist them with overcoming the challenges with technology access, such as the Closing The Gap Foundation. By identifying the resources that are needed, the community can work together to address the needs and narrow the educational digital divide.

The Covid-19 pandemic did not create the educational digital divide but magnified it exponentially. The flaws in the system are glaring, and unfortunately, many students are suffering because of it. Without devices and reliable connectivity, it is impossible for students to thrive in the modern educational system — especially during a pandemic. However, by prioritizing education and exploring numerous technological solutions, communities can create and maintain an equitable educational structure that allows all students the opportunity to succeed.


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