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Why the “homework gap” is key to America’s digital divide

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Jessica Rosenworcel testifies before Senate

When the pandemic hit, parents scrambled to get enough devices to get their kids for online schooling. But even when they did, not everything went smoothly. Getting multiple people online for hours at a time in a home was one big obstacle; making sure entire communities were able to sign on was another.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission, wasn’t surprised. For years, Rosenworcel has talked about the “homework gap,” the term she coined to describe a problem facing communities where kids can’t access the internet because infrastructure is inadequate, their families can’t afford it, or both. 

People are now paying attention—not least because rumors are swirling that if Joe Biden is elected president, she could be appointed chairperson of the FCC. (Rosenworcel would not confirm these rumors, citing the Hatch Act.)

The FCC’s current broadband standard is a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second—the minimum for a single 4K Netflix stream. But in rural areas, where a Pew study estimates that one-third of Americans don’t have access to broadband, those speeds are unheard of. And while the Pew data indicates that about three-quarters of urban and suburban households have access to broadband, take that claim with a huge grain of salt: in current FCC mapping, a zip code is considered to be served with broadband if a single household has access .

In light of these problems, Rosenworcel is passionate about getting the FCC to update the E-Rate program , a federal education technology service created in 1996 that offers schools and libraries discounted internet access. 

I spoke to Rosenworcel about her plans to use the program to address the homework gap. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

How did you come up with the term “homework gap”?

When I joined the FCC, I decided that I would visit some schools that were E-Rate beneficiaries when I was traveling for work. And something struck me: I wound up in big cities and in small towns, in urban America and rural America, but I heard the very same things from teachers and administrators no matter where I went: “The E-Rate program is great. We now have these devices we can use in all of our classrooms. But when our students go home at night, not all of them have reliable internet access at home. It’s hard for our teachers to assign homework if we don’t have the confidence that every student has reliable access outside of school.”

The more that I talked to teachers, the more I heard the same stories over and over again: Kids sitting in the school parking lot with school laptops they had borrowed late into the evening, trying to peck away at homework because that was the only place they could actually get online. Or kids sitting in fast food restaurants and doing their homework with a side of fries.

I looked at the data and I found that seven in 10 teachers would assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband at home. I started calling where those numbers overlap the “homework gap” because I felt that this portion of the digital divide really needed a phrase or a term to describe it because it’s so important.

It’s becoming apparent that every student needs this to complete schoolwork now. And then enter the pandemic, right? We sent millions and millions of kids home. We told so many of them to go to online class, but the data suggests that as many as 17 million of them can’t make it there, so now this homework gap is becoming an education gap—and I worry it can become a long-term opportunity gap if we don’t correct it.

Why does the US have such digital inequity?

Well, we’re really a diverse country. We’re also diverse geographically, and that has wonderful qualities but it also has consequences. It takes some work to make sure everyone is connected. But we’ve done it before. We did it with electricity following the Rural Electrification Act. We did it with basic telephony. We can do it again with broadband. 

Early in the pandemic I spoke to immigrant families and people who don’t have access to the internet unless they go to a public space. A lot of them were told they could get reduced-rate internet, but that was difficult in terms of documentation and being able to pay those rates. How has the FCC addressed this issue, and do you think there is a way to move forward here?

I’m one of five people at the FCC. I’m the senior Democrat. I’m not in the majority. I can be noisy and I can be relentless, but I don’t always convince my colleagues.

I am convinced that we can update the E-Rate program using existing law and support schools—loaning out Wi-Fi hot spots, for instance. I think we can do that today with the E-Rate program.

And shame on us for not doing it. Because we’re not doing it, what you see are pictures like the one that went viral of two girls sitting outside of a Taco Bell in Salinas, California, not for lunch—they were there because they were using the free Wi-Fi signal. And what you now see is Wi-Fi in parking lots across this country in places that have been closed down because there’s this cruel virus and students are sitting in hot cars attending class and doing their schoolwork. And then other students are entirely locked out of the virtual classrooms, because they just don’t have a way to get online.

So shame on the FCC for not making it a priority to update E-Rate to address this crisis, because it’s within our power to help right now. I am saddened that my agency keeps looking the other way.

What is the demographic of kids most affected by the homework gap?

It has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. It’s disproportionately harmful to rural America and disproportionately harms low-income households. What’s most cruel to me about this is that we have a program we could update and help fix this, but we keep looking the other way. So many students are unable to attend class in person right now. And if they can’t make it into online classrooms and they’re out of schools for months, it’s going to have a long-term impact on their education. 

Is implementing the E-Rate program even feasible right now?

One of the beauties of the E-Rate program is that it’s set up in a way so that more support goes to schools with greater numbers of students on free or reduced-price lunch programs. In other words, it’s almost a perfect map of where the demand is most likely. We could use that to really figure out how to get devices or wireless hot spots out to students—things that could make a meaningful difference. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that every student didn’t always get textbooks or a grammar workbook. We have to start recognizing that for students who don’t have internet access at home, having the school loan out a wireless hot spot is the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. We can do something to fix this. 

How quickly can we expand the E-Rate program? 

The truth is that we should have started this at the start of the pandemic. Seven months in is too late, but today is better than tomorrow. We should be doing this immediately. And it’s not totally irrational. Years ago, the FCC years ago made some adjustments following Hurricane Katrina to a different program that helps low-income households get internet service, to make sure that everyone who got displaced was able to get phone service started again with a wireless line. 

We have a history of looking at a disaster, trying to assess what’s necessary to keep people connected, and updating our programs in response. We should be doing this right now with E-Rate for the homework gap.

I read that you’re a mom. 

I’m curious what you thought about homeschooling and being online during this time.

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Bridging digital divides between schools and communities

Subscribe to techstream, nicol turner lee nicol turner lee senior fellow - governance studies , director - center for technology innovation @drturnerlee.

March 2, 2020

  • 57 min read

Schools have historically been the beneficiaries of public and private sector investments in digital infrastructure, programs, and other resources. Funding has been primarily directed at in-school internet connectivity, after school programs and a wide range of related activities, including teacher professional development, e-books, and on-site computer labs. One of the largest sources of technology funding is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate program , which invests in internet access and infrastructure in schools, including Wi-Fi. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which was created in 1994 through a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also supports technology education for students during non-school hours. Combined, these federal programs have allocated nearly $86 billion in the last 23 years that can be added to numerous investments from philanthropic organizations and corporations.

However, getting internet to the school is just one piece of the puzzle in closing the digital divide and the growing “homework gap” in which students lack residential and community broadband access. 1 Even in communities with exceptional broadband in their schools, how are student experiences affected when nearby institutions and establishments, including libraries, churches and other public facilities, have limited digital resources and connectivity? How does this impact students’ ability to share the digital experiences learned in school to the community?

The paper relies on data collected from visits to schools in two different cities—Marion, Alabama, and Phoenix, Arizona. 2 Both schools were the beneficiaries of the ConnectED initiative (ConnectED), which was launched under the Obama administration to accelerate on-site internet access and teacher technology training in 2013. Public and private sector partnerships were at the center of ConnectED with participating entities providing financial support, equipment, wireless infrastructure upgrades, and software donations to eligible schools and libraries. Apple, Inc. was one of many corporate participants in the ConnectED initiative and provided the two schools profiled in this paper with tablets, software, and professional development workshops.

Related Content

Nicol Turner Lee

March 17, 2020

August 2, 2021

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November 4, 2020

Given the availability of technology within each school, I explore how the in-school digital experiences of their students compared to access and use within the surrounding communities, especially among libraries, community-based organizations, and local businesses. More specifically, I examine both the availability and capacity of local entities to close the homework gap and the much broader digital divide in historically disadvantaged communities.

While this paper provides detail on how each school implemented their partnership with the Apple and ConnectED initiative, my primary focus is on the school and community connections, especially as students’ technology use is often contained within educational institutions. I conclude the paper with a series of proposals and programs to bridge these local divides that are stifling robust digital interactions in low-income communities.

The White House ConnectED initiative

In the 1990s, lively debates on the digital divide ensued, largely focused on strategies to enhance public computing access, equipment, and software and digital literacy training for providers and users. Former deputy administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Larry Irving, coined the term “digital divide” to compare the experiences of those who were online with those who were not. 3 These citizens were disproportionately people of color, foreign-born residents, high school dropouts, older Americans, and rural residents.

A steady stream of federal, state, and municipal support would soon follow, going to community technology centers (CTCs) to address these digital access disparities. Government resources, including those allocated from programs like the former Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, primarily supported the expansion of CTCs, which were often created and operated by community and faith-based leaders. Private philanthropy later supplemented BTOP by providing additional grants to CTCs and other community-based organizations focused on closing the digital divide.

Generally, the programmatic efforts happening in schools and communities were established to address the persistent divide, which still affects more than 10% of U.S. citizens who either do not have access to high-speed broadband or have no general interest in technology. 4

Parallel to the conversations on community technology were ones related to expanding digital access in schools, resulting in a plethora of resources. This included smart boards and other in-classroom devices, online messaging tools, and interactive web-based tools for educators, parents, and students. Professional development for teachers was also a priority as more schools adopted new technologies with the goals of introducing new pedagogical frameworks for classroom instruction.

“New industries, including those empowered by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, are quickly transitioning citizens from an analog to a digital economy.”

Today, innovation is steadily increasing as evident in new online products, services, and platforms. New industries, including those empowered by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, are quickly transitioning citizens from an analog to a digital economy. However, American students fall behind their peers from China, South Korea, and Singapore when it comes to creating and working in this new gig economy . While some research argues that the global disparities are due to the lack of access to universal, high-speed broadband networks in the U.S., the availability of devices, teacher readiness, and earmarked resources to expand digital proficiencies can also be blamed . 5 Further, the homework gap—a term coined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel—is rapidly widening as schools and communities fail to develop digital bridges into the places where students live. 6

In June 2013, the Obama administration created the ConnectED initiative after learning that teachers in certain communities were often experiencing subpar internet access compared to other American households. 7 The program goals were to fix disparate online access for students in public schools, with a specific focus on unreliable and slow internet that was preventing teachers from effectively using technology in the classrooms.

When first announced, ConnectED’s explicit goals included:

  • Connecting more than 99% of students to the internet in their schools and libraries at speeds of no less than 100 megabits per second (Mbps) per 1,000 students at a targeted speed of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) by 2018.
  • Creating partnerships with the private sector and nonprofit organizations to make affordable devices available to students.
  • Training teachers to incorporate technology into the classroom.

One year after its announcement in 2014, the private sector quickly reacted and joined the administration’s effort, including Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, AT&T, and the Sprint Corporation. Since the program’s start, Apple has awarded $100 million in in-kind donations , including hardware, software and necessary Wi-Fi and other infrastructure upgrades. Participating schools, including the ones surveyed in the paper, have received iPads, software, and teacher training as part of Apple’s competitive, national grant program.

Research methodology

As part of my research, I chose to focus on two awardees of the Apple and ConnectED program, largely due to the presumption of existing technology resources within the school. The first case study is on Francis Marion School, a pre-K through 12 th grade consolidated school in Marion, Alabama, and a program grantee since 2016. The student body of Francis Marion School is 98% African American, and predominantly low-income. The school is in the Perry County School District, a highly rural community that is approximately two-hours from the city of Birmingham. Perry County has a long history of fighting racial segregation. In 1966, the school district was part of a landmark state desegregation case after the noticeable concentration of Black students in public schools. 8 The history, along with its location, made the inclusion of Francis Marion unique, along with the size of the student population (700 students). Francis Marion students were also able to take their devices home because of available broadband service on their iPads (a program to be discussed later in the paper).

Pendergast Elementary in Phoenix, Arizona, is the second case study for this research and another grantee since 2016. Pendergast received iPads for all students and benefited from three years of professional development training from Apple. Unlike Francis Marion, Pendergast students were not permitted to take their iPads off campus.

Located in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the student body of Pendergast Elementary is 95% Latino, and majority low-income. The school is in the western outskirts of downtown Phoenix with a large population of undocumented immigrants. Maricopa County has an embattled history of villainizing immigrants under the leadership of former Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, who was notorious for racially profiling and detaining Latinos in the Phoenix area. 9 After 24 years in office, he was unseated and sentenced to prison for his unfair and unconstitutional treatment of Latino residents, many of which were not legal residents at the time.

