Digital divide in California homes hinders student learning

Digital divide in California homes hinders student learning

(Calif.) Internet usage and broadband access are at all-time highs, according to a recent brief from the Public Policy Institute of California, but large gaps remain among major demographic groups, as well as in rural areas, which is likely hurting some students.

“Lack of internet access at home leaves underrepresented students further behind,” wrote PPIC researchers Justin Goss, Courtney Lee and Niu Gao. “Although the state has made progress closing the digital divide at schools, internet access at home is still a challenge.”

Indeed, schools have made significant progress in expanding digital learning on campus, and many rely on the internet to deliver instruction, administer assessments and manage educational data.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 90 percent of schools in California met the commission’s minimum threshold for digital learning in 2018, and 59 percent met the FCC’s long-term targets.

In fact, rural and high-need schools were just as likely as urban and low-need schools to meet those targets–in large part thanks to more than $270 million in federal support toward pushing affordable internet connectivity in California schools and libraries, as well as $48 million in 2018-19 from the state.

The problem, according to the PPIC brief, is that while nearly 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires broadband access, close to 16 percent of students–or about 945,000 children–had no internet connection at home in 2017. About 27 percent, or approximately 1.7 million kids, didn’t have broadband connections.

Researchers said access varied significantly by family income, race and ethnicity, parental education and geography–a trend known as the digital divide.

Among low-income households with school-aged children, 22 percent did not have any internet connection at home, and 48 percent reported no broadband access at home. Nearly half of those households said cost was the main barrier.

Those gaps were similar to overall trends statewide.

In 2017, 90 percent of California households used the internet and 74 percent had broadband subscriptions at home, according to the brief. That’s a jump even from just four years prior, which 82 percent of households had internet access and had a broadband subscription.

Despite those increases, researchers found stubborn gaps remain in low-income, less educated, rural, African American, and Latino households, where only up to 67 percent of households had broadband subscriptions in 2017.

Notably, these households were more likely to rely on cellphones to access the internet, according to researchers. Overall, 73 percent of households in 2017 reported accessing the internet using a cell phone.

Only having internet access through a cellphone can create challenges in completing homework and other required tasks for school.

In a report released last year by the ACT Center for Equity, researchers said the big problem with trying to accommodate contemporary assignments with a smartphone is that that not all class assignments that required online access were formatted to be read on mobile devices, and many students reported having unreliable internet access at home as it is.

To address such an issue, many districts throughout the country have partnered with internet providers to offer discounted service plans for disadvantaged families.

In some states including California, Kansas, Florida and Iowa, school leaders have equipped school buses with Wi-Fi service so students can do homework on their way to and from school. Some even park the buses in less affluent neighborhoods where students less likely to have an internet connection can access it on evenings or weekends.

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