The Online Learning Equity Gap: Takeaways from New OTI Report

Blog Post
Nov. 18, 2020

The era of remote instruction brought on by the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many challenges that schools and families already faced, but perhaps none as widespread as the digital divide—or the gap between those with reliable internet access and those without. When schools around the country shifted abruptly to remote learning this past spring, the roughly 9 million K-12 students in the U.S. without stable home broadband—or the devices to use it—were left to fend for themselves. While some districts attempted to meet these needs for the short-term emergency, rising cases across the country indicate that a sustainable, longer term solution is critical to make remote learning possible for every student.

This month, New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) and Wireless Future Project published a new report, The Online Learning Equity Gap, detailing the problem of internet and broadband access, or lack thereof, across the U.S. as well as innovative solutions for addressing the need. The report profiles examples of broadband networks that have been built and deployed for educational purposes both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the years prior. This post highlights important takeaways, examples, and recommendations from the report.

The digital divide is pervasive, but not random.

The digital divide, often known in education circles as the “homework gap,” has existed as long as the internet itself. Though reliable broadband is still sometimes described as a luxury rather than a necessity, research shows it’s critical for accessing resources such as employment, social and health services, and—now more than ever—education. Broadband experts have put a spotlight on schools this year, surfacing what the report calls the remote learning chasm—a phrase used to describe the significant and growing gaps between students with the internet access and appropriate devices to complete the many demands of online learning from home, and those without.

Not only is the gap big, it’s also predictable. Those without reliable home internet are much more likely to belong to historically-marginalized and low-income groups. The report highlights findings from Alliance for Education that estimate as many as one in three Black, Latinx, and Alaska Native households do not have high-speed internet access at home. What’s more, the harm this lack of access is doing to students during the pandemic is growing. The report highlights a McKinsey study, which found that students who miss out on sustained periods of instructional time may drop out at higher rates, impacting their mental health, future earning potential, and even the nation's gross domestic product.

Districts are attempting to address the problem using a variety of innovative solutions.

Some local districts have attempted to meet this need for their students through a number of innovative broadband solutions, including the use of school and district community Wi-Fi networks. Districts such as Lindsay Central Unified in California’s Central Valley, spotlighted in the report, started building these school-owned Wi-Fi networks years ago, attempting then to mitigate the problem of internet access for their low-income, rural students, and Latinx students. Though this year has presented new challenges, costs, and restrictions from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Lindsay Unified and others building upon school-owned Wi-Fi networks have both the instrustructure to work with and knowledge of what these solutions take to implement.

Another promising approach taking hold across states is the use of spectrum sharing frameworks, specifically through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). Districts such as Murray City School District in Salt Lake City, Utah have utilized CARES Act funding and charitable donations, an increasingly common financial avenue for districts, to leverage CBRS spectrum to deploy a private long-term evolution (LTE) network for rural and low-income students lacking broadband. Many districts utilizing this type of spectrum qualify for E-Rate, the federal program that allows qualifying schools and libraries to receive subsidies to reduce the costs of purchasing internet access from commercial providers. However, because E-Rate was originally intended to defray costs of internet access in school or library buildings, it has not been a viable solution for many districts who recognize that households need internet access too.

While the FCC has yet to extend E-Rate for this purpose, technology companies, school districts, and internet service providers (ISPs) have teamed up in pilot projects to demonstrate exactly how schools could use spectrum to extend their networks and resources directly to students at their homes. The report details different delivery methods for this approach, such as the use of TV white space, or unused broadcast television channels, and school bus Wi-Fi and community hotspots. It’s clear from the variety of approaches that while the challenge of connecting students may be nearly universal, the solutions for addressing it look different for different districts, particularly in lieu of federal policy support.

Homes are now classrooms, but our nation’s policies don’t reflect this fact.

As the report makes clear, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated, not created, the digital divide. While remote learning is likely to continue for at least the remainder of this school year, more sustainable solutions are needed for connecting students at home. Individual districts, such as those spotlighted in this report, are evidence that investing in public network infrastructure, including community Wi-Fi networks and private mobile networks operating on public access CBRS spectrum, may be both cost-effective and scalable solutions. At the federal level, large-scale support is needed to ensure the programs are working for students. This report echoes OTI’s previous work calling on the FCC to extend E-Rate to allow schools and districts to extend connectivity beyond school campuses, to students’ homes. By doing so, as researchers from New America and a multitude of supporting organizations have long argued, the FCC could help meet the very real and increasing needs of twenty first century learning for students and communities.

Read the full report here.

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Related Topics
Internet Access & Adoption E-Rate Program Broadband in Education