In addition to their demographic differences, I also chose each school because their respective local communities have a vast range of local assets, including libraries, local businesses, and nonprofits. This information was ascertained prior to actual field visits through an online search. 10

For each case study, data was compiled through direct interviews with principals, teachers, parents, and community leaders. Students were not interviewed for this paper, but observational data may be shared. 11 Prior to the start of the site visits, research permissions were sought and approved by district superintendents.

The next section provides case studies of each school, relying upon the qualitative data collected during the interviews and field visits. Following this section, common themes and recommendations for improving community digital access are shared, including active legislative proposals.

Francis Marion Elementary School

Alabama ranks 47 th or below on reading and math scores for the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. 12 In Alabama, 59% of students are white, 33% are African American, and the remaining percentages are other racial and ethnic groups. 13 Of all students in Alabama public schools, 52% are economically disadvantaged. The state’s Department of Education shows reading, math, and science proficiencies generally fall slightly below 50% for all categories. The graduation rate for the state is roughly 90%, with about 75% of students ready for college, according to state standards.

“Of all students in Alabama public schools, 52% are economically disadvantaged.”

Francis Marion School, one of two schools in the Perry County School District, is a consolidated pre-K through 12 th grade school with 694 students, 99% of whom are African American. 14 More than 70% of the students are economically disadvantaged. The students’ performance in core studies, including reading, math and science, fall at 23%, 19%, and 15% respectively, ranking near the bottom of Alabama schools on standardized test scores. Despite these low scores, 92% of students graduate with a little over 50% ready for college.

In Perry County, broadband access is at an all-time low, with only 39.8% of households being connected to the internet, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2013-2017. Alabama ranks 41st in the nation in terms of broadband connectivity and download speeds. 15

The school’s principal is Dr. Cathy Trimble. She was born and raised in Marion, Alabama, and has been in the district for almost 30 years. Before becoming principal, she only left the city for college and soon returned after her now-husband became the school’s physical education teacher. Dr. Trimble started as a substitute teacher in the Perry County school system, and over the last three decades worked her way into the role of the school’s top administrator.

At the time of the proposal submission to Apple, the school was only serving high school students. Soon after the grant was awarded, the school went on the state’s failing list and risked closure. The district immediately drafted the plan for the school’s consolidation, which now enrolls students from pre-K to high school. The resources were successfully redirected to the consolidated school, which makes their case study unique because of the school’s size.

In 2016, Francis Marion School received 700 iPads as part of the program; the inventory is still the same in 2019. All students receive an Apple iPad as part of their classroom experience and can take them home at the end of the school day. Dr. Trimble fought through racial stereotypes in her decision to permit home use. “Because we are African American, people thought that [the students] were going to sell or lose their iPads,” she shared. “But, in one year, we may have lost two or three and one of them, someone [in the community] called and told me [the location of one of these iPads].”

As mentioned, internet access is not readily available in Marion, Alabama. On my drive into the community from Birmingham, the two-lane road was flooded with colorful signs marketing cheap internet offers. Dr. Trimble considered the lack of home broadband access as a primary reason for her decision to allow home use, recognizing the potential of the device to have a multiplier effect in the students’ household. The equipment at Francis Marion is also bundled with AT&T broadband service so that the students and other family members can also access the internet at home.

“Before the program, I would come to the school on the weekends and see parents pulled up in their vehicles using the school’s Wi-Fi,” Dr. Trimble stated. “When we first got the iPads without the broadband package, kids would still be sitting on the ground or on the stoop, doing their homework or studying,” she continued. With some ingenuity, she brokered the deal with AT&T, ensuring that her students had access to Wi-Fi during the school year.

Creating digital norms in schools

Some researchers have argued that having effective leadership in schools is the first step in the slow acculturation to and adoption of technology. 16 The leadership drives the vision for school technology use to energize participation by amplifying the critical importance of digital resources. Integrating technology into the existing culture of the school was challenging, according to Dr. Trimble. At the program’s onset, she had to encourage teachers, students, and parents to use the technology, and develop new teaching methods, which was very uncomfortable for many of her teachers. Thoughtful in her choice of words during the interview, Dr. Trimble detailed how she walked each group through the transition, starting with the basics on how to turn on the tablet.

In their research, Tyler-Wood, Cockerham, and Johnson (2018) share the difficulties that new technology presents in rural schools: less-equipped teachers and other disparate physical resources make technology integration more difficult in rural schools, layered on top of insufficient funding. 17 Francis Marion is no exception. Parents were brought into the program at the start to not only gain buy-in, but also to identify their own needs. Parallel with the program’s implementation, the school instituted a parent computer lab where adults could fill out job applications or conduct other online business. Students were also empowered to manage the lab and work with teachers to secure the school’s computer equipment against viruses. Dr. Trimble called these “baby steps” to help stakeholders gain “the basics of the basics” after realizing their low levels of digital proficiencies.

Staff development is also a critical element of the school’s success, according to Dr. Trimble. Further, an organizational realignment to accommodate the technology helped her to create and shift roles among some faculty to ensure positive outcomes. A science teacher at the school, Gylendora Davis, was given the joint role as a tech and media instructor. In my interview with Ms. Davis, she supported the principal’s technology integration plan:

Students already know some of this stuff because they have cell phones. Dr. Trimble has just made it mandatory to bring technology into our lesson plans. There are some challenges with us, teachers. We had to figure out a way to put a lesson into our regular curricula and use some of the available online content on the iPads.

Francis Marion is empowering their teachers to look beyond the traditional subjects associated with technology, including math and science to the arts, music, and writing areas that are usually less technical. “Our students are coding, learning robotics, and also engaging the arts,” Dr. Trimble shared. “Sometimes, it’s not uncommon for the students to even lead the teachers on ideas of what to cover.” Her students are also using more advanced technology applications, such as designing QR codes for research projects and using iMovie for storytelling.

Going fully digital in classroom instruction is an aspiration of the Francis Marion School. “What we have now is a prelude to what is to come,” Dr. Trimble predicted. “I see us progressing to a mobile music program where the band director can help students learn how to play instruments from mobile devices. Marching bands are popular here in Alabama that would be such a complement to what the kids can do now.” Unlike schools that struggle to maintain technology as a core part of science and mathematics, Dr. Trimble’s extension into the humanities and arts may be able to foster increased adoption by both students and teachers.

“In this rural town of Marion, the optimism around the technology in the school is going viral among students, teachers, and parents.”

In this rural town of Marion, the optimism around the technology in the school is going viral among students, teachers, and parents. In my observation of students exiting the building at the end of the day, most of them had an iPad under one arm and a mobile phone in the other hand, suggesting that the school’s culture is embracing digital use. One of the fifth-grade teachers supported what I saw by saying: “[The school] starts early to give these students the right values around the use of technology. Most of the students have phones, but we want to show them what the world will be like with forthcoming virtual and augmented realities. We are not stopping.”

Research suggests that African Americans access the internet via their mobile devices at a much higher percentage compared to white individuals. 18 Moreover, these populations tend to be “smartphone dependent,” relying only upon their mobile device as a gateway to the internet. While such access can be promising, some of the challenges with the homework gap refer to students’ inability to use their phones to complete research papers or other assignments that require more robust internet and device access. Fluctuations in monthly costs can also lead to more service interruptions for this population, resulting in less consistent access for lower-income households. 19

The ability to complement smartphone access with a tablet may serve to lessen the barriers to broadband adoption at home and in the school. A 2008 study from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System reiterated this point by concluding that teenagers who have access to home computers are 6–8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than teenagers who do not have home computers. 20

Dr. Trimble shared her plans for sustaining the momentum of her students’ technology use for the next few years, given the formal partnership with Apple ended in the summer of 2019:

Next school year [2019-2020] will be the first time without Apple and their program. The students will still have their tablets and we have now built the technology into lesson plans. Going forward, we have teachers who are ready to further customize the curricula to the different grade levels. When we gave the tablet to the high school students, they saw it as a new way to get on social media, but now, we are pushing it toward college applications. Last year, 100% of our graduates went to college. So, we have to keep going.

Given the school’s commitment to contributing to the learned digital experiences of its students, what role does the surrounding community play in reinforcing these goals? In what way can technology access in schools become a catalyst for expanding local access?

Making tech the new normal in Marion

It’s no question that technology access within the Francis Marion School has been a game changer, forcing a new level of digital engagement and responsibility among students and faculty. However, these digital accomplishments are not necessarily changing the broader community.

“We are doing such a good job [at the school] that many of these students are deciding not to return home,” Dr. Trimble shared. What she is referring to is the increasing exodus of families from Marion in search of new opportunities, especially given the downward turn in the local economy. “This town used to be thriving,” Dr. Trimble stated. “The plant for Mercedes Benz [in nearby Tuscaloosa] used to be a reliable source for jobs before it closed. Now, some students are traveling within the South and even above the Mason-Dixon Line to attend college. In some cases, students are leaving school early to go with their parents who are finding work outside of the city.”

During the interview, one of the parents, Twanda White, stopped by the office to let the principal know that she accepted a job in Selma, Alabama. Twanda was moving immediately with her children just one month into the school year. “I’m going to miss this school and Dr. Trimble,” she said. “My son was not doing well last year, then he got an iPad and he was able to get his grades up because he got more interested in school. I remember telling myself, the principal has taken my child from me because he always wants to be at school.”

When asked about her own technology literacy, she continued, “I already know some things, but the program here has helped me to do things like apply for jobs, send my references, and track my application.” Unfortunately, it is the lack of access to livable-wage jobs in the city that make it impossible for single parents like White to survive in Marion.

While one might think that the existence of technology would be transformative by itself, a mismatch exists between these added resources, the broader impact on educational achievement, and insufficient local opportunities—particularly jobs.

For example, Francis Marion is on Alabama’s failing school list, despite having access to such robust digital resources and cultivating increased student engagement. “I almost feel inadequate,” Dr. Trimble stated. “We have successfully changed the culture of the school, but our test scores don’t reflect this.” States like Alabama still rely upon traditional learning metrics and assessments to rank city schools, particularly test scores. Alabama also publishes a state report card on a school’s progress in terms of student attainment. Francis Marion is on that list.

Race may be a factor in this distinction from other schools. Jim Crow laws established a legacy of historically segregated schools in the South, which could explain the high ratio of African American students at Francis Marion. While explicit educational discrimination was outlawed in Alabama, segregation is now driven by income and wealth inequalities, causing communities like Marion to have more concentrated populations of lower-income students. 21 The school is also nearly 100% African American because many affluent white families in the community send their children to the local private school.

While the technology program appears to have increased student engagement, research also concludes that it is not a catalyst for improved test scores, or at least not immediately. 22 Digital access alone cannot dismiss the structural and social discriminations affecting communities of color. But, the case of Francis Marion suggests that it can improve upon school culture and drive some level of student engagement by empowering teachers to be more creative in classroom instruction and equip students with new tools. As suggested in conversations with Dr. Trimble, having access to technology breaks the mundanities of living within Marion where opportunities are limited.

From my observations, Dr. Trimble is committed to improving upon the life experience of her students and stands firm in her conviction to the school:

I feed these children when they are hungry. I cry with them and their families when they are going through something. I used to complain about them to the teachers. But, somehow, God just won’t release me from here.

For communities and students to be full beneficiaries of digital technology, it also seems natural to share these online experiences within their respective communities, thereby building local capacities and creating shifts in acceptable digital norms and practices.

However, three months out of the school year, or on summer break, Francis Marion students are without their iPads. “The kids in this community do not have a lot of places to go, and I know that they wait for the iPads to return,” she said.

The divide between the community and school

Marion, Alabama, resembles other rural towns. The usual temperament of the town enveloped by farms and green pastures is quiet. Sounds do make it into the more bustling commercial district where local businesses sit across from City Hall and the local library. A few blocks from Main Street is a tall water tower inscribed with the town’s name, which marks the town’s boundaries.

