When the digital divide is made worse by a pandemic

As it turns out, the digital divide proves tougher for students with fewer electronic devices at home--and the COVID-19 crisis makes the divide even wider

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The digital divide is proving one of the most pervasive and stubborn challenges in U.S. education, and its effects can follow students from kindergarten through college. As if that’s not bad enough, the COVID-19 crisis, which forced students across the globe to learn at home while schools closed physical operations, made inequities even more apparent.

Students in schools all over the U.S. struggled to find existing or reliable internet connections, many didn’t have access to appropriate devices to complete online assignments, others waited for weeks until schools managed to organize device-lending programs, while still others had to share devices with siblings and, sometimes, parents who also had to work from home.

Related content: Family tech nights can narrow the digital divide

But these inequities existed long before a global health pandemic shed light on the connectivity and access struggle occurring in the nation’s schools and homes.

A study confirms that, despite efforts to close the space, the gap between students who have access to devices and the internet and those who lack it compounds equity problems within U.S. schools.

Research from ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning shows that underserved students with access to only one electronic device in their home may find it difficult to complete schoolwork. The homework gap, as it is frequently called, is particularly tough on low-income and rural students. Even when families have one device at home, that device is often a smartphone, which isn’t conducive to completing homework or doing research.

While the research is from 2018, not much has changed, signaling an alarming and frustrating lack of progress.

The report, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity,” looks at the 14 percent of ACT-tested students who said they had access to only one device at home. It was a follow-up to the report “High School Students’ Access to and Use of Technology at Home and in School,” which examines overall survey results and results for selected subgroups.

According to the report, among students who have access to only one device at home:
• 85 percent were classified as underserved (low income, first generation in college or minority).
• 28 percent of students who have one device at home say that device is provided by their school–40 percent of those students have a laptop and 31 percent have a smartphone.
• 56 percent of students reporting access to only one device at home say that device is a smartphone.
• American Indian/Alaskan, African American and Hispanic/Latino students had the least amount of access; white and Asian students had the highest. For example, 20 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native students have access only to a smartphone, compared to only 4 percent of white students.

Naturally, students with access to more than one device at home use those devices more frequently than students with access to only one device at home. Sixty-eight percent of students with access to two or more devices use those devices for homework, while just 48 percent of students with access to only a smartphone use that device for homework.

Of students whose parents have a college degree, the majority have access to more than one device at home; just 7 percent of this group have access to only one device and 3 percent have access only to a smartphone–a disadvantage of 15 percentage points for first-generation college students.

Various reports and research offer a few suggestions as school leaders hope to tackle the digital divide and the homework gap:
1. Expand device and internet access among those who lack them
2. Ensure all students have easy access to the applications they need for school-related activities via mobile technology
3. Look to instructional coaches, who, according to Digital Promise research, can play a key role in closing the gap and advancing equity
4. Look to other districts for examples and best practices
5. Think about unconventional ways to connect students to the internet, such as putting wi-fi on school buses