As classrooms globally become ever more digital, homework does too. But while statistics show that today’s young are increasingly digitally literate, the divide of rich and poor remains, when it comes to access to the internet at home. 

The latest research released this month from Associated Press shows that 17% of US students still face a struggle to keep up with their studies as they have no internet access at home and in many cases, no laptop or desktop device either.

While laptops and internet are almost universally available in schools, the cost of internet and gaps in service still remain an obstacle, especially in poorer and rural areas. Dubbed ‘the homework gap’, it highlights the ongoing divide between rich and poor and educational attainment.

Children with access to home internet score better in exams, have better abilities in maths, reading and science, have better chances of completing high school and improved prospects when leaving education, the research shows. 

Studies show that more than 80% of the youth population across 104 countries are online. In developed countries, that figure is a massive 94% of young people aged 15-24 who use the internet compared with 67% in developing countries and only 30% in the least developed countries. Unsurprisingly, nine out of 10 youths not using the internet live in Africa, Asia or the Pacific, while 39% of the youths online are in China and India. 

Community collaboration is key to tackling this problem. One solution has been a system called the Educational Broadband Service, a 2.5 GHz-frequency spectrum that could be used to create high-speed wireless broadband networks in rural communities. Around 1,300 educational institutions in rural areas of the US are licensed to bypass telecommunications companies by extending their own networks for use by students in the community. However, educators and policy makers are divided over how best to tackle the problem and some argue it would be more efficient to rely on government funded initiatives

A report by The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) found that 12 states have community partnerships to allow access for students off campus, 13 have partnerships connecting to anchor institutions and just five states have existing state funding. Just nine states have facilitated WiFi on buses and seven have mandated legislative funding for off-campus internet access.

The New Hampshire School Connectivity Initiative recognised how vital internet access was beyond the classroom and made it a government priority to make access available to all. Frank Edelblut, Commissioner of Education made a statement on the project, saying solutions are coming: “Student access to high-speed connectivity is no longer an educational luxury. This includes connectivity and access devices both in school and when out of school. At the New Hampshire Department of Education, we are working at all levels to create this access, including participation in programs like the federal Education Superhighway and vendor supported programs to bring internet access to the homes of all students. Through these programs, the department’s goal is to assist students in accessing 21st Century learning opportunities they need in order to build bright futures.” 

Proposed solutions include soliciting the help of local business to invest in the community’s youth. Other suggestions include equipping local community facilities such as libraries or even cafes with internet access, but all this requires organisation and a commitment from community leaders to ensure easy and continuous access. 

With digital textbooks and other educational resources now residing in the school or college cloud, remote internet access has become essential. Downloading content onto laptop hard drives or working offline in the likes of Google Drive, or using a USB flash drive, makes life that much trickier, especially as projects become larger and require more space.

Low cost programmes such as Comcast Internet Essentials and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline programme were created to offer access for low income families. However Lifeline, to many people’s disappointment, has been put on hold after the FCC declared that the system was open to abuse and needed more safeguards in place. 

Meanwhile, the 1million program, recognising the life changing potential of technology to help students excel, has been working with the goal of providing for one million high school students that don’t have internet access at home, by giving them mobile devices and free high-speed internet access. The initiative is still growing. 

Times have changed. Today’s educational equality is digital and the poor continue to be left behind. Students cannot be prepared for the jobs of the future without the right tools, nor can they keep up with an ever more digitally led classroom without better support. More needs to be done, across the globe, one school at a time. 

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