The library in Marion has computers and patrons have full access when it’s open. On the day of my visit, the library—which is about two to three miles from the school—was closed. Dr. Trimble shared that the library is a main resource for the students, if they can get there. Common transportation barriers or an unavailable parent or guardian stymie continuous traffic to the local institution.

Across from the public library is The Social, a newly opened ice cream parlor. The building blends into the row of antique stores and sits next to a Southern-cuisine restaurant. As described by Dr. Trimble, The Social is just that—a place for ice cream, board games, and internet access. It is new to the community and when I walk in, the large space is lined with rectangular tables from the entrance to a few feet before the ice cream parlor. A high-top table surrounds the walls of the space with appropriately sized chairs for use. Board games are scattered on tables and a sign invites patrons to use the Wi-Fi.

The owner is an African American woman, Betty Cadore, who sold her house in Bridgeport, Connecticut to relocate to Marion one year ago. “My daughter was working here as a Teach for America fellow. I came to visit her and loved the community so much that I moved,” she shared. “Local people didn’t think that we would last,” she continued. “But we are still here.” Aside from her daughter, who now works at Francis Marion, the Cadores have no family connections to the town except through the family business.

In addition to ice cream, Cadore also provides breakfast to local kids on their way to school. One of her daughters commented, “My mom is here at 6:30 am every morning. She saw a need for breakfast and wanted to provide that for the young people.”

While schools are abundant with resources primarily earmarked and targeted to educational gains, surrounding communities lack the digital infrastructure to support the technology training that happens within schools. Getting to any of these places may also require some form of transportation.

“We sometimes have more white people here [at The Social] than [Black] students because they have no transportation,” Cadore pointed out. “I really wish that I could figure that problem out because we are here to offer a safe space for the kids to do their homework.” From this statement and the general case study findings, it was also clear that there were not too many places that offered Wi-Fi or fixed broadband services to community residents.

Francis Marion’s experiences closely resemble the findings at the second school, Pendergast Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona.

Pendergast Elementary School

The district that houses Pendergast Elementary School has 13 schools that enroll pre-K to eighth grade students. The district has 9,753 students and 500 full-time equivalent teachers, creating a student-to-teacher ratio of 19.5. In 2018, per student spending in the district was $7,438, compared to $8,269 statewide. In 2017, average spending per student in Arizona was the fourth-lowest in the nation .

The students at Pendergast Elementary are predominantly Latino, many of them the children of undocumented workers. Of the 813 students at the school, 85% are of Hispanic origin . In state math assessments, 29% of students in grades 3-8 scored “proficient” or “highly proficient.” In science, only 39% of students “meet” or “exceed” state requirements.

The school building overlooks the mountains, complementing its open architecture and LEED compliance. Pendergast is a green school with eco-friendly student work stations scattered around campus. Technology access is prevalent at the school. Students have access to a 3D printer and in-classroom smart boards.

When walking into the school, the faculty were welcoming. The receptionist behind the first entry way has a nameplate on her desk that reads: “Like a boss.” Students in school uniforms appear to embrace her title as evidenced by the number of them approaching her for help. There is a constant exchange of “excuse me” and “thank you” as I wait for the principal. Arizona state law bans the use of bilingual education, so everything is taught in the English language.

Getting the school connected

Principal Mike Woolsey is an almost “lifer” like Dr. Trimble. For decades, he has been the principal at Pendergast and a resident of Phoenix. Like his counterpart from the rural South, he wants to leverage the technology to ensure that his students have exposure to 21 st -century tools and jobs. He applied for Apple’s competitive grant program with the goal of expanding the horizons of students. “I wanted our kids to have options [so] that they are not stuck, unless they want to be,” he asserted. “Many of their parents didn’t finish school. I want my students to thrive instead of survive in this world,” he continued.

When Principal Woolsey wrote his grant to the Apple and ConnectED initiative, he started with the assumption that most of the students had smartphones. His teachers were already depending on these devices to assist with homework. “We don’t send a lot of homework home,” Principal Woolsey shared. “But what I have done is to enable applications on smartphones since most students have them.”

Like African Americans, Latinos also have a heavy reliance on smartphones. Approximately 25% of Latino populations are “smartphone dependent” and use their mobile device as their only gateway to the internet. 23 In addition to accessing basic services, this population uses their devices for email, entertainment, government services, health care, and other relevant functions. But like Francis Marion, students with only smartphone connectivity may be challenged in completing research papers or other extensive assignments.

The school received the award from Apple in 2016. Since then, the iPad program has provided a cushion between students’ smartphone use and their lack of home PC access to generate more interest and engagement in the digital economy. Mobile access is important in this community of immigrants—many of whom are undocumented. Principal Woolsey shared how the egregious acts against immigrants have affected his students:

First, some of my parents are afraid to drive their kids to school. They drive with their passports in hand because of the fear. Maricopa County had a bad reputation because our neighborhoods were targeted by coyote people 10 years ago and had to pay ransoms.

He continued: “Most of the students and their families have mobile phones for safety. Our parents are afraid to leave the house. Here, a phone is about safety and staying in contact with that child.”

Like Francis Marion, Pendergast undertook several steps to design and implement its one-to-one technology solution, starting with a formal plan. “You have to plan for the technology with an implementation plan that you can revise,” continued Principal Woolsey. “And, you shouldn’t put in place a plan of tech to just substitute paper.”

At Pendergast, students in certain classes can take home their devices, including those enrolled in STEM classes. Unfortunately, not all students have broadband access at home. Cox Cable has a low-cost broadband offering, but the school is unsure of how many households subscribe. For Principal Woolsey, the main implementation of technology happens on campus.

On the point of local broadband access, Ruth Roman, the library media technician, commented, “Most parents do not have internet at home. Every year, we have a hard time getting the parents to complete the required paperwork for free or reduced-price lunch as a result.” Referencing Cox’s low-cost program, Roman shared that subscribers that she knows are usually signed up on a “pay as you go” basis.

Being an Apple and ConnectED recipient has helped the school to reach some of their technology goals. Both Roman and Principal Woolsey agree that the school quickly benefited from the program’s equipment and software donations, as well as the structured teacher training. Reflecting on his school’s experience in setting up the program, Principal Woolsey stated: “We were able to upgrade our network. There was so much to do, but each time we got better at it.”

Like Francis Marion, stolen devices among the student body are not an impediment at Pendergast. “We have had these iPads for three years and had zero theft,” he shared. “There will always be fears versus benefits. In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the fears.”

Teachers at Pendergast underwent a paradigm shift related to the use of technology in the classroom. The principal had to first get buy-in and then work to phase in aspects of the new applications, software, and hardware. Beginning with the expansion of the role of library instructor and technician, the school quickly put in place policies and infrastructure, including a mobile iPad cart that could be transported to each classroom.

Eliza Oldham, the technology teacher for kindergarten through eighth grade, led the efforts to connect parents to the program and address their fears about technology. She shared during her interview that the program has helped young people in the home teach their parents about these online tools, making it more comfortable for the parents. In her research, Katz (2010) found that while media experiences have primarily benefited more affluent communities, they can generate more trust within immigrant communities when young people serve as brokers to online information. 24 In a survey of parents and children in an immigrant community in Los Angeles, her findings demonstrated that children’s use of traditional and newer forms of media helped in the settlement of their families. 25

“At Pendergast, technology access has also encouraged students to explore STEM careers.”

At Pendergast, technology access has also encouraged students to explore STEM careers. “[At the school], we tell the students about jobs in coding and help them with resumes to get them started on their job search,” said Ms. Oldham. Additionally, the technology program at Pendergast Elementary School is also used to provoke problem-solving among students, an action favorable to teachers.

Mr. Quinones, a fifth-grade teacher, used his iPads for a research project where the students had to identify and write about women of color in the community. While his students couldn’t take their devices home, they used the time in school to engage in cultural and ethnic studies research. Once the project was completed, they shared their presentations with the subjects of their research.

The class project was a success for students and community leaders, despite some parents not attending. In response to this, Mr. Quinones shared: “We need a program for adults so they can see what we do at school. We want them to be able to help their kids.”

Tech exposure and test scores are not aligned

Having robust exposure to digital resources does not lead to improved test scores at Pendergast, nor is it proven anywhere else at this time. While interviews with the principal and teachers suggest a more collaborative approach to learning can be beneficial, their students still lag others in state test scores.

Like Dr. Trimble in Marion, Principal Woolsey experiences the same type of disbelief around how local schools are assessed under rigid state standards—despite huge investments in new digital resources. “Our states still seem to see these things as black and white,” he commented. “We are teaching our kids how to thrive and not survive in the new economy, yet when it comes to testing, they can’t compete with other schools and other districts. For some of my students, this is their first experience in a formal school setting.”

Pendergast’s large immigrant population largely contributes to the school’s rank, but this phenomenon is not unfamiliar among schools in low-income areas whose achievement gaps are already well documented. Moreover, educational research suggests very little correlation between technology access and test scores. In 2019, a report by the Reboot Foundation found that test scores decreased for fourth graders who used tablets in “all or most” of their classes. 26 However, some variance appeared among students when the technology was used for research, problem-solving, or complimented some other critical thinking skill. 27 While more research needs to be done on whether technology can be a catalyst for improved test scores, both principals identified an increase in student engagement, which could be an interesting correlate itself.

A 2019 Gallup study on student creativity found that teachers who leveraged technology to assign “creative, project-based activities” experienced more positive responses from students, including higher self-confidence, and improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 28 While the merits of such performance could be argued, these findings suggest an increased level of student engagement as demonstrated at both schools at the core of this paper. As Principal Woolsey described, “We want to push our kids to do more extended things that go way beyond their personal experiences.”

This part of Phoenix is a digital desert

However, limited resources available in the surrounding community can impact the students’ digital learning. “We need more involvement from the community,” Principal Woolsey stated. “Kids have TVs at homes. They need access that will help them improve their lives. Every app that we use at school should be able to go home.”

The surrounding community is without many local resources for students when it comes to online access. Only 79.6% of the households in Pendergast’s school district have broadband subscriptions, despite the city of Phoenix being among the most connected cities in Arizona . 29

More than a half-dozen pawn shops, liquor stores and used-tire establishments line the main streets around the school. Given the school’s location, a car or sufficient public transportation is needed to get around. The school assistant, or “the boss” shared, “Students’ households lack adequate transportation and because of the climate, they do not walk. It’s too hot. And when they have internet access at home, most of the students go on[line] for entertainment.”

There are two local libraries near the school—each approximately five miles from the school on opposite sides. I visited one—Desert Sage Library, which took me approximately 15 minutes to get to by car. Like schools, libraries have also been recipients of grants to bring more access to communities. In this library, more than 20 computers were lined between the books and the walls. People were actively logged in and the location was extra quiet as patrons maintained their focus on their screens. In front of two librarians was an African American woman who was trying to renew a library card but was told that she had to go online.

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Her name was Francis and she had just moved to Phoenix to escape the cold weather in the northeast. She was recently separated from her spouse and patiently waited for her son to finish playing a game on one of the library stations. When asked how she would ultimately obtain her card, she shared that going online would be her best bet, but she’d have to wait to use her son’s phone. She gave it to him for emergencies at school.

“You can’t do nothing without being online,” Francis said. “Social services prefer that you go online and now the library. If you want to apply for a job, go online. Everything is digital and a lot of older people don’t even know how to do it.”

In many ways, Francis speaks to the challenges that the Pendergast teachers shared. There is a huge digital divide within local communities that restrict the full use of new technologies. In the case of adults, they have to learn as they go, or as Francis put it, “I need to rely on my son to help me get things that I need online.”

Francis also shared the challenges of doing everything over a mobile phone. “If you do it, like internet surfing, on your phone, it’s a cost [in terms of data] and I’m not working right now, so this all adds up.” She is aware of the low-cost broadband program available through Cox, but for someone on a limited income, that is still more than she can afford. Her son is in high school, so he cannot participate in the iPad program. Instead, he has a Chromebook provided by the school district to which she directed some reservations: She’s not sure if he’s using it for homework or gaming.

