The homework gap has become a common phrase amongst those invested in broadband equality and digital inclusion in the United States. Popularized by Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the term captures the idea that the shift to online education, exemplified by online homework, leaves millions of students unable to do their assignments. Put bluntly, some students have access to high speed broadband, others do not, which immediately places them at a disadvantage. As we know, upwards of 70% of teachers assign homework that needs to be done online. According to Pew Research, however, upwards of 15% of all K-12 students do not have access to a reliable broadband connection from which to do their homework.
The number rises to 18% when looking specifically at rural school children. The number worsens when looking at black students (25% without high-speed internet) and those coming from low-income families (35% with a household income under $30,000). Minority communities are also more like to rely exclusively on a mobile device for their internet connections. Mobile is no replacement for a fixed-broadband connection. (Imagine trying to type out an essay on an iPhone!?) In total, a 2017 congressional report estimated that the homework gap impacts up to 12 million K-12 students. The lack of broadband means that these students are falling behind. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that the state of Pennsylvania canceled the rest of the semester after “realizing many of their students might struggle to get online.” Broadband access is an issue of equality, of equity, and of prosperity for our young people.
But here is the kicker with all of this excellent (albeit depressing) data: it’s all focused on K-12 students.
When we think of the homework gap, we tend to think of grade school to high school and omit the 19.9 million postsecondary students across the country. Like their younger peers, these students have had their education moved online over the past three weeks to abide by social distancing requirements. More than that, they have been displaced from their residences in college dorms and apartments across the country. Sometimes, that means leaving a campus with a reliable and robust internet network and heading to their parents’ home, perhaps to a rural or remote area, or a low-income area that lacks a broadband connection capable of downloading a document, let alone, the requirements of a live, two-way Zoom conversation. Remember, while 79% of American households have a broadband subscription (and those without cite cost as a major determinant) upwards of 42 million Americans lack access entirely. These are the students on which COVID-19 casts a tremendous digital shadow.
As a professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, I witness this other homework gap operate in real time. Given the nature of my research on broadband deployment in the United States, I have often discussed with my students their experiences with broadband both at home and at UVA. Over the years many have mentioned that they do not have more than satellite internet access at home, even if they live in a high-income area. Satellite, as multiple sources tell us, is incapable of delivering the high performance broadband we need to participate in Zoom sessions, or even to stream a video.
When it was announced in March 2020 that the University of Virginia would transition online for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester (and beyond), I worried we would uncritically transition to a synchronous Zoom model, where classes would be held over video at the same time as their offline iterations. This would immediately disenfranchise those students who do not have access to broadband. My concern was shared by the university’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. Luckily, professors were given the flexibility necessary to transition their courses as we saw fit.
Before I re-designed my courses, I sent a survey to my students (found below) asking about broadband capabilities where they live. I based the survey off a similar one developed by my colleague Aswin Punathembekar. I asked my students if they could download a PDF, have an online voice conversation, stream a video, and finally, conduct a two-way video conversation – the most bandwidth intensive activity of any of this list. Some students in class admitted that live, two-way video would be difficult if not impossible.
My job, then, as it is now, and will always be, was to meet my students where they are. In response to my survey, I developed a hybrid course where I pre-record a lecture through PowerPoint and post it to our class webpage at the start of the week. This allows students to download the video at their leisure. Next, I conduct a text-based, chat session (think 1990s era AIM) on Wednesdays during regular class time. Both of these activities respect my students’ broadband limitations but do not surrender the material or learning outcomes. It even tries to maintain a semblance of the engagement lost without a regular, in-person class meeting. While we have only held two chat sessions thus far, I declare that the chats have been spectacular – with lots of student participation and very good ideas typed out. If the 90s and its music are back in style, then perhaps they are also back in communication. At least they are in my class.
For its part, UVA is exploring ways to connect its unconnected students, including the possibility of reimbursing students’ technology expenses. I worry, however, that we do not know how many of our students are unconnected or under-connected and how this lack of connectivity will impact their education and quality of life while practicing social distancing.
As employers and educators move their workforces and students online for the foreseeable future, they need to meet people where they are, and not where they presume them to be. Moreover, while the evidence in this post is anecdotal, I hope the lesson is universal: higher learning institutions need to understand their constituents’ (students/faculty/staff) broadband limitations, and, in the absence of high-performance broadband, these institutions have a duty to provide alternatives. This is not an option. This is a right: it is the right to learn, and the right to communicate.
To complete the survey