Your 5 Steps to Begin Addressing the Homework Gap/Digital Equity

This blog is the fourth in a series on digital equity from CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. Read Keith's introduction to the series here.

As I continue to examine the challenge of digital equity, I've learned about many strategies school districts might use to mitigate the lack of Internet access outside of school. I wrote in last week’s blog about how digital equity is a community challenge, not strictly a school problem. To address digital equity comprehensively means putting comprehensive community strategies in place.

In a sneak peek of the results from the forthcoming CoSN 3rd Annual E-Rate & Broadband Survey, which will be available by mid-October, the vast majority of U.S. school districts continue to report they are not currently doing anything to address technology access outside of school --75% reported “no action” vs. 82% last year. 

To start, here are five steps that all school districts should consider to address digital equity. Every community is different, but these are the ideas that could gain traction, merit a conversation, and make a difference:

Step 1: Determine the size of the challenge. As highlighted in the previous blog, a key first step is to scope the challenge you face in your community. A survey of parents/guardians and students seems to be an essential first step. Rarely can you solve a problem if you can’t define the size of it. Grundy Center Community Schools in Iowa is a great example of a district that has visualized its data around home infrastructure and access.

Step 2: Partner with businesses. Fifteen percent (up from 10% last year) of school districts currently try to convince businesses and community partners to enable Wi-Fi use for student outside of school for homework. Typically these are branded programs and the business gets some sort of recognition by the school district –perhaps a logo indicating they are a Homework Wi-Fi partner with the school district, such as in Forsyth County Schools, Georgia. The upside of this strategy is that the cost is minimal for the school system. Many school districts are also mapping out their community to help students find free Wi-Fi. One such example is in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

Step 3: Team with community. Consider working with your community to install Wi-Fi in places where students spend time, but aren’t able to get online. For example, in many communities, students have long bus commutes. In Coachella Valley School District in California, Superintendent Darryl Adams has placed Wi-Fi on all buses and then parks the bus overnight by low-income households, such as in trailer parks, transforming the buses into mobile hotspots for families. Having Wi-Fi on buses also appears to reduce behavioral problems, as students focus more on their screens and less on creating disturbances on the bus. Huntsville City Schools reported a 70% drop in discipline problems. This strategy can increase costs to the district, but it gives students more learning time to do homework.

Likewise, Albemarle County School District in Virginia has worked to get Wi-Fi in places where low-income families gather, such as laundromats, to provide children with Internet access while trying to do homework. Do you know if your community's “gathering points” are already providing connectivity?

Community access is great, but at some point students have to go home. Clearly the hardest part of digital equity to crack is home access. However, there are innovative home access efforts underway in districts around the county.

Step 4: Seek mobile hotspot programs. Nearly 5% of school districts report they are implementing a mobile hotspot loaner program. School districts such as Green Bay in Wisconsin and Affton in Missouri as well as the Kansas City and New York Public Libraries have all created programs to allow students without Internet access at home to check out a mobile hotspot. These programs vary in details, but New York allows the family to check out the hotspot for the full academic year.

The great thing about this sort of mobile loaner program is that the device can go wherever the student is doing his homework – at home, at the playground, on the bus, wherever. School systems must ensure the mobile hotspot complies with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and provides an age appropriate filter. Typically the hotspot has a cap on the amount of bandwidth allowed by the student. 

Step 5: Take advantage of special broadband offerings. Finally, 11% of school districts promote programs like Connect2Compete. These programs typically are available to low-income families (e.g. – broadband for $9.95 a month) and eligibility is often tied to federal poverty programs, such as school lunch program eligibility. There is a time limit on how long the companies are committed to offering these special broadband discount programs. Additional restrictions exist on some programs and you should read the fine print before becoming a promotion partner.

These five steps provide guidance on how some school districts are addressing digital equity today. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a productive way to get started and better connect students anytime, anywhere.