However, Francis understands the importance of being connected. Recently, she visited her doctor and was given an advanced stage cancer diagnosis. Because the doctor was able to reach her on her son’s phone, she was admitted to treatment immediately. “My doctor put all of my records online, through something like My Chart,” she recalled with half of a smile. “And, here I am today getting treatment.”

The need to support the intergenerational use of technology is obvious from my interview with Francis. Deploying technology between the schools and communities can potentially create a multiplier effect that not only amplifies in-school investment, but also builds the individual and community capacities necessary to thrive in an increasingly digital economy.

Bridging local divides between schools and communities

In a lofty illustration, the two case studies suggest that the inside of the schools appear to have a few gallons of water, while the community—though rich in family and institutional connections—is dehydrated or thirsty. As a result, some residents are compelled to relocate despite the positive effect the school’s technology program is having on their children. Or, residents may be digitally stuck because the robust and contained use of technology within the school does align with absent local opportunities. Overall, these communities are experiencing their own local divides, where the resources within schools are not often imparted into the surrounding communities, and vice versa.

Generally, what I discovered during both site visits is that Pendergast and Francis Marion have shared goals when it comes to the effective integration and adoption of technology by students, faculty, and some parents. Yet, they are sucked into educational models that restrict technology use to the facility, and as a result, are forced to measure student growth through traditional metrics.

Principal Woolsey described this challenge as feeding into the acts of survival that his families undertake from being fully disconnected. In Marion, students are similarly trapped within stalled local economies that fall behind the opportunities emboldened in the new information economy. In both case studies, school-based technology programs alone face obstacles to changing the economic and social trajectories of students. First, the current methodology for deploying digital access is school-centered. Second, the surrounding communities are digitally barren and unable to reinforce these digital experiences, or at best, keep these students connected.

Thus, creating a local digital infrastructure starts with mapping the available assets within a community, from libraries, community-based organizations, and local champions like Betty Cadore from The Social. In their research, Rideout and Katz (2016) pointed to the benefits in creating such local supports, primarily because they advance intergenerational cooperation and adoption of new technologies. Thus, there is a logical need for more engagement by local institutions, including libraries, community centers, and other gathering places, for families without home access to get online. 30 Francis Marion is an exception when it comes to home-use of school devices. But not all schools can provide an in-home resource or have technology available at all, leading to increased inequalities that will only widen as the information economy becomes more widespread.

“Local libraries are not only the most visited when it comes to public computing, but they are the most utilized asset by individuals without home internet access.”

Local libraries are not only the most visited when it comes to public computing, but they are the most utilized asset by individuals without home internet access. 31 In most rural communities, the library is normally the anchor of local activities, such as government services, benefits enrollment, and tax preparation services. Yet, some local libraries are still far from where some local people live, work, or go to school, thereby compromising their ability to do more. Librarians and other staff are also tasked with a variety of functions from checking out materials to helping individuals apply for jobs and access government services. Challenged by limited funding, staff, professional development opportunities, equipment, and software, local libraries can themselves become barriers to adoption.

Community-based organizations, including CTCs, and local businesses are also other local resources that permit free Wi-Fi use, like The Social and, in some cities, the local McDonald’s . However, these institutions also have limited times for availability, may require additional collateral (e.g., a library card or enrollment), or are restricted by limited bandwidth to available unlicensed Wi-Fi.

In the end, schools need connections to reliable, convenient, and safe local digital infrastructure, inclusive of libraries, community-based organizations, and even households to bolster their activities. This can address the growing divides that are quickly widening within low-income and rural communities.

The final part of the paper offers recommendations that make home and community internet access more readily available and supports intergenerational efforts to establish local digital norms around technology among certain groups. The next section also surfaces legislative proposals to advance community-based technology access that overcome the barriers associated with the homework gap.

How to enhance connections between schools and communities

1. make community internet access available 24/7 to low-income students and their communities..

Several U.S. cities have deployed lending programs for Wi-Fi hotspots, in addition to providing computer centers. The New York Public Library launched in 2014 a lending program in response to a survey revealing that 55% of library patrons did not have internet access at home. For families making under $25,000, the percentage increased to 65%. Initially seeded through a $500,000 Knight News Challenge Grant, the pilot focused on public school students who lacked home broadband access and through additional donations targeted 10,000 households with internet access.

The Chicago Public Library has also deployed a similar initiative in three libraries that allow residents to check out a Wi-Fi hotspot like they would a book. By mid-2016, the library had 973 wireless internet hotspots for checkout through their Internet to Go program.

In addition, creative solutions to bring internet access to where students are is demonstrated in the wiring of local school buses. In 2013, the rural Coachella Valley Unified School District (Coachella Unified) in California was the first to provide iPads to every K-12 student as part of their mobile learning initiative. Because 95% of students live below poverty, they are challenged in their transportation to local institutions or do not have the economic means to subscribe to a monthly broadband service. In 2016, the school district equipped its school buses with solar-powered Wi-Fi routers to provide internet access while in transit. When stationary, the buses were parked within underserved neighborhoods to offer 24/7 Wi-Fi coverage.

Coachella Unified’s Wi-Fi on Wheels project has enabled broadband internet where students live to minimize the obstacles that disrupt use between the school and community. The program has resulted in a jump in district graduation rates from 70% to 80%, according to one study. 32

In 2017, Google piloted a similar initiative, Rolling Study Halls , in the Berkeley County School District that enables broadband on 28 school buses. The program has since been expanded to 16 additional school districts and provides Wi-Fi routers, data plans, and devices for students to use while in transit.

Policymakers are finally understanding the need to empower local resources. In May 2018, Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) introduced a bipartisan bill to equip school buses with internet access. The bill extends the FCC’s E-rate program—which provides schools and libraries with affordable broadband services—to reimburse school districts for the cost of outfitting their buses with internet access. In a press release on the bill, Udall stated, “It’s time to end the homework gap. Our legislation will help give all students the ability to get online to study and do homework assignments while they’re on the bus—a common sense, 21 st -century solution.”

In 2019, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) introduced a similar bill to reduce the homework gap. Meng’s bill, the Closing the Homework Gap through Mobile Hot Spots Act, would develop a $100 million grant program for libraries, schools, U.S. territories, and federally recognized American Indian tribes for the purchase of mobile hotspots. According to Meng’s press release, the mobile hotspots program would be established for students in need of internet access for homework completion. In her statement, she reinforces the need for such action:

Every child deserves their best chance at pursuing an education. But it breaks my heart knowing that millions of kids, every night, are unable to finish their homework simply because they are without internet access. Before the internet became ubiquitous, students completed their homework with pen and paper-today, that is no longer the case.

Taken together, these two bills can help scale and sustain many of the pilot programs being instituted within local communities while closing the homework gap. Although most of these programs rely upon philanthropic and private sector support, the adoption of federal legislation would bring more certainty in terms of appropriations and deployment, making these programs less vulnerable to political changes like the ConnectED program.

2. Create more intergenerational projects between schools and local communities to foster broadband adoption and use.

Between 2008 and 2011, the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina issued 4,400 Apple MacBooks to students in grades 4–12. Subsequent gains were seen in graduation rates from 80% to 91%, and students exhibited greater proficiency in reading, math, and science—73% to 88% overall. But their story, as some suggested, had less to do with the availability of hardware and more to do with the leadership and their plan for technology deployment. According to its website, the district continues to distribute laptops to its students. It has been the online content, teacher development, parent engagement, and student outcomes that make their technology program effective.

The same type of methodical deployment was adopted by both principals in my case studies. With the help of the Apple and ConnectED initiative, these leaders also revamped existing processes and staff roles to ensure a seamless integration of the technology into the classroom.

What’s even more comparable to the Mooresville lessons is the time spent by both schools on creating the trust of technology among students, teachers, parents, and other community members. In communities of color, intergenerational connections are fundamental to this process, especially as the parents and caregivers of students experience a host of other social problems. For example, when Dr. Trimble decided to allow her students to bring home their iPads, she was appealing to the intergenerational relationships within her community while enabling additional online activities for family members, such job searching, distance learning, among other functions.

Research has long supported the role of students in influencing parents to engage new technologies. 33 When young people become “brokers” to new technologies for their parents and other caregivers, there is a higher likelihood of broadband adoption within the home and a greater exploration of the functionality of the internet (e.g., for health care, employment, and other critical decisions). Children are often seen as the most trustworthy source for families when it comes to internet use. In her research, Corea (2012) found that despite one’s demographic status (as defined by socio-economic status, income, family structure, among other variables), young people are the key agent for introducing and integrating technology into the home. 34 Thus, the imperative to create more robust, local programs that enhance intergenerational engagement could be one of the bridges between schools and local communities. The fifth-grade research project at Pendergast was an attempt to pull the community into the school, which is an incremental step in creating a more digitally enabled community.

“When young people become “brokers” to new technologies for their parents and other caregivers, there is a higher likelihood of broadband adoption within the home and a greater exploration of the functionality of the internet.”

Other nationally known programs are attempting to build such bridges. For the last nine years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has been offering low-cost broadband to low-income families, using young people as digital connectors or local ambassadors for training and service within their respective communities. In some affiliate programs, students receive community-service credit or a small stipend for their efforts.

Establishing both trust and purpose for the technology is important for schools, community-based organizations, and other local institutions introducing digital resources.

3. Consider technology as a catalyst for increased student engagement in schools and communities.

Despite the availability of digital resources, schools like Francis Marion and Pendergast are assessed by stringent metrics, including student grades, test scores, and college enrollment. Low-income schools start with a deficit and consequently must catch up with more affluent institutions. While the an in-school technology program and available local resources should be ingredients for more effective learning, such goals are often unrealistic given the basis of cognitive retention around test scores and the institutional funding and staffing constraints for certain communities.

While the Apple and ConnectED initiative offered a framework for how designing and implementing a robust technology initiative, both principals faltered at changing overall student achievement. Going forward, more research is needed to understand how technology can be used to foster improved test scores, or if the reliance on test scores are representative of student performance at all.

What is apparent in both case studies is that both principals awakened some of the dormant realities of their students, who were simultaneously navigating through distressed economic and social circumstances. On this point, a Francis Marion high school student shared, “I really didn’t know what I could do for myself until we received an iPad.”

While test scores may not be affected, student engagement within schools can improve. In the 1960s, this type of educational quagmire was understood in the failures of Brown v. Board of Education to create parity within public schools. Facilities were still separate and unequal, despite the legal mandate of desegregation. As a result, low-income and rural poor schools faced the academic repercussions of these inequalities as demonstrated in poor student achievement and growth.

In many ways, schools like Francis Marion and Pendergast are still experiencing the historical effects of being on the wrong side of segregation. Yet, technology access has the potential to enliven the energy of dissatisfied and disassociated teachers, as well as students whose socio-economic status often dictates predictable (or discouraging) life outcomes.

Moving toward an ethos that assesses how technology affects student, parent, and teacher engagement should count for something. The increased inquiry and activity happening within America’s low-income and remote rural schools can be considered progress, especially if more students are enrolling in college or, at least, enhancing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Further, measuring increases in student engagement as a corollary to boredom or disengagement should be added to the conversation on school performance. In both case studies, each principal was excited about the potential of technology to change the course of their students’ life trajectories.

Policymakers, state education officials, and educators should start to explore more fully such indices to measure how schools are adapting to the skills necessary for 21 st century advancement. Further, educational districts should be calling upon their affiliated schools to explore these opportunities to ensure that parents and other caregivers are provided with the same type of interest and proficiency in new digital skills. As summarized in an old cliché, “it takes a village.”

Getting closer to parity with the time and investments made around technology in schools and communities is one of the primary arguments of this paper. There are benefits to having more robust bridges between where students learn and live in places that ultimately influence their future decisions. The schools in this research have clearly surfaced why technology access is critical for their students as it slowly develops the norms and values for future participation in the new economy. Each case study also demonstrates the importance of making relevant community connections to better prepare households for the burgeoning digital economy so that the tide of progress rises for all and not just the fortunate few.

Nicol Turner Lee is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and the author of the forthcoming Brookings Press book, “Digitally Invisible: How the internet is creating the new underclass.”

Special thanks to everyone at Pendergast Elementary and the Francis Marion School, as well as Brookings’s Jack Karsten and Lia Newman for their help with this report.

