Device & Internet Access Disparities

by | Sep 24, 2020 | Education, General

Over the last 20 years the growing use of, and reliance on, technology has triggered a sort of “tech race” in education that has left some behind. Many schools and districts have been able to phase in one-to-one computing, exposing students to rigorous tasks requiring digital literacy that prepare them for the modern world. According to a 2017 survey, 82% of middle-skill jobs require digital skills. Computer literacy is no longer a bonus on your resume; it’s a prerequisite. But there are still many schools that cannot afford such large technology investments which creates a skills gap that hinders students’ ability to compete. Coupled with the fact that reliable, high-speed internet can cost $500-$1,000 per year, it’s an expense many families across Michigan cannot afford. This makes it difficult for even those students with devices to stay connected.

In this article we want to take the time to shed light on the students and families impacted most by this technology disparity, and bring forward the resources and organizations who are stepping up to combat it.

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The Device Divide

So how big is this disparity? Surely, it’s not as extreme as some claim, right? Unfortunately, it really is a big problem. Here are the numbers. According to a 2020 EdWeek Research Center Survey, 96% of High Schools with less than a quarter of students from low-income families, have at least one device for every student. In High Schools with more than three quarters of students coming from low-income families, that number drops to 45%. That’s less than half. Middle school numbers follow a similar pattern, with 87% of higher income schools achieving one-to-one device distribution compared to 56% of their lower income counterparts.

The Home Internet Divide

The other half of the equation is home internet access. Even if a student has a laptop or tablet, they can’t do their work effectively if they need to rely on Taco Bell for WiFi. The Pew Research Center looked into this in 2018 and found that as many as 21% of black teen students rely on Public Wi-Fi to do homework because they don’t have reliable internet at home. That’s almost double the national average of 12% And when you break down the numbers based on income, the differences are even bigger. Only 7% of teen students in households with the national average family income of $75,000 can’t rely on home internet. That number grows to 21% for teen students from families with an income under $30,000. It’s not so much the poorest kids falling behind the richest kids. It’s the poorest kids falling behind everybody else.

Exposed by COVID

A lack of technology funding and poor home internet access existed before COVID. But before the pandemic struck, many schools had workarounds to accommodate the fact that their students lacked access to devices and reliable home internet. Teachers didn’t assign as much computer-based homework because they knew students didn’t have the resources to use a computer at home. Technology-driven lessons were conducted on shared devices at school. But when students were sent home in the spring of 2020, everyone suddenly realized that some schools could keep teaching and some schools were paralyzed by the digital divide. The fact that students in lower income, mostly minority, neighborhoods had their school year cut 3 months short, while students in higher income neighborhoods could just jump on Zoom, triggered a new wave of support and investment.

Closing the Gap

Many are stepping up to help close this digital divide. From for-profit corporations to non-profit organizations, and governments on every level, millions of dollars have been allocated to increase access to both devices and home internet. Some exciting examples are taking place right here in Detroit.

The Connected Futures Project

The Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), in partnership with several local corporations and foundations, recently announced a $23 million initiative called The Connected Futures Project. This project was designed to provide Wifi-enabled tablets and six months of free internet access to every single one of the 51,000 students served by DPSCD. The internet is mobile LTE data which is fast enough to do most homework assignments and was negotiated with a very high data cap so that students won’t have their speeds throttled. After the 6 months of free access, families can work with a partner organization called human-I-T to navigate other low-cost internet options so that families can keep their children online and learning at home. The Connected Futures Project rolled out over the summer of 2020 in preparation for the current school year.

Additional Resources & Solutions

There are many other resources and solutions jumping into action to help resolve the digital divide. Some schools have created Drive-In Wifi, amplifying their Wi-Fi signal into the parking lot so that families can come to the school and use their devices from the car. Instead of leaving students to utilize their nearest fast food restaurant, you can make your school a learning hub by providing reliable internet at a safe distance, with all the protections and bells and whistles provided by your onsite network. We’ve helped several schools launch with this and the results have been fantastic.

Another creative solution to the device shortage: Neverware. Essentially Neverware’s CloudReady product is a software that turns any Windows or Mac laptop into a Chromebook, making better and more efficient use of the resources available. With a national Chromebook shortage exceeding 5 million devices, Neverware is a great option for putting old laptops to work.

When it comes to using devices efficiently, there are few better partners than our friends at Tech Defenders. Tech Defenders helps schools maximize the lifecycle of devices in two ways. First, if a school has devices they no longer need, or have reached the end of their usable life, Tech Defenders will buy them at a reasonable price. And second, if a school needs to buy devices, they can go to Tech Defenders for refurbished but high-functioning technology much less expensively than buying it new.

Get Access for Your Students

Macro Connect provides technology support for schools and districts across Michigan. From device sourcing for students to helpdesk support for staff, and strategic consulting for administrators, our technology experts have years of experience improving the value schools get from technology. If your school or district needs help improving your students’ access to technology, please reach out. We want to make sure every student has the tools they need to succeed!

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