by Jessica Denson
Director of Communications, Connected Nation
Iowa City, IA (May 28, 2019) – The Digital Divide is not just some line drawn on a map showing who has access to broadband (high-speed) internet and who does not. It’s a way to measure the deep rift that is leaving millions of Americans behind — including school-aged children.
According to a recent study from ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, titled “The Digital Divide and Education Equity,” students with access to only one electronic device in their homes —usually a cell phone and quite possibly a phone that needs to be shared with other family members — “may face challenges that don’t exist for their peers in terms of completing homework.”
To make matters worse, of the students who have only one device, the vast majority (85%) are underserved students. And almost 1 in 5 (19%) of underserved students have only one device.
“We were surprised at the volume of students who only had access to one device. It was a much higher percentage than we anticipated,” said Raeal Moore, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at ACT. “The majority of those were underserved students. What I mean by that is they hit one or two of several criteria — having parents with low income ($36,000 or less), being first-generation college students, or being part of a minority population.”
Having only one device, which is most often a cell phone, makes it difficult to do homework, apply for colleges, prepare for testing such as the ACT, and access other resources to help advance their education.
“We found that teachers were trying to help those students by asking them to do homework less frequently. I understand why teachers are doing this, but if students are not being asked to use tech, then they’re not growing in digital literacy,” Moore explained. “It further widens the inequality we’re already seeing among students.”
Findings like those are why ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning was created in 2016. The organization focuses on closing the “gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement” and informing policy- and decision-makers on ways to create positive change, and as the center continues its research, the impact of the Digital Divide on students is slowly becoming more apparent.
Not Just a Testing Organization
“ACT was created by a psychology professor in the 1950s who wanted to create an alternative to the SAT. He believed it was fairer to be tested on what students actually learned in school rather than for general aptitude,” said Jim Larimore, chief officer of the Center for Equity in Learning. “School curriculum is surveyed every three to four years and that is what the ACT testing is fashioned from so, in that respect, we have always been focused on equity and fairness and leveling the playing field for all students.”
Larimore said when he was recruited by ACT, he recognized the need to bring down some walls both externally and internally. It’s what led to the creation of ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning.
“The idea was to create more equitable learning opportunities for people while also ensuring that internally, as an organization, we continue to also be hyper-focused on equity,” he said. “That includes partnering with others to use ACT data, research, and our expertise in different areas to inform policy, and to leverage innovations in education to close equity gaps.”
Through its research, the center examines four broad domains: academically focused learning; behavioral skills (social and emotional learning); cross cutting (critical thinking, creativity, collaborative problem solving — 21st century skills); and education and career navigation.
“We want to use our data and expertise in different areas to better understand a student’s experience and tie that to their learning experience. In essence, using good research to help create and inform interventions and ways to improve that learning experience,” Moore added.
As ACT researchers collaborate with the center and examine the data, they often find that new questions begin to emerge. For example, following the completion of the Digital Divide and Educational Equity study, there are now new questions about single-device homes, such as: Is that one device a shared device? Is the whole family on one data plan? Are there other children sharing that one device for homework? And are they able to complete their work without a desktop?
It also became apparent that another area needed more research: rural vs. urban. So, ACT’s researchers and State and Federal Policy team, in collaboration with the center, began collecting data to examine the Digital Divide — or what some refer to as the “Homework Gap” — between rural schools and urban schools.
“I’m originally from a rural area, so I already had some understanding of the challenges rural students face,” said Michelle Croft, Ph.D., principal research associate for ACT. “Our research quickly showed that rural students lacked access to technology that urban students had — that included having less access to advanced classes.”
The report, titled “Rural Students: Technology, Coursework, and Extracurricular Activities,” found that rural students were less likely than non-rural students to claim that their home internet access was “great” (36 percent vs. 46 percent). It also found that the lack of technological access may impede their “course-taking success.”
Also, according to the report, “rural students are often overlooked when it comes to education policy reform. However, the majority of rural students in nearly half the states are from low-income families, generally earn lower scores on standardized high school assessment… and attend colleges at lower rates than do students from non-rural areas.”
“When we think about rural areas, you find kids don’t have access to the same materials and curriculum as those living in urban areas,” Larimore said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure these students aren’t left on their own while others are in a position to have daily access to information or can go at a more accelerated pace.”
This data is not just being used to inform school districts, but it’s something that can help federal policymakers understand the challenges rural communities face.
“I think a lot of federal policy is built around urban issues and studies,” said Larimore. “It’s kind of crept up on us nationally that the Digital Divide is happening in the rural areas. We see what impacts urban areas in popular media and entertainment almost daily — so it can sometimes be easier to overlook or misunderstand the problems rural areas are facing.”
Larimore said it’s normal to look at the world through our own experiences, and that includes state and federal leaders who are making important policy and educational decisions.
“If you’re in those positions, it’s easy to think everyone has high-speed internet at home or a smartphone. I think it requires people to think about others who live in the country and have very different experiences. For instance, if you’re an advocate for 1-to-1 devices at school, then you need to also ask, ‘What’s the home life like?’”
One-to-one is the idea that every student should have their own laptop at school. According to studies, having this direct 1-to-1 access in schools has increased student achievement and boosted their “21st century skills.”
“This research into how access impacts rural school districts matters because one of our goals is to shine a light on rural students so we all can see where there are inequities and support policy recommendations such as continued funding of the E-rate program,” Moore said.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the E-rate program, which provides billions of dollars yearly to help local schools and school districts connect their classrooms. Connected Nation works with school districts to help leadership understand and leverage the E-rate program and has witnessed how this impacts students firsthand.
“The E-rate program significantly lowers the barrier to robust, affordable internet connectivity for our nation’s schools, particularly in rural and high-poverty areas,” said Brent Legg, vice president of Government Affairs for Connected Nation. “Nearly every school in America receives some benefit from the E-rate program — and school districts that collaborate regionally to develop a strategy for aggregation and procurement can truly maximize their return from the program. We help school districts develop strategies and incorporate lessons learned from other areas of the country so that more students can benefit from all the resources that the internet enables.”
The Next Steps for ACT
Staff at ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning do not operate in a vacuum. The organization has a wide range of partners to ensure it’s focusing on issues that affect underserved or overlooked populations and that they understand the unique challenges faced by different groups.
“The Center is about really doubling-down on our mission,” said Christina Gordon, senior director at the center. “So, as we look at strategic areas — whether it’s through research or partnership or networks — we are making a deliberate commitment to do this work and ask these important questions to improve equity in education. From research to public affairs and policy — this is part of our DNA.”
The focus of the center’s next round of work runs the gamut — from how housing and food insecurity affect education to how a lack of mental health support or school safety threats may affect learning. Researchers also are looking into other ways lack of high-speed internet access impacts America’s kids.
“We’re finding that the Digital Divide goes beyond just the school year,” Larimore said. “The summer is actually the most unequal time of the learning year. If you’re in an area with more summer programs or a family of means and can give your kids enrichment programs — your kids have the leg up. But, if you’re in a rural area with fewer activities AND you don’t have access to the internet, there’s not much for you. You can not only lose the learning you acquired but can’t move forward at the same rate as others. You’re left further behind.”
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