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public. The conclusions and recommendations of any Brookings publication are solely those of its author(s), and do not reflect the views of the Institution, its management, or its other scholars.

Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Google, Microsoft, and Verizon provide general, unrestricted support to the Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are not influenced by any donation. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment.

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This article originally appeared at Bloomberg CityLab and is published in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange . 

W hen the pandemic shut down schools in March, it created a new urgency to narrow the digital gap in the U.S. as millions of students struggled to participate in remote learning because they didn’t have internet access at home. It also reinforced the reality that the divide doesn’t just exist between rural and urban communities, but also within America’s largest cities. Some 500,000 households lack reliable connection in New York City, for example; in Chicago, 1 in 5 students don’t have broadband, according to data published at the start of the pandemic.

As many local governments have scrambled to secure internet access for children in virtual school, some policies could last past the pandemic. One popular approach in cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago has been providing low-cost or free service to families who can’t afford a broadband subscription, and the tech devices to go with them. Some measures are currently set up to last only a year , while others, like Chicago’s, will continue for several years. Recognizing that the digital divide will persist after the pandemic, digital inclusion advocates say there is a need for more permanent solutions.

One approach that’s gained traction is for local communities to play a direct role in providing internet service — in many cases by building their own or relying on their own infrastructure.

“The options in front of them looking at the affordability barrier were to pay for existing service — cellular through hotspot, or wireline — or build something,” says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “And I think the the folks who went with the build-it solution are the ones thinking, ‘This problem isn’t going away after the pandemic.’”

Municipal broadband

Establishing a municipal network to cover an entire city isn’t new; Chattanooga, Tennessee, was the first to accomplish this in 2010. The local government installed its own fiber-optic cables on streetlights across the city, serving not just residents but also businesses that were seeking a more reliable and speedy grid than was previously available. But the city-run initiative set off both legislative and legal challenges that have barred Chattanooga from expanding its network to neighboring jurisdictions — and muted the movement to bring similar ideas to other U.S. cities.

As of 2020, 22 states have laws that deter or even prohibit local governments and communities from establishing their own networks, according to the group Broadband Now. They’re in large part the result of lobbying from commercial providers who argue the laws are necessary to prevent unfair competition. Siefer says they continue to restrict communities from connecting everyone in need.

This year in a number of cities, the pandemic has inspired some narrower versions of municipal broadband that get around these restrictions, focused on creating “affordable networks” that specifically target low-income households. Several of these were born out of the immediate need to bridge the homework gap.

“Pre-Covid there were at most a handful of networks being built to address affordability; now, we’ve started informally keeping a list and we’re over 30,” Siefer says. “The phenomena of setting up a network for that reason, in that way, is new.”

The concept is simple: “Basically try to offer free connectivity in areas that are heavily populated by people who cannot afford the connections that are available,” says Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The methodology varies, but often, these solutions aim to set up a system that can address the affordability barrier well beyond the pandemic.

In some cases, they rely on infrastructure the city has already built out. Chattanooga, for example, used its pre-existing network to provide low-income students with free internet access after the pandemic began.

San Antonio, Texas, where more than 38% of households lack in-home internet access, also relied on pre-existing infrastructure. The municipally owned utility had years ago built an extensive network of fiber-optic cables that delivered internet to government buildings and community centers like schools and libraries, and when those centers closed — leaving underserved students in the lurch — the city decided to use $27 million in CARES Act funds to expand that network to the homes of some 20,000 students across the city’s 50 most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Antennas from those school buildings will send internet signals to receivers fixed to students’ homes and apartment buildings where the city’s fiber cables don’t reach. The initial phase of the project focuses on six of those neighborhoods near two high schools where more than half of the student population live in homes without internet access. Over the next eight months to two years, the city plans complete the expansion to all 50 neighborhoods.

Because of a Texas law that restricts local government telecom networks, the city likely wouldn’t be able to expand the service to a broader population without reform . “In San Antonio, that network is only available to students because there’s a state law that says that the city can’t be in competition with commercial providers,” says Siefer.

The wireless approach

While equipping homes with wireline broadband is typically thought of as the gold standard, few cities have the infrastructure ready. In the absence of an extensive network of municipal-owned cables, some communities are establishing wireless networks to connect low-income students to free or low-cost internet.

One such initiative is the Every1online program in the Pittsburgh metro area, a 12-month pilot project aiming to connect at least 450 families and low-income school children to high-quality internet, for free. Spearheaded by the nonprofit internet provider Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, with partners like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, the program uses antennas mounted on top of tall structures to beam internet signals to the homes of residents in Homewood — one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods — and of low-income school children in the nearby New Kensington and Coraopolis school districts.

Connecting communities through mesh wireless networks isn’t new, but Every1online is one of the new initiatives born out of the pandemic to target low-income families. After the pilot ends , school districts have the option to purchase service for students in need — a model that organizers hope to expand in the future . (Pennsylvania’s law prohibiting city governments from setting up their own network does not apply to nonprofits.) Rather than connect individual households to the internet, the nonprofit hopes to partner with school districts and other community groups in underserved neighborhoods to set up a network for multiple families in a concentrated area.

In a newer strategy made possible only recently, a handful of school districts from California to Texas to Utah have begun leveraging a band of wireless spectrum known as Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) to establish high-speed wireless networks for students. Unlike other bands that are allocated for private use, the Federal Communications Commission made some of the CBRS band publicly available in early 2020 so anyone, including local governments, can access it. It also sits in a sweet spot on the spectrum range that makes it useful for offering relatively high-speed connection with enough coverage for a small area.

One of the first to test the technology is the Fontana Unified School District in California, where more than half of students lack reliable internet at home. In April, the district launched a five-year initiative to build out a private wireless network for some 36,000 students. Partnering with the network infrastructure provider Crown Castle Fiber, the district will install about 400 “access points” that will transmit signals to thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots near students’ homes, which can then be used to connect school-provided devices to the internet.

The initiative does come with a hefty price tag of $40 million, with Crown Castle paying most of the upfront costs. But in an interview with New America, Fontana superintendent Randal Bassett called it more cost-effective than paying for subscription service from an existing carrier. In the long run, the infrastructure can be expanded to cover more households and be used for other city services such as digitally connected infrastructure.

Experts like Mitchell and Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, say they are cautiously optimistic about the potentials of CBRS. It could be a game changer for municipalities, but it’s a finite resource with a lot of uncertainty about how it will scale.

“It’s an exciting technology, but it’s also not clear to me that there is enough spectrum yet to be able to ensure that you can provide high-quality service,” Mitchell says. adding that students living in an apartment building could experience different speeds than a peer living in a single-family home. “One of the things I really hope the FCC does is create more spectrum that would be available to be shared in this way because I would worry that in many cities, it might be exhausted and congested very quickly.”

Other options

Brake says it might be redundant and costly for some cities, particularly those that are cash-strapped, to build their own system using CBRS when there are other private-sector providers with already-established infrastructure. It “opens up new opportunities, so I am excited to see how it plays out,” he says. “But I don’t think a good tool to be building an entire network on, especially where there’s such a competitive market already providing services.”

He suggests other options ranging from using Wi-Fi hotspots, as some communities have done around closed libraries or on school buses, or partnering with private providers, as Chicago has done.

How communities choose to bridge the gap ultimately depends on their needs and resources. With schools fully remote and an estimated 100,000 students lacking internet access in Chicago, the city chose to partner with major broadband providers to fill in the immense gap — though not before conducting an extensive survey on who needed access the most. The $50 million Chicago Connected initiative, which launched in June, is expected to provide low-income students free internet for at least the next four years, with funding from the CARES Act and, more crucially, from a handful of private donors. The money will be paid directly to Comcast and RCN so that families will not be charged, according to Chalkbeat .

Some major cable companies have also started partnering with cities and offering cheaper plans to low-income customers, though families and officials have complained of sluggish speeds .

What’s next

It’s no surprise that distance learning has prompted local governments to take more aggressive action on digital access, but going forward, expanding current solutions to a broader community will be a monumental task that will require more involvement from the federal government.

Congress has made digital equity a higher priority since the pandemic began. In December, it included $3.2 billion in its Covid relief package to fund a $50-per-month emergency broadband subsidy for those laid off or furloughed during the pandemic — part of the $7 billion set aside for advancing broadband connectivity and infrastructure.

But Siefer says solutions need to address all barriers, including the uneven access to devices and the lack of digital literacy among some communities. Advocates are not only calling for more funding, but also more informational and political support. Better data would be a good start, says Siefer: “For example, there is no widespread data on the cost of broadband service in the U.S. because internet service providers don’t want their data out there. But the FCC should be collecting it and making it publicly available so that communities can make informed choices when they’re figuring out how to address the problem.”

The effort also calls for policy reforms, in particular one that would prohibit states from restricting municipal networks and other community initiatives. In 2019, the Community Broadband Act introduced in the House of Representatives sought to do just that, but has not been debated. With a new administration, and new control of Congress by Democrats — as well as the appointment of senior FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who’s been vocal about digital inequality, as the agency’s new acting chairman — there is cause for cautious optimism among advocates.

For their part, commercial carriers, too, are looking to address the gaps. Mobile carriers T-Mobile and Verizon are looking to enter the home broadband market. Both companies offer limited home internet service use their wireless 4G networks, which they advertise as being fast enough to be cheaper alternatives to cable internet. So far, coverage is spotty. Both are also working to bring the highly coveted and blazing fast 5G service to homes, with T-Mobile planning to focus its initial rollout in rural areas .

Such plans still leave some digital inclusion advocates skeptical about relying on the private sector to bridge the divide. “My questions would be, will there be data caps and what’s the price point?” says Siefer. She points to Starlink, a satellite internet service from Elon Musk’s Space X that was awarded nearly $900 million in December from the FCC to boost service to rural residents. (Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai touted the awards as the “single largest step ever taken to bridge the digital divide.”) The upfront cost for a subscription totals nearly $600 — $500 for the equipment and $99 a month for service.

“Might that change later? Yes. Might T-Mobile, Verizon and the rest of them come up with some other great solutions later? Yes,” Siefer says. “But until these things are real, people are suffering and there need to be solutions now.”

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Linda Poon is a writer for CityLab in Washington, D.C.

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The digital divide has left millions of school kids behind

US schools are going back to in-person learning as COVID ebbs, but the so-called homework gap will persist.

digital divide homework

The coronavirus shined a light on the homework gap, or the disparity between the haves and have-nots when it comes to those students with laptops, tablets and high-speed internet and those without even basic online access. But the waning of the pandemic's threat is a stark reminder that this aspect of the larger digital divide was a problem long before, and will remain one even as things return to normal. 

But the seismic shift sparked by the coronavirus has some optimistic that more change is on the way. 

When schools across the country shut down in March 2020 , more than 50 million students across the nation were forced to access their education remotely. This sent districts scrambling to replace their in-person instruction with some form of online learning. Some schools offered live video streams, while others posted assignments online and expected students to access content and assignments.

Locating local internet providers

More than a year later, with vaccines more readily available, schools are starting to reopen more fully. But the digital divide and the homework gap haven't gone away, even with new attention and funding directed toward emergency relief. The CARES Act, passed by Congress at the outset of the crisis, gave an initial boost that helped many schools purchase devices for students who didn't have them and pay for broadband service.

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An additional $50 billion was allocated for K-12 education in the COVID emergency relief funding passed in December. The funds, which are reaching districts now, can be used for a range of pandemic-related services, including distance learning. More money to close the digital divide is expected as part of President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan. 

Now, as educators and policy makers prepare for what's next, people are taking a hard look at where things stand and what lessons have been learned from this year.  

"The most exciting thing we learned about the homework gap during the pandemic is that schools are uniquely positioned to help close this divide for their students," said Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy for Common Sense, a nonprofit focused on education. "Pre-pandemic, we relied on a patchwork of solutions from low-income programs or benevolent service providers, grand programs from the federal and state government. But most of these programs were developed with no coordination with the schools."

Fazlullah said that's changing as schools see the real tangible effects of the digital divide. Common Sense partnered with the Boston Consulting Group, EducationSuperHighway and Southern Education Foundation, to publish three in-depth reports over the past year looking at the magnitude of the divide and potential solutions.

Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution , has studied the digital divide for more than two decades. She agrees that the pandemic has given schools, as well as policy makers, an opportunity to jump-start efforts to bring digital equity to education. But she cautions that, as students return to the classroom, school leaders shouldn't abandon their efforts to improve digital equity for their students. 

"Schools are now rushing to get their students back into schools, because in many ways they think this will solve the digital access issues they have and the loss of learning some students have experienced," she said. "But what I fear is we're missing the opportunity to get our kids ready for a new digitally connected economy."

She said the past year has been a how-to-solve-the-digital divide pilot of sorts, with school districts, state governments and others trying out various solutions. Now schools are in a precarious moment in the crisis, and she is urging school leaders and policymakers in Washington to not let this moment pass them by in terms of making sure no student is left offline.

To help readers make sense of all this, we've put together this FAQ to give you a better sense of what the homework gap is, why it exists and how it can be solved. 

What is the homework gap? 

The homework gap is a term that's been used to describe the millions of children in grades K-12 for whom access to broadband services at home or access to suitable devices are unavailable, leaving them unable to access homework and other educational resources. 

One thing the pandemic has made clear is that the so-called homework gap is worse than we had thought. Pre-pandemic estimates put the number of unconnected students in grades K-12 at 12 million. A June 2020 study by Common Sense, EducationSuperHighway and Boston Consulting Group suggests that between 15 million and 16 million students, or 30% of all public school students, live in households without either an internet connection or a device adequate for distance learning, or both. 

Who is most affected by the homework gap?

Every state in the US has pockets of unconnected students in all types of communities, according to the Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group report. But it's most significant among rural households, particularly in southern states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi. It also disproportionately affects students in lower-income families. Roughly 50% of unconnected students come from families with annual incomes less than $50,000.

How did the pandemic worsen the gap?

When schools shut down, the coronavirus pandemic brought to the forefront the digital inequities within communities. But it also made the homework gap a more serious problem for students who lacked access. No longer was this lack of access to the internet or a suitable computing device just about not being able to get homework completed. Instead, students without a device or broadband access were cut off from their education almost entirely. 

"It was a homework gap pre-COVID," said Gaby Rowe, the project lead for Texas' Operation Connectivity , which used federal CARES Act money to coordinate the bulk purchase of 1 million computing devices and 500,000 hotspots for students throughout Texas during the pandemic. "But now it's morphed into a much larger and more devastating learning gap post-COVID." 

Because the digital divide disproportionately affects students from lower-income families and students of color, a failure to address the digital divide will likely lead to a widening gap in student achievement, a problem that also existed long before the pandemic. Now the digital divide threatens to widen that gap, further marginalizing students who were already at risk of falling behind. 

Why are people still unconnected?

The overwhelming reason why students lack access to remote online learning is the cost and affordability of services and devices, according to the Common Sense Boston Consulting Group study . That report found that up to 60% of disconnected K-12 students, or about 9 million students, especially Black and urban students, can't afford digital access. 

Up to 40% of disconnected students, or about 6 million students, face adoption barriers, such as a lack of digital literacy skills or the ability to get through the signup process for low-cost services. This group also included families that had language barriers in accessing service or that distrusted the internet because of privacy concerns.  

Roughly a quarter of students, or about 4 million, lack access to reliable broadband infrastructure. This reason mostly affected students living in rural regions, and it disproportionately affects Native American students. 

Why does it matter?

Solving the homework gap or digital divide issue for schoolchildren is important for several reasons. For one, it's essential that all students have equal access to distance learning because it ensures workforce development and readiness for the next generation of Americans. 

Also, research has long demonstrated that access to quality education can help break the cycles of poverty. There are early indications that students who have been unable to access distance learning over this past year are falling behind. 

Last, ensuring that households with K-12 students have access to broadband and affordable devices can go a long way in terms of solving the broader digital divide, providing greater access to employment opportunities, job training and remote health care for all Americans. 

Because the digital divide affects a third of students in the US, the consequences of not addressing the issue could be dire, experts say. Even though the vaccine rollout has improved in the US, the global pandemic is still far from over with variants of the virus still circulating around many parts of the world. Many communities in the US remain vulnerable to the virus, meaning schools could continue an on-again, off-again return to distance learning for the foreseeable future. Not dealing with the problem now will only exacerbate inequities in schools and throughout society that existed prior to the pandemic.

What's being done to solve it?

Last March, Congress allocated $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act funding to help schools close these gaps as they pivoted to virtual learning amid school closures. Several states also put CARES Act money to help address the digital divide and homework gap for schools. 

These efforts closed 20% to 40% of the K-12 connectivity divide and 40% to 60% of the device divide as of December 2020, according to the Common Sense and Boston Consulting report. But 12 million school-age students still remained disconnected going into 2021. This was due to a slew of issues, including poor broadband data, infrastructure and supply chain issues, and lackluster adoption of existing programs as well as inadequate funding to continue to address the issues. 

In December, federal lawmakers approved additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools , including $50 billion that can be used for pandemic-related expenses including distance learning. But analysts say more than 75% of the existing efforts aimed at closing the digital divide for schools will expire within three years. This means that there's no long-term solution in place to ensure digital equity in the future. 

Some are hoping that Biden's infrastructure plan can help address some of these issues more broadly. He is calling for spending $100 billion to expand broadband in rural communities where access doesn't yet exist and to help make broadband more affordable across the country. Though the proposed spending makes up only a tiny fraction of the overall $2 trillion in spending that Biden wants to see Congress allocate for his infrastructure plan, the policy and political ambitions around the issue are huge.

Still, Common Sense's Fazlullah is optimistic that with support in Congress and among policy makers in Washington, progress can continue. 

"With policy changes and a commitment to providing necessary funding, we can close these gaps for good," she said. 

What still needs to be done?

Fazlullah says that more state and federal funding is necessary. The Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group report estimates that closing the digital divide will require between $6 billion and $11 billion in the first year and between $4 billion and $8 billion annually thereafter, to address affordability and adoption gaps. This doesn't include the cost of deploying new infrastructure, which some have estimated at $80 billion or more. 

In addition, the report recommends funding be targeted to achieve efficient use of funds. This includes adopting policies to enable bulk purchasing of devices and internet service with transparent, affordable pricing and digital inclusion support. Public policy should also encourage technology-agnostic investment and encourage broadband networks to be built  where it doesn't currently exist or where it's insufficient to meet student needs. 

Success will also require strong partnerships between the public and private sector to assess students' needs and to address issues. 

Turner Lee said that Congress also needs to make statutory changes to existing programs to ensure they have enough flexibility to direct federal dollars where they are most needed. For instance, she suggests expanding the federal E-rate program to help ensure broadband access in public housing and other public areas, like parks. 

"There are statutory restrictions that define where money for our existing programs can go," she said. 

She told members of the Trade subcommittee of the House of Representatives Ways and Means committee last week during a hearing that what is needed is America's Tech New Deal, a program that she said "would deepen investments already made by the private sector in high-speed broadband networks and also provide new models to use that infrastructure to create jobs, expand small businesses and reimagine delivery of services, including remote education, work and health care."

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The State of the Digital Divide in the United States

August 17, 2022

digital divide homework


The COVID-19 pandemic shed a bright light on an issue that has been around for decades: the digital divide. As parents, children, and workers scrambled to learn, socialize, and work from home, adequate internet connectivity became critical. This analysis takes a detailed look at the digital divide as it was in 2020 (latest year available), who it affected, and its socioeconomic implications by using an innovative metric called the digital divide index . It should also increase awareness on this issue as communities and residents prepare to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime investment in both broadband infrastructure and digital equity, components of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Data for this analysis came primarily from the U.S. Census Bureau 5-year American Community Survey. Additional sources include but are not limited to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Lightcast (formerly known as Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc. or EMSI) and Venture Forward by GoDaddy. The unit of analysis was U.S. counties for which DDI scores were calculated 1 .

Digital Divide Index

The digital divide index (DDI) consists of three scores ranging from 0 (lowest divide) to 100 (highest divide) and includes ten variables grouped in two categories: infrastructure/adoption and socioeconomic. For purposes of analysis, the overall DDI score was utilized. Counties were divided into three roughly equal groups based on the DDI score: low (1,031 counties), moderate (1,031 counties), and high (1,063 counties).

These groups were then utilized to analyze a host of other variables to better understand this issue. Figure 1 shows a map of U.S. counties by DDI groups. Of the 1,031 counties with a low digital divide, 747 or 72% were considered urban (population living in urban areas 2 was more than 50%). On the other hand, of the 1,063 counties with a high digital divide, only 187 or 17.5% were urban.

Figure 1 – U.S. Counties by DDI Group

Figure 2 shows the average DDI scores by group. The low group had an average score of 17.33, the moderate group an average score of 26.35, and the high digital divide group an average score of 36.58.

Figure 2 – Average DDI Scores by Group

Next, we look at a host of variables by the DDI group to better understand who it affected and its socioeconomic implications.


Figure 3 shows selected demographic characteristics in counties with a low and high digital divide. A higher share of the population in counties with a high digital divide are rural, veterans, living in poverty, and disabled. On the other hand, a higher share of the population in counties with a low digital divide are minorities. While this was somewhat surprising, keep in mind that many counties with a low digital divide are urban, which in turn have a higher share of minorities. Please note that minorities include all but White, non-Hispanic. The share of children is roughly the same between low and high digital divide counties at roughly one-fifth.

Figure 3 – Percent of Population by Selected Demographic Characteristics in Low and High DDI Counties

As the economy continues to digitize, it is important to understand who is being left behind from a workforce perspective. Figure 4 shows the share of population by selected workforce-related variables in low and high digital divide counties. As shown, the share of children enrolled in K-12th grade without a computer or internet subscription is higher in counties with a high digital divide. In fact, one-quarter of children enrolled in Pre-K through 4th grade in high digital divide counties did not have a computer or internet subscription.

Regarding educational attainment, the share of those 25 years or older in high digital divide counties with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 20 percentage points lower compared to the share in low digital divide counties (16.6 versus 36.7). Likewise, the labor force participation rate among the working age population (ages 16 to 64) as well as the prime working age population (ages 25 to 54) is lower in counties with a high digital divide compared to counties with a low digital divide.

Figure 4 – Percent of Population by Selected Workforce Variables in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

Additional household characteristics need to be understood within the digital divide context. Figure 5 shows the share of households by selected characteristics in low and high digital divide counties. The share of lower earning households was higher in high digital divide counties as was the share of households with a person 60 years or older. The share of households with a person 65 or older living alone was also higher compared to low digital divide counties. Regarding the share of households with limited English, the share was slightly higher in counties with a low digital divide compared to a high digital divide.

Figure 5 – Percent of Population by Selected Workforce Variables in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

Digital distress and internet income ratio.

A related metric our Center developed is called “digital distress”. This metric utilizes fewer variables than the DDI but also offers insights for community leaders and residents regarding digital inequities. Figure 6 shows the four variables used to calculate digital distress by low and high digital distress in counties.

Figure 6 – Percent of Households by Digital Distress Metrics in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

One of the variables recently added to the DDI is the “Internet Income Ratio” or IIR. The IIR gauges digital inequality by dividing the share of homes making less than $35,000 without internet access by the share of homes making $75,000 or more without internet access. A higher IIR denotes a higher inequality. Figure 7 shows the share of homes without internet access as well as the IIR in low and high digital divide counties.

In other words, the share of lower income households without internet access is 7.1 times higher compared to the share of wealthier households without internet access in low digital divide counties. This number is higher compared to the 4.4 in counties with a high digital divide. This may seem counterintuitive but nonetheless makes the argument that digital inequity continues to be an issue even in counties with a low digital divide.

Figure 7 – Internet Income Ratio (IIR) in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

Homework and senior gap.

The homework gap has been discussed widely during the pandemic. It refers to the percentage of children that do not have internet access and struggle to complete their homework assignments. Another gap—that is not discussed as much—is the senior gap. This refers to the population aged 65 or older with no internet or computer access. This group can enhance their quality of life significantly if they can participate in online activities. Figure 8 shows the percentage of children and the population ages 65 or older with no access to computers as well as having access to computers but no internet.

