Andy is CSO for Huawei Technologies USA, overseeing Huawei’s US cyber assurance program.
The gap between those with good internet connections and those without—the digital divide—has been an issue in the U.S. for years. But with the impact of the pandemic on work, school and leisure time, the importance of connectivity has become clear to everyone. Prescient voices have long decried what they called the homework gap, the difficulty many students in lower-income households have in completing homework assignments because they lack a good internet connection at home. This harmful economic disparity cannot be allowed to continue.
The pandemic has required many students to attend school online, highlighting the importance of the homework gap. An analysis released in June by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Common Sense Media provides demonstrable evidence that this is a serious problem.
Even before the pandemic, the data was concerning. As many as 30% of all K-12 public school students lived in households that either had no internet connection or, if there was some connectivity, lacked access to a device adequate for learning from home. That amounts to 15 million to 16 million kids nationwide.
The digital divide is a national problem that disproportionately hurts poorer students — often in rural communities where connectivity can be spotty — as well as minority students: While 18% of white households lack home broadband, the problem afflicts 26% of Hispanic households, 30% of Black households and 35% of Native American households.
How fast is fast enough?
As the BCG/Common Sense report notes: “High-speed internet connection at home is not a luxury. It is as essential as electricity and running water.” Furthermore, the study shows that as more instruction is done online, the more crucial broadband internet becomes. For example, with a low-speed connection, it might take half an hour to watch a two-minute video lesson because the streaming buffers or freezes often while the video is loading.
Most Americans have access to some internet service, but not all services can support the broadband speeds needed for distance learning. The BCG/Common Sense report says that for a single user, 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload are the minimum speeds needed.
Many discussions are taking place about how to bridge the digital divide in the U.S. as remote learning shapes the future of education. So what needs to happen next?
Lawmakers should allocate the necessary funds. In a campaign called #ConnectAllStudents, Common Sense Media contends Congress should provide school districts with $6 billion to $11 billion in direct emergency funding to ensure that students who lack internet service and devices at home can have them. The report calls on lawmakers to take longer-term, concerted action with state governments and the private sector to strategically invest to close the connectivity gaps in America’s broadband infrastructure and meet the needs of the unserved and underserved. The ICT industry should identify and advocate for technical and funding requirements.
School districts should ensure that their technology capacity meets the needs of students and teachers, including identifying which households have the greatest needs. Teachers will need professional development to improve the quality of the online instruction experience. Schools will need privacy and security tools to protect students and teachers. Schools and community and parents groups should work collaboratively to advocate for upgrading infrastructure to achieve adequate internet speeds for the underserved in rural areas and urban communities with less bandwidth. This will benefit not only students but teachers as well. Roughly 10% of all K-12 teachers in the United States (300,000 to 400,000 people) lack adequate connectivity at home.
Private sector companies have a crucial role to play. Telecom operators and device manufacturers must charge affordable prices across school districts, prioritizing K-12 education support in their supply chains and customer service to the extent that this is commercially feasible. Moreover, businesses in every industry need to step up to help close the digital divide. They can donate equipment such as laptops, tablets or wireless routers to schools, and they can donate money, services or both to educational nonprofits. Businesses can also use their influence to advocate for policy changes that will help ensure every student has access to reliable connectivity and the educational tools they need to succeed. The ICT industry can also help by connecting distance learning providers with the underserved.
Education organizations and nonprofits need to foster cooperation among school districts to help ensure that poorer communities get the resources they need from local governments. If school districts simply compete for finite resources, poorer areas will likely get short shrift. In addition, collaboration in technology procurement can increase schools’ collective bargaining power when dealing with technology suppliers. For example, North Carolina uses one contract for school software throughout the state. This reduces the likelihood that schools will pay a premium for products and services, as they do in Connecticut where there are 170 different software contracts. Nonprofits can also help ensure quality data collection about affordable access, which can enable spotting and rectifying inequities.
In a recent op-ed piece, Sal Khan, the founder of the popular online learning platform Khan Academy, wrote: “If educators and families aren’t empowered with the right support and tools, [the current situation] will evolve from an education crisis to an education catastrophe.”
Preventing such a catastrophe will require federal, state and local governments to work with companies to ensure that all students—and teachers—have the connectivity they need for online learning during, as well as after, the pandemic.
If we don’t act swiftly and proactively, a generation of children could suffer a material education deficit.
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