Closing the Digital Divide in Education

June 15, 2020

Since the pandemic started and stay-at-home orders were placed throughout the U.S., we have seen a massive influx of orders for devices and deployment. One of the interesting changes this year – beyond the number of devices being ordered – is the number of cellular-enabled devices. One of the biggest challenges for schools, a long-time issue made more prominent during this current health crisis, is the “digital divide.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Condition of Education 2019 report, in 2017 just 49% of families making less than $20,000 a year had home internet access. And of the families who didn’t have home internet access, 34% said they could not afford it. That’s three million students. This makes it extremely difficult for schools to move to online curriculum and nearly impossible to implement distant learning and virtual classrooms. Districts with a large number of students that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program most likely will have a large digital divide, especially when many working families are now unemployed or underemployed, making broadband access seem even more out of reach than before. Many remote and rural areas lack access to broadband services even if they could afford them. In today’s world, internet access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Another challenge the Coronavirus presented for educators is the availability to purchase low-cost Chromebooks following production interruptions in China. The supply chain is returning to normal, but it is still catching up. Add to that, Intel has been suffering from a global supply shortage of processor chips since 2018. As a result, smaller districts are competing against larger districts for Chromebooks. While larger school districts are able to reach out directly to the manufacturer leveraging their substantial buying power to secure their Chromebooks, small and rural districts do not have that advantage. Schools need to get their orders placed now to get devices to the students in time for school starting again in the fall. 2020 took the idea of 1:1 devices for many schools from an aspirational goal to a necessity as the fall semester seems unclear.

Assuming a school can even get a hold of devices like Chromebooks during this time, if the student does not have internet at home you are sending a paperweight home with them. This means schools must tackle the internet problem before they tackle the device problem. More families need to be informed of the options for low-cost internet in their home through the major internet carriers. This is a great option in more metropolitan areas, however many of the areas of the country that don’t have fast, reliable internet is not because of cost, but simply access.

“Last mile,” a term used by telecom companies to refer to the final leg of the network that deliver services to retail end-users (customers), is not always just a mile.  These companies do not want to build out expensive infrastructure to connect just a handful – or sometimes only one – household. It is not economical for those carriers to build that infrastructure. This is where the cellular carriers have been able to step-up in a big way during this crisis. Wireless infrastructure is much more economical to deploy in rural areas or over difficult terrain.

Many people don’t know they may already possess a device capable of being a WiFi hotspot. Almost every Apple and Android smartphone can function as a cellular hotpot. Many carriers have enabled free hotspot data on their customers’ devices. These limits are usually around 20GB per month – which in most households that would last only a day – but if used judiciously, can last much longer. The speeds of these hotspots today don’t match traditional cable class internet connection so this is by no means a replacement for a traditional wired-to-the-home internet connection. Cellular hotspot technology is also extremely important for the transient student community who doesn’t have a stable place to live in, and therefore cannot sign up for low-cost home internet.

Wireless carriers today simply do not have the bandwidth for an all-you-can-eat service plan like many traditional wired carriers have. As the rollout of 5G continues, it will massively expand network capacity and put wireless speed on par – or in some cases even faster than – their wired counterparts. This is already happening slowly in small pockets around the country. Many of the cellular carriers are starting to offer 5G cellular home internet with little to no restrictions on the amount of bandwidth they can consume. Like all technology, as 5G becomes more mature the price will drop quickly. This will allow a home nearly anywhere in the nation to connect to the internet in high speed by simply plugging a hotspot into an electrical outlet. This type of technology will accelerate rapidly due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, and could be the key to closing the “digital divide,” allowing schools to more effectively implement take home 1:1 devices and distant learning.

Knowing that these bandwidth challenges will not be solved overnight, schools are adapting. Most schools areas already have access to Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams. Schools can take advantage of activities and features in those platforms that can provide meaningful and impactful learning experiences without needing high bandwidth connections. Teachers can use video conferencing sparingly for check-ins, social emotional learning activities and supplemental learning activities. Even as districts bridge the connectivity gap by working with telecommunication companies and cellular carriers, they should still consider designing a curriculum that is not heavily dependent on streaming video. Daniel Stanford recently shared a blog post, Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All, that advocates shifting from trying to replicate the traditional school day with videoconferencing to make remote learning more flexible and accessible for students.

Schools must be a part of the solution to closing the digital divide at home. Many are now providing internet enabled devices to students so when they go home, they have internet. As cellular networks continue to mature we will see continued growth of cellular connected devices being handed out directly by the schools, allowing them to hand a student not only a device to work from, but also the internet connection required to make it function properly.

All Covered can help schools with implementing and managing 1:1 devices from procurement, deployment and delivery. We can process thousands of devices a day though our deployment center, allowing schools to deploy thousands or tens of thousands of devices in days or weeks rather than months, getting those devices into student’s hands quickly and keeping the schools IT team focused on the bigger picture of IT operations and supporting the end users. Contact us today for assistance.

Judy Nguyen
Teaching & Learning Consultant