As shown, counties with a high digital divide—as measured by the DDI—have a higher children (homework) and senior gap. However, it is important to note that while lack of internet is an issue among seniors, lack of computers is more of an issue. Consider that one-quarter of the population age 65 or older in high digital divide counties did not have a computer compared to 10.5% having a computer, but no internet access.

Figure 8 – Percent of Children and Seniors by Selected Characteristics in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

Digital economy.

This last group of variables shed light on the digital divide and digital economy implications. Figure 9 shows the share of jobs by selected characteristics in low and high digital divide counties. Note that the number of jobs in counties with a low digital divide grew by 11.7% between 2010 and 2020 compared to a 0.5% decrease in counties with a high digital divide. As expected, the share of digital economy jobs 3 in counties with a low digital divide was higher compared to the share in counties with a high digital divide, as was the share of remote work friendly occupations and workers ages 16 and older working from home.

Figure 9 – Share of Jobs by Selected Characteristics in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

Regarding the roughly 80% of occupations, whose digital skill levels were measured, Figure 10 shows that counties with a high digital divide had a lower share of occupations requiring high digital skills (21%) compared to counties with a low digital divide (30.8%). Likewise, the share of jobs requiring low digital skills was larger in counties with a high digital divide compared to counties with a low digital divide.

Figure 10 – Share of Occupations by Digital Skill Level in Low and High Digital Divide Counties

To wrap-up this analysis, we look at two innovative metrics developed by the Venture Forward project by GoDaddy . This project has calculated a microbusiness density metric (the higher the number, the better) that is highly correlated with economic benefits as well as the microbusiness activity index, that considers three components. Infrastructure refers to how ready the county is in terms of physical and intellectual infrastructure. The participation component looks at the number of GoDaddy online microbusinesses run by residents in the community. And the third engagement component looks at how active the websites are in the community. These new metrics are very insightful because there were 2.8 million more online microbusinesses in 2020 compared to 2019.

As shown in Figure 11, the average microbusiness density in low digital divide counties was double the density in high digital divide counties (6.4 versus 3.2). In addition, microbusiness activity index was 15 points higher in low digital divide counties (106.3 versus 91.6). What is interesting, however, is that the difference in the infrastructure and participation components is not as high. This implies that high digital divide counties have some elements in place to take advantage of the digital economy. The issue seems to be more about sophisticated online presence (engagement).

Figure 11 – Microbusiness Density and Activity Index in Low & High Digital Divide Counties

Conclusions and discussion.

The objective of this analysis is to provide a deeper understanding of who the digital divide affects and what socioeconomic implications there are to help communities as they plan and implement their digital equity and broadband infrastructure plans. Please note that we deliberately included metrics that shed light on specific populations targeted by the digital equity act. A couple of disclaimers first, before we jump into conclusions.

First, a tradeoff of grouping counties and analyzing averages is that critical and underlying dynamics are overlooked. Even if your county is included in the low digital divide category, this does not mean that the issue has been addressed. On the other hand, if your county has a high digital divide, this does not mean the situation is dire. There are certainly assets and resources that can be mobilized. Second, this data is two years old. The urgency and nature of the pandemic caused things to go in overdrive creating a highly dynamic landscape. We encourage our readers to use this as a baseline and pursue their own strategies to gather more timely and granular data, including assets and resources.

As shown in this analysis, the digital divide affects groups and areas in different ways. While a greater share of residents living in high digital divide counties are rural, this issue affects urban areas as well. An example of this is the fact that the share of minorities living in high digital divide counties was lower than those living in low digital divide areas. In other words, the share of White non-Hispanics was higher in high digital divide counties. This finding is surprising but makes the point that this issue is affecting residents across all races/ethnicities.

Poorer, disabled, older, less educated populations, and lower labor force participation rates are seen in higher digital divide counties. It is not clear from the analysis if this is a result of the digital divide or simply that these characteristics were already in place and the digital divide is just one more wrinkle to iron out. Also note that lack of devices, and not necessarily internet access, is a larger issue among the population ages 65 or older (also known as the senior gap).

The digital divide is holding back counties from participating fully in the digital economy. Again, it is not clear if this would have been the case regardless of the digital divide, but nonetheless it is placing communities at a disadvantage. As shown, counties with a high digital divide lost jobs between 2010 and 2020 while counties with a low digital divide saw an 11 percent increase. Likewise, the share of occupations requiring high digital skills was larger in counties with a low digital divide. Lastly, microbusiness density and activity were also lower in counties with a high digital divide. However, regarding microbusiness activity, the issue seems to be more about sophisticated online presence rather than infrastructure and number of businesses online.

Granted, these findings may be affected more by external, well-known urban and rural trends given that many counties with a low digital divide are urban. However, should this continue to be the case? What would happen if rural areas and other disadvantaged groups were at digital parity with their urban and more advantaged counterparts? Could they benefit from the digital economy as well? Luckily, significant investments will be taking place in the next several years to begin tackling these digital inequities with real-life consequences.

  • Due to data availability, the DDI was calculated for 3,125 counties of the 3,143 in total (18 were excluded).
  • Since the official 2020 urban/rural definitions will be released until December of 2022, we used one of the metrics being considered. This metric considers any Census block urban if it has at least 425 housing units per square mile, the equivalent to 1,105 people. The prior urban definition used 500 people per square mile. Please note this estimate is preliminary as the official definitions have not been released.
  • Includes 44 industries with 6-digit NAICS codes considered to be “fully” part of the digital economy. These are mostly semiconductors, service providers, batteries as well as software developers and data processing to name a few. Does not include warehousing or retail associated with e-commerce.

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Understanding the Digital Divide in Education

A mother and son work on a laptop as part of online learning.

The Apple I personal computer first hit stores in 1976, and from 1984 to 2015, the number of people who had a household computer increased by 72 percent, according to ThoughtCo. With the increase in internet capabilities and in the number of people who had access to computers and the internet in their homes, educators began relying heavily on digital technology. This is how the digital divide in education began.

While 87 percent of households in the US currently have access to a computer, smartphone, tablet, or other internet-enabled device and 73 percent have access to the internet, a digital divide remains. The issue lies mostly with access to high-speed broadband, which is required for individuals to be able to make use of much of what’s available on the internet.

Marginalized communities including people of color, low-income individuals, English-language learners, people with disabilities, and populations experiencing homelessness are among those most likely to lack access to high-speed internet. The impact of the digital divide on these students has been significant and—due to transition to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic—continues to worsen.

What Is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide in education is the gap between those with sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those without, according to the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. To examine the divide requires looking at who can connect to what and how they do so. For example, a student who has multiple laptops in their home and has access to high-speed broadband likely will have better educational success than someone who has one computer to share with their entire family and only has dial-up internet access.

As teachers use more technology in their courses, this divide increases and continues to perpetuate socioeconomic disparities for underserved populations, according to the ACT Center for Equity in Learning. About 17 percent of students are unable to complete their homework due to their limited access to the internet. Additionally, 50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of families of color don’t have the technology required for online education, according to the Education Trust.

To fully understand the impact of the digital divide, looking at the rise of technology in the classroom is an important first step.

History of Technology in Education

The integration of technology into the classroom began during the Cold War era with the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite into space. With America’s initial loss in the race to space, the federal government began pushing math and science education and embracing technology. In 1963, the Vocational Education Act provided funding for technology in schools, according to Classcraft. In the early 1980s, computers made their way into the classroom. By the mid-1980s, Apple computers became common in classrooms.

While the initial funding for technology in schools came from the government, schools had to continue to fund technological advancements once the federal money ran out. Since schools are funded through local property taxes, the schools in low-income areas didn’t have as much money to spend on technology as those in high-income communities.

In the next two decades, technology began to advance rapidly. The introduction of email, video, and other digital media made two-way digital communications possible, including between teachers and students. The increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the 2000s brought about an even greater implementation of technology in education. But, as technology advanced and computers became the norm in most American classrooms and households, school budgets couldn’t keep up, increasing the digital divide in education and creating resource gaps among students.

How Did the Digital Divide Affect Education in the US?

The impacts of the digital divide in education have been significant. The digital divide has affected individual students in the same school as well as groups of students across districts, lowering the academic outcomes of low-income, underserved students and districts.

Impact of Individuals in the Same School

Digital disparities are seen within individuals in schools. A school can implement technology and teach every student how to use it, but if a student doesn’t have access to a device or high-speed internet at home, they won’t show the same academic results. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that students who didn’t have access to the internet or only had dial-up in their home could be broken down as follows:

  • 27 percent were American Indian
  • 19 percent were Black
  • 17 percent were Hispanic
  • 12 percent were Pacific Islander
  • 7 percent were two or more races
  • 7 percent were white
  • 3 percent were Asian

Students from marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide. In addition to limited access to the internet, 19 percent of underserved students have only one device at home—a rate that is three times higher than it is for more privileged students.

Unequal access to high-speed internet and home devices in conjunction with the increase in teachers assigning homework assignments that require internet use—in 2009, seven out of 10 teachers assigned homework that required using the internet—has made for an expanding digital divide in education. This inhibits students from completing homework, putting them behind in their classes. The result is a disadvantaged educational and socioeconomic outcome for underserved groups of students.

Impact of Student Groups in a District

The disparities between underserved and privileged students in a school are also seen between districts. Rural school districts are more likely to have no or only dial-up internet, and their students are less likely to have multiple devices at home.

Additionally, districts in different areas of a state experience a digital divide due to the socioeconomic status of that area. For example, the Sto-Rox district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was ranked one of the worst districts in the area. The area’s low socioeconomic status has resulted in limited funding for education. The district has only 30 to 60 laptops to share among 1,300 students. This has resulted in students leaving for other districts where they will have more technology and academic opportunity.

Another district near Pittsburgh is on the opposite end of the digital divide because of its partnership with a local university: Carnegie Mellon. The college is helping develop the computer science curriculum in the district as well as training teachers at the school to prepare students for a better digital education.

The same thing is seen at schools in districts in Silicon Valley versus other districts in California. These districts partner with major corporations like Google to provide every student with a Chromebook to use at home and in class, according to EqOpTech. Their socioeconomic status in conjunction with the technological support they receive sets up these students for academic success.

Overall Impact of the Digital Divide

Students experience the digital divide in education across the US. Four major outcomes can result from less access to digital technology, according to the Digital Divide Council:

1. Low performance : Low-income families have less access to information that will advance their education.

2. Competitive edge : Students with access to the internet will do better when they enter college due to universities embracing technology at an increasing rate.

3. Convenience in learning : Privileged students have access to better devices and face less hurdles to complete their education.

4. Different learning experiences : Students from low socioeconomic areas face more disadvantages and have to spend more hours to complete learning objectives.

These outcomes most impact students of color and those in low-income families. They also inhibit the long-term success of students.

Equality in Online Learning

The digital divide has been growing for years, but the global pandemic has accelerated its growth. Moving to remote learning in the spring of 2020, students in low-income areas and students of color experienced a disadvantage over other students. Additionally, the factor of childcare has been added to the digital divide in education. Parents in low-income areas who are more likely to work multiple jobs have struggled to find the time to help their children with their schoolwork, whereas high-income parents have the flexibility to take time off of work and the resources to hire tutors to aid their student’s education. As students have gone back to school in the fall—some fully remote, some fully in person, and others in a hybrid model—reaching equality in online learning has been the primary goal.

As of September 2, 2020, 73 percent of the 100 largest districts in America have chosen to instruct fully online, according to Education Week . This affects over eight million students. A study done by the Pew Research Center in the spring of 2020 found that 36 percent of low-income students couldn’t complete their schoolwork because they didn’t have a computer compared to 14 percent of middle-income and 4 percent of upper-income students.

While schools in more affluent districts are able to provide laptops to all students in need, others don’t have the funding. To help increase equity, some districts have held fundraising events. For example, Chicago public schools received $50 million to provide high-speed internet to 100,000 students. Whereas other districts who lack funding, such as Palo Verde Unified School District in California, provided learning packets every two weeks instead of holding online classes.

