To see the impact of the digital divide in rural Kentucky, look no further than the parking lot of Eminence High School when school isn’t in session.
“We see kids in their cars in the parking lot at night and on weekends,” says Buddy Berry, superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools. They’re there, he says, because they can access the Internet using the school’s wireless network—something many don’t have at home.
That’s a challenge in Eminence, a small 700-student public school district where teachers have had to find workarounds for large numbers of students who can’t access online materials at home. It’s also a challenge across the country. When we asked teachers to identify the biggest barriers to using digital resources, their students’ lack of Internet access outside the classroom topped the list. As many as 5 million U.S. households with school-aged children don’t have Internet access, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
What Keeps Teachers From Using Digital Tools
From the 2015 survey, Teachers Know Best: What Teachers Want from Digital Instructional Tools 2.0. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
We know teachers want to use technology because we asked them. Fully 98 percent of the more than 3,100 educators we surveyed in 2015 recognize the value of using technology for student learning. And in Eminence, where every student is issued a laptop or tablet and as much as 90 percent of school work is done online, it was teachers that pushed the district to address the divide, Berry says.
“Teachers had been driving us to find a solution so they wouldn’t have to differentiate for students who don’t have Internet at home,” Berry says.
As a first step, Eminence kept schools open for a few hours in the evenings. Berry even considered broadcasting Wi-Fi throughout the town, until learning doing so isn’t allowed under the federal E-Rate program that funds technology in schools.
“We had to figure out something,” Berry says.
The solution came from an unrelated effort to expand course offerings through a dual-credit program allowing students to earn high school and college credits in partnership with nearby Bellarmine University. To ensure that students didn’t lose instructional time while taking the bus to and from Bellarmine, Eminence district administrators asked wireless carriers if they could help wire the bus with Wi-Fi.
“They all said unless you’re a rock band, that’s not going to happen,” Berry says. Undaunted, the district purchased a commercially available Wi-Fi hotspot, connected it to its software filters and proxies, plugged it into the electrical system, and created Kentucky’s first Internet-enabled school bus.
Starting this year, Eminence began parking its own Wi-Fi-enabled buses in the town’s two low-income housing apartment complexes in the evenings, ensuring that every student can access the Internet from home.
Other districts across the country have put their buses on the road for similar reasons in recent years. California’s Coachella Valley Unified School District, for example, parks its fleet of Internet-enabled buses throughout a rural service area roughly the size of Rhode Island.
The need was so evident in Coachella, the nation’s second poorest school district, that voters approved funding for the buses as part of a broader technology initiative in 2013. But access is equally vital in places where it may not be so obvious which students struggle to find ways to do their work when school isn’t in session.
“We take for granted how information-rich we are,” Berry says. “If you have Internet access, it gives you equal opportunity to . . . accomplish and achieve. It levels the playing field.”