Watchworthy Wednesday: Closing the Homework Gap

Franny Millen was in the 7th grade four years ago when she realized that many of her classmates couldn’t do their homework because they didn’t have a computer or internet access at home. To her, that was simply unfair and she and her family started a nonprofit organization, Eliminate the Digital Divide (E2D), to help her peers.

“As educators, we recognize that we don’t have digital equity in our community but to Franny, it was just not fair,” Valerie Truesdale, chief technology officer of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, recalled. “Some students could extend learning beyond the school day and some could not. So, the Millen family began to ask local businesses near their home in Davidson, North Carolina to donate used laptops so that they could be placed in the homes of families that did not have computers.”

E2D then was launched and more than 1,100 laptops have been collected, refurbished and placed in homes that need them. The school district’s library and Sprint also partnered and are providing portable hop spots so students can have internet connectivity. The Millen family story is one example of how to solve the “homework gap” in America, according to innovative educators looking for solutions.

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel defines the gap this way: “Data suggests seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires internet access. But, the FCC’s data about broadband says that one in three households doesn’t have access to the internet. So, think about where those numbers overlap because that’s the homework gap.”

Closing the homework gap is the topic of this recent U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology webinar:

The webinar explores strategies to address digital equity at and out of school. Among the recommendations are five steps school districts could take, as offered by Keith Krueger, CEO of COSN (Consortium for School Networking):

  1. Survey your community, school by school, family by family, to find out what kinds of devices, if any, people have at home and what kind of connectivity they have.
  2. Ask local businesses to provide free wifi to students.
  3. Rethink how connectivity could be accessed. For example, the Coachella Valley Unified School District in California, the poorest district in the nation, provides wifi on its school busses. The busses, equipped with solar panels, are parked overnight in the most underserved communities so that students can have internet access 24-7.
  4. Make mobile hot spots available to students and families who can’t afford broadband.
  5. Educators as well as community and business leaders and philanthropists should get together to come up with solutions for closing the homework gap.

“We should get every student connected where they live because if we do that and bridge this homework gap, we’re going to give them a fair shot at 21st century success,” Rosenworcel said.

“Only 3% of teachers in high poverty schools say that their students have the digital tools necessary to complete homework assignments, compared to 52% of teachers in more affluent schools…. Five million households with school-aged children do not have high-speed internet service at home,” said Monica Almond, of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

But, she added, that in 2013, President Obama launched the ConnectEd initiative and set a goal to connect 99% of American students to the internet through high-speed wireless and broadband within five years. “When the ConnectEd initiative launched, only 30% of school districts had access to high-speed broadband. Today, 20 million more students have access to high-speed broadband in their classrooms and we’re on track to have 99% of students with access by 2018.”

Now, it’s time to address digital learning at home, Krueger said, noting that a COSN survey found that three out of four school districts nationwide does nothing to address out-of-school technology access.

“We really need to make sure that every kid has the chance to succeed, whether they’re at school or not,” he said, adding that COSN’s recommendations come in the form of a toolkit that can be downloaded.

Banner image credit: U.S. Department of Education

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting DML resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to mcruz@hri.uci.edu.