The Homework Gap and Libraries
A newspaper picture shows three children standing across from their school, downloading homework onto their smartphones. McAllen, Texas, their home town, has a 35 percent poverty rate. Many families are unable to afford home broadband services because of their limited incomes. The children in these families are squarely in a “homework gap”: their teachers expect them to have Internet access and assign homework that relies on it. The children are left looking for Wi-Fi bleeding through school and library walls so they can access their school materials.
Even as policymakers and technology companies laud the transformations broadband enables in education, when it comes to accessing the Internet to distribute homework and grades, to collect and grade assignments, and to enable parents to interact with their children’s school, a stark divide is apparent. Pew statistics suggest about five million households, mostly lower income and skewed to Black and Hispanic families, are on the wrong side of this divide.
The Federal Communications Commission has tried to ameliorate this situation by updating its Lifeline Program to include broadband connectivity, authorizing a $9.25 per month subsidy that can be applied to either fixed or mobile broadband services for low-income households. That doubtless will help address the homework gap. Libraries are also addressing the gap by providing public computers as well as network access and Wi-Fi in their buildings. And they are addressing home Internet access by loaning mobile hotspots to patrons.
Maine took the lead with the homework gap by uniting the strength of its statewide school and library network (Maine School and Library Network), the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) that provides schoolchildren with an Internet-compatible device (like a laptop), and an experimental program of hotspot lending.
Under the leadership of then-Governor (now Senator) Angus King (I-ME), Maine was one of the first states to pursue a vision to provide all seventh-grade students and teachers with an Internet-ready device, technical support, and curriculum help, and to subsidize an Internet connection to households. While the home Internet access plan ran out of funding, the device and tech support program has been operating since 2002. The program reduced technological inequities across the state(1) and inspired other state-funded programs in Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Dakota.
Maine is currently testing a hotspot lending program in Washington County (in the far northern reaches of the state) that could function as stopgap access for the state’s earlier home Internet support. In partnership with New York Public Library’s hotspot program, Maine has 83 hotspot devices that it is making available for one month periods to households with children who received one of the MLTI devices and who do not have home Internet access. Six libraries in one of the poorest counties in the state are loaning the hotspots.
With its focus on children and its limited data plan, Washington County’s hotspot program may be useful for non-video educational purposes, but there are limitations. US Cellular provides the wireless data service capped at 2.5G per month. When that threshold is reached, the service shuts down. We found that uniformly-solid signal presence in Washington County is elusive, and the shutdown of the service when the data cap is reached confused some patrons. Nevertheless, as an interim solution, this plan may have some merit. With colleagues Brian Whitacre (Oklahoma State) and Colin Rhinesmith (Simmons), we are investigating the utility of this system.
The Washington County hotspot program relies on funding from the Google, Knight and the Open Society Foundations. Without that jump start, this test may not have occurred. Maine’s funding for this small program ends in December 2016. The Kansas rural hotspot program in 24 libraries technically ended at the close of 2015, but some libraries found the hotspots sufficiently worthwhile that they sought their own continuation funding through fairs, small local grants, and community funds.
Finally, the homework gap appears to have compelled Sprint to announce its own version of a hotspot program a few weeks ago. Dubbed its “1 Million Project,” the company has promised to give one million “devices” – which could be smartphones, tablets or hotspot devices – and 3 gigabytes of LTE data per month to one million students lacking home Internet access. They will work with various community organizations to implement the project across five years beginning in 2017.
This may be a start, but it still leaves four million other households facing the homework gap. The bigger issue still backs into matters of cost, of availability, and infrastructure capacity. Corporate largesse is an excellent start, but is this the right way to solve the problem?
- Morel, R. (2015). Maine’s decade-old school laptop program wins qualified praise. The Hechinger Report: Covering innovation and inequality in education. Accessed 11/9/2016. http://hechingerreport.org/maines-decade-old-school-laptop-program-wins-qualified-praise/
Sharon Strover is a Professor in Communication and former Chair of the Radio-TV-Film Department at the University of Texas where she now directs the Technology and Information Policy Institute. Her current work examines policy responses to the digital divide internationally and domestically; the economic benefits of broadband, particularly in rural areas; and the role of libraries in local information environments. Dr. Strover has worked with several international, national and regional government agencies and nonprofits including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Center for Rural Strategies, the Center for Rural Strategies, and the European Union.