From Hotspots to School Bus Wi-Fi, Districts Seek Out Solutions to...

Diversity and Equity

From Hotspots to School Bus Wi-Fi, Districts Seek Out Solutions to ‘Homework Gap’

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Oct 15, 2018

From Hotspots to School Bus Wi-Fi, Districts Seek Out Solutions to ‘Homework Gap’
From left: Susan Bearden, Michael Flood, Travis Litman, John Branam and Holly Woldt during a panel at the recent SHLB conference in Washington, D.C.

While most schools in the U.S. boast broadband access these days, and plenty of assignments require the internet, when students head home, their connections are not quite in lockstep with schools.

Thus, there is a homework gap—the problem created when students who use digital learning in class can’t get online at home to finish up their schoolwork.

This topic has gained some attention in recent years, as the mission to connect all U.S. schools to high-speed broadband nears completion. Many schools are left with two options: keep moving forward with digital learning—and risk leaving some students behind—or keep homework assignments offline, holding back the students who might otherwise benefit from software and tools available on the internet.

The issue is pervasive—and it disproportionately affects underrepresented minorities and students in rural areas. A report published earlier this year from the Institute of Education Sciences, the independent research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 80 percent of 8th graders use a computer at home to complete their schoolwork during the week. But 18 percent of all students in remote rural areas have no access to the internet or only a dial-up connection, compared to seven percent of students in suburban areas. Within rural areas, students of color are especially disadvantaged: 41 percent of black students lack access, versus 13 percent of white students.

There isn’t going to be a silver bullet on this issue, said Susan Bearden, chief innovation officer at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), during a panel in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, at the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition conference. But a holistic approach to the problem could significantly reduce the number of students living without broadband access at home, she added.

Travis Litman, the chief of staff and senior legal advisor for Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC commissioner who coined the term “homework gap,” emphasized the growing urgency of addressing the digital divide.

“It matters at school, and it matters for our future competitiveness as a nation, when you think about it,” Litman said.

One of the ideas he put forward for closing the homework gap is fairly simple. It involves mapping out areas within a community—or even across an entire state—where Wi-Fi is available for free. Schools, nonprofits and local governments could then provide students with the maps showing where they can find free internet in their area. Mapping is already being done in Washington state, Texas and California, among other places, Litman said.

In at least two towns—Athens, Ga., and Winterset, Iowa—school districts are going a step further. They are asking participating businesses to place decals on their storefronts that essentially send a message to students: “This is a safe place for you to do your homework,” Litman said.

Michael Flood, vice president of strategy at Kajeet, a K-12 wireless provider and device management company, described two ideas that his company is trying in nearly every U.S. state.

One is “SmartSpot,” a portable Wi-Fi hotspot for education. Students can check out the hotspots, oftentimes through the school’s library or media center and for up to an entire year. Alternatively, schools can assign a SmartSpot to a student or household for up to a year. Schools have the discretion to add certain filters and controls to the hotspots, depending on what officials deem is appropriate for that student and that grade level (elementary students may have more restrictions than high school students, for example).

The other solution is equipping school buses with Wi-Fi—something Kajeet is now doing in more than 200 school districts. “Three years ago it was a very new thing,” Flood said, “but it has really taken off. … We add a new [bus fleet] almost every week—probably one or two a week at this point. So it’s really, really growing quickly.”

There is still inequity in this approach, however, Flood said. Most districts can’t afford to put Wi-Fi on their entire bus fleet, so they have to “pick and choose” based on where they see the greatest need. As a result, Flood said, buses that have the longest routes—those over 30 minutes from the school each way—are typically prioritized.

“That’s significant enough to make a difference on their outcomes, their homework completion rates,” he said. And buses that shuttle students across the state to athletic events, debates or other competitions also get preference. “That’s where they see a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Flood said. “We have a lot of districts starting there.”

Eventually, Flood predicted, this trend will make its way to every school bus in every district across the country—just as Wi-Fi on airplanes, trains and metro buses is becoming the new standard.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up