While the homework gap has existed for some time, the massive virtual learning spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic shed a bright light on the challenge of ensuring all students, no matter their geographic location or socioeconomic status, have access to the right learning devices and to reliable, high-speed internet access.
During a CoSN 2023 session, edtech stakeholders convened to discuss innovative strategies around closing the homework gap and how schools—at the local, district, and state level—can ensure home connectivity for all students.
“During the pandemic, the [homework gap] really gained the awareness of a much wider audience, because all students and families were impacted by the need to be online simply to be in school during the day,” said Michael Flood, SVP and GM, Public Sector at Kajeet.
During the panel discussion, a number of common themes emerged as strategies for school leaders to try as they seek to implement policies and practices designed to close the homework gap and bring connectivity to their school communities.
Set high goals when it comes to making sure every student has an appropriate device that connects to high-speed internet at any time from any location. Every student should have a device and an anytime, anywhere high-speed internet connection. Rural areas are especially in need, noted John Parker, VP of data science and research at Innive Inc.
“We’re seeing a massive different in urban connectivity and rural connectivity. We have a long way to go on rural connectivity—it’s almost painful. It’s a continuing issue to deal with,” said Parker.
Know your data–including student engagement and logon data–to best understand your school and district challenges. Build a plan around that data.
“Lots of districts started harvesting data from their LMS [during the pandemic],” said Parker. “That’s one of the best places to start.” Examining logons for digital tools and resources is helpful, too. If data indicates students are not logging in to complete or turn in assignments, there’s a high possibility that those students have challenges connecting to the internet or securing an appropriate device.
“Harvesting this information around logons was extremely important, and still is, because it tells you a lot about engagement and home connectivity. If students aren’t logging on, that’s a big issue,” Parker added. “We also realized the importance of families being involved. Who has access to the parent portal, and how many times have families accessed it to get information?”
Conducting regular surveys and creating student engagement records (consisting of attendance records, LMS logons, edtech tool logons/use, and whether messages to students are read or remain unread) are two steps districts can take to get a better sense of where student and parent engagement sit. That data can help schools identify the students and families with engagement and/or connectivity issues, and schools can take specific interventions to correct those issues.
Form partnerships to achieve your goals. Working with state offices and partnering with telehealth, businesses, and local economic councils can help spread the word about the importance of students and families having connectivity.
In order to deploy devices and internet access during the pandemic, “we saw lots of partnering—some districts couldn’t do it alone, so they partnered with country offices, state departments, and so on. That made a gigantic difference,” Parker said.
“To a degree, there’s a shift in the landscape of responsibility as we come out of the pandemic,” Flood said. School leaders should look at the investments made to the Affordable Connectivity Program, and they should be aware of the resources applied under the Digital Equity Act, he advised. Connecting with state broadband offices or agencies, which are focused on making sure all households and businesses have the broadband connectivity they need, is a valuable step in a district’s own connectivity plan.
Advocate for funding to support the technologies and programs that will help you close the homework gap. Educators at all levels should tell stories about what’s happening in their districts as they talk with state departments of education, policymakers, legislators, and local businesses about where students do and do not have connectivity and what the district needs to help those students.
Deadlines for projects and services funded by the Emergency Connectivity Fund are approaching, and while an extension of that temporary program is possible, nothing has been confirmed. Schools should have a plan addressing how they will ensure student internet connectivity without the emergency funding, which was always intended to be temporary, advised Brian Stephens, director of stakeholder engagement at Funds For Learning. Upgrades to the federal E-rate program could help, too.
“One thing the FCC has discussed is expanding the E-rate program to school bus Wi-Fi. That’s a potential funding sources schools might be able to look to in terms of getting connectivity off campus,” Stephens said.
“Encourage schools not to forget about their voice in terms of advocating for funding, policy, and whatever needs to happen to see these plans come to fruition,” Stephens said. “The problem is still there; it’s been there for a long time. We’ve got data on cost and engagement—we can collectively leverage all that data to have a strong voice to influence future policy decisions. Schools and libraries are a big part of that.”
“Schools were pressed into service to solve the home connectivity problem during the pandemic, but it’s a problem that goes far beyond the students,” Flood said. “If districts can establish a common plan for every student to have a device, and every device to have connectivity everywhere, set that as the gold standard and build all their processes around achieving that end, that will get them to that core solution—every student, connected everywhere, for learning.”