student internet

Groups urge IES to release months-late report on student internet access

Student barriers to at-home internet and digital resources can help inform future policy, stakeholders say

A federal report on students’ home access to digital learning resources is months late, and ed-tech groups say the delay is impeding efforts to close the homework gap.

In a letter to the Institute of Education Sciences, a number of ed-tech and advocacy organizations point out that many students lack home access to the internet connectivity they need to complete homework and use online learning resources.

The groups also point out that the study, which the Every Student Succeeds Act mandated be sent to Congress by June 2017, “will help policy makers identify the best ways to ensure all students can connect with broadband services and be on a path for success after graduation.”

The study is required to examine student habits related to digital learning outside the classroom, along with the barriers students face in accessing those resources.

“We think there’s a big problem, and we need good data around it,” says CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. “This is critical.”

Device access isn’t always a problem, but the kind of device students have can determine their access to digital learning resources.

“A lot of low-income kids, while they have a device, it’s probably a smartphone and they’re probably on a data cap,” Krueger adds. “We need to understand the nuances. What kind of device do you have? What kind of internet? Is it robust? Are you trying to do your homework on a small screen?”

In November 2017, the Federal Communications Commission voted to start scaling back its Lifeline program, which discounts phone and internet service for low-income Americans. The proposed reform was met with concern, and FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn dissented, saying in powerful statements that the proposal will only serve to broaden the homework gap and could leave many Lifeline users without affordable access.

The deadline for filing comments was Feb. 21, and reply comments are due by March 23.

Some stakeholders believe the FCC’s vote is coming this spring, based on the deadlines for comments and reply comments.

That impending vote makes the IES report all the more necessary, according to the letter.

“The study, including the required examination of student habits related to digital learning outside the classroom and the barriers they face in accessing those resources, will help policy makers identify the best ways to ensure all students can connect with broadband services and be on a path for success after graduation,” the groups wrote. “In light of the Federal Communications Commission’s pending Notice of Inquiry and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the future of the Lifeline program, we are especially eager to review the results of IES’s work.”

Coming off long conversations with the FCC about E-rate modernization, the ed-tech community began thinking about ways to better help students who lack the internet and resource access they need at home to continue learning outside of the classroom, says Reg Leichty, CoSN’s policy expert. The conversation turned to how ESSA can address the homework gap across the country.

“Our allies on Capitol Hill said that at a minimum, we should gather additional information about the scope of this challenge for students, and we should try to better understand, as policymakers, what the out-of-school digital learning environment looks like, including the barriers students face in accessing digital learning when they go home,” Leichty says.

Impending rulings about Lifeline make the report’s release all the more urgent, he adds.

“We know IES and the Department of Education are taking this seriously. It’s a complex issue and we want the work to be done right. But given the FCC’s NPRM and NOI about Lifeline, we think the bulk of this study could be helpful for that work. These two proceedings at the FCC might have a big impact on these kids, and we think it’s time to release this report,” he says.

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Laura Ascione
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