To aid in device and internet equity, some states are ensuring every student has access to Wi-Fi and a computer. The California Department of Education confirmed it will provide both of these resources to all students in need.

Bridging the Digital Divide in Education

As the global pandemic has thrown the digital divide into the spotlight, many educational leaders have made headway in bridging the digital divide in education. From providing internet to students with the most need, to ensuring every student has their own computer, leaders are beginning to increase equity among districts and students.

The California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund has raised $12.3 million to help allocate supplies to students, and a California digital divide task force and fund collected donations that bought 56,700 laptops and provided 94,000 hot spots, according to EdSource.

Chicago public schools have also made headway, providing free high-speed internet to 100,000 students. Additionally, they have begun building a permanent support system for Chicago families known as Chicago Connected. This effort works with philanthropic partners to bridge initial costs and will provide internet access to families who need it most.

To further help, the Education Trust recommends educational leaders and policy makers do the following:

  • Survey the needs of families most impacted by the digital divide.
  • Create conversations with leaders about how to fund additional resources.
  • Connect with potential donors and technology companies about digital resource partnerships.
  • Look at the school and evaluate the present digital divide, then allocate resources to bridge the gap.
  • Provide training and information technology support to educators and parents in the most impacted districts.
  • Create a plan with education agencies on how to bridge the gap long term.

By following these steps, leaders can help increase student academic outcomes and lessen the digital divide for future generations of students.

Become an Advocate for Equitable Education

Bridging the digital divide requires educational leaders and policy makers to advocate for educational equality. American University’s Online Master of Education in Policy Leadership and Online Doctorate in Education Policy Leadership help individuals looking to bridge the digital divide in education as well as promote equality in education receive the knowledge they need to do so. Prepare to promote equity in education at American University.

School Funding Issues: How Decreasing Budgets Are Impacting Student Learning and Achievement

Classroom Segregation: History and Current Impact on Student Education

Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

ACT Center for Equity in Learning, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity”

Chicago Public Schools, “Chicago Launches Groundbreaking Initiative to Bridge Digital Divide, Providing Free High-Speed Internet Access to Over 100,000 CPS Students”

Classcraft, “The History of the Emergence of Technology in Education”

Digital Divide Council, “5 Ways the Digital Divide Effects Education”

EdSource, “Long Road Ahead to Close California’s Digital Divide in Education Before New School Year Begins”

Education Week , “School Districts’ Reopening Plans: A Snapshot”

EqOpTech, “The Digital Divide in Education”

National Center for Education Statistics, “The Digital Divide: Differences in Home Internet Access”

Pew Research Center, “53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak”

The Education Trust—West, “Education Equity in Crisis: The Digital Divide”

ThoughtCo., “Understanding America’s Digital Divide”

Wired , “A ‘Covid Slide’ Could Widen the Digital Divide for Students”

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Disconnected: How the Digital Divide Harms Workers and What We Can Do about It

This piece was originally published by Next100 , a startup think tank powered by The Century Foundation and created for—and by—the next generation of policy leaders.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, an estimated forty-two million Americans did not have the ability to purchase broadband internet. And as the pandemic has ravaged the country, these vast inequities in technology access—which, together, have come to be known as the digital divide —have intensified and worsened. Roughly half of low income families have struggled to pay their internet and cell phone bills. Millions of unemployed workers had trouble navigating state unemployment websites, while almost 15 percent of students face barriers in remote learning conditions because they lack access to high-speed internet at home.

As reported by the Guardian, despite internet service providers (ISPs) saying networks are performing well, most people in 62 percent of counties across the United States did not have the government’s minimum download speed for broadband internet.

Yet, despite an increased awareness of the digital divide, the full extent of its harmful impact on workers’ lives and livelihoods is still not receiving sufficient attention. Yes, we should be discussing how, for too many communities , access to technology is a matter of survival . However, what is not being discussed—and should—is how the digital divide undermines workers’ ability to organize and build power, which is especially critical during crises in our digitally connected world. We must close the digital divide for all workers, if there is to be any meaningful increase in worker power.

As this report lays out, federal and state policymakers, as well as philanthropy organizations, all have a critical role to play by 1) making broadband more affordable and accessible, 2) making data more accessible and increasing transparency around its use, 3) funding worker organizations—and their capacity—directly, and 4) including worker voice in policymaking and philanthropy decisions.

The Digital Divide and Labor Power

The digital divide generally refers to the gap between those who use or have access to telecommunications and information technologies—including hardware, internet access, and literacy in using both effectively—and those who do not. Access to the internet has become what access to electricity was in the early 1900’s—a necessity for modern living—and yet equity gaps in this access remain. Even though the issue has been recently amplified, like many other challenges, it is not new, and stems from income inequality and systemic discrimination and racism , as outlined in a 2018 report by Free Press. The workers who are most disproportionately impacted include those with less education and lower incomes ; communities of color, such as Blacks and Latino; older adults ; rural residents (and most acutely in Native communities ); the physically disabled ; the LGBTQ community ; and those falling in the intersections of these groups.

Each of these types of organizations are typically under-resourced and under-funded, circumstances which make it difficult for them to grow or expand significantly in size and power. Even though some may engage in advocacy, lead policy campaigns, and form alliances at the national level, they are highly dependent on support from foundations or unions, and such sources of support can be inconsistent, limited, or perceived as more risky. (See here , for a more extensive report on funding challenges of non-union worker organizations.) Furthermore, those led by people (especially women) of color are often subject to racial bias , which means they receive less funding or have more strings attached to their funding.

In sum, these organizations are doubly challenged, dealing with their own and workers’ digital divides. As with individual workers, those that would benefit most from having better access to technology have the greatest difficulty accessing it. This is especially unfortunate because these organizations are overlooked and under-utilized vehicles through which resources and tools can be directed to workers that could help close the digital divide. Many are community-based organizations, and thus have direct, culturally unique, trust-based access to workers, especially in historically underserved communities.

In an interview, one black director explained the challenges that she faces when trying to access the same money as organizations headed by white leaders, saying, “Once we were given a small grant, and a [white-led] organization was given a million dollars to do the same work in our community. Then that organization came to us to ask us for help to do the work that they got the grant to do. That money should have come to us directly. It’s like building a house of cards when we don’t have the infrastructure for us to actually do the work…so I am arguing that the money should come to us, but at the same time, I don’t have the infrastructure to substantiate why the money should come to us to do the work…We have to demonstrate that we can do it, get the money to do it, train our folks, and keep putting out tests for change, all at the same time.”

4 Key Ways the Digital Divide Undermines Worker Power

Many have linked the digital divide to poor economic and social outcomes, such as fewer job opportunities , less competitive economies , or lower student performance, showing how it exacerbates existing inequalities along racial and other social lines. However, its impact on labor is no less significant: the digital divide undermines workers, worker organizations, and worker power in several distinct ways.

1. Lack of Access to Real-Time Information and Communication

A major challenge of the digital divide for workers is that limited access to high-speed broadband, hardware, and/or effective tools results in limited access to real-time information. I recently discussed how workers are increasingly finding themselves in chaotic, uncertain conditions, and facing new risks every day, and they need to be able to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Effective, relational organizing requires workers to be able to quickly access and exchange real-time information and news, to communicate and plan, and to demonstrate “responsiveness” to the other members in their networks, as Hahrie Han argues. Comparatively higher income  workers are used to this kind of access, but it is far from the reality for many.

2. Lack of Access to the Best Digital Tools for Their Needs

More digital organizational and organizing tools and platforms exist today than ever before. Examples of online tools that have emerged in recent years that focus on empowering workers include Unit , , Getfrank , Action Builder , UnionBase , and the Alia and Workit apps, developed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Labs and United For Respect , respectively. A 2018 study by Ársælsson and Rogers found that with digital technology, worker organizations have greater organizational power and capacity to serve specific communities of workers and to identify leadership potential among them; access and use more sophisticated tools and platforms to retrieve more detailed information about workers; use data analytics to improve their messaging and expand the scope and leverage of issue campaigns; and receive more feedback and input from workers in the field.

Yet many workers and organizers are often not aware that these resources even exist, because of how the digital divide impacts them. And even when they do know about the wide range of tools and services available, they often cannot use them because of prohibitive subscription prices, high customer service support costs that the software and systems frequently require, and other such barriers.

Instead, they rely on cheaper or free social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Using these online platforms can be cost effective, and arguably are where many workers already are, but they can also be less effective or desirable in that they open workers up to greater risks of being victims of “trolling” or employer and government surveillance (e.g. by Immigration and Customs Enforcement ). Businesses also often share and sell individuals’ personal data to outside, or third parties. Alternatively, workers may rely on in-person or non-digital tools and methods. These are not inherently lesser options—all organizing methods have value in their proper context. However, the in-person methods can be more costly, less efficient, and more difficult to scale.

3. Disparities in Access to Data and Information

Another, lesser known aspect of the digital divide is the great disparity in access to data and information between workers and companies. As I discuss in an earlier piece, companies collect enormous amounts of data from the individuals, including workers, who use their products, systems, and services. However, most people are often not even aware of the data that is being collected on them, let alone able to utilize this data to build power for themselves. And battles over data access and data privacy rights are increasingly becoming central in labor disputes, especially those involving gig or platform workers . Meanwhile, companies such as Amazon and Walmart use the data they collect to create algorithms (computerized sets of instructions about how to analyze data) that monitor and track virtually everything from customer online traffic and shopping preferences, to workers’ on- and off-the-job activity and body temperatures , to labor organizing activity and unionizing efforts.

Because the algorithms used to mine and manipulate these data are hidden from view, it is almost impossible for workers to see and understand how they affect pay, work schedules, employment conditions, and current and future job prospects. The opaqueness of these practices enable both illegal and legal anti-worker and anti-unionization behaviors, including surveillance, blacklisting, and wage theft, according to a 2017 Roosevelt Institute report. The companies that own and control the most data, also known as “ superstars ,” benefit most from these algorithmic and data management practices, because they achieve informational advantages which are translated into market gains and increased profits. To be sure, these profits are rarely passed down to workers (or consumers) from whom the data comes.

4. Limited Digital Literacy and Knowledge about Technology and Data

Even if workers have internet access, they also need to be digitally literate, which means having the ability to use technology critically, confidently, and creatively, and in a variety of ways. This only comes with regular use; and like any skill, can be improved with training. Workers must also understand how issues relating to data and technological change impact their lives and work. This is important for organizing, collective bargaining, and effectively participating in policy conversations.

Limited technical knowledge can also be a challenge for labor leaders who want to build or improve their organizations’ digital capabilities. Developing a more sophisticated digital strategy or hiring skilled staff requires a particular skill set as well as time, money, and resources. In smaller or more resource-strapped worker organizations, these activities typically fall on the shoulders of the leader of the organization. In another interview, a founder remarked, “My organization relies on me as a labor leader to establish the necessary partnerships and funding to achieve success on the technology front. But doing this, takes a lot of time and comes with a financial challenge, often leaving us to have to do more work with less money.”

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Here are four of the most important things policymakers and philanthropists can do to close the digital divide for workers..

The digital divide is a cross-cutting challenge that affects multiple stakeholders in multiple ways. The solutions below are by no means an exhaustive list and hopefully can serve as a foundation for future work and research.

Each of these four solutions must be implemented with an eye to the reality of the systemic inequality, discrimination, and racism that has caused and exacerbated the digital divide. Building worker power in the most marginalized communities or for the most underserved workers (e.g. low income black women , formerly incarcerated students , LGBTQ elders, or disabled individuals in rural areas) must be front and center in our goals, and thus, in our policy implementation.

Our goal should be 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage in all parts of the country.

1. Make Broadband More Affordable and Accessible

Our goal should be 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage in all parts of the country. Closing the digital divide means ensuring that devices and high-speed internet are affordable and accessible. Federal policymakers should take the following steps:

  • Reinstate net neutrality and other policies that foster market competition among Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Restore Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversight authority over ISPs who violate net neutrality. Net neutrality is a principle to ensure that the internet remains open and free, and that ISPs treat all content equally by not discriminating or charging differently based on user, content, or other factors that may affect the flow of the internet, communications, and information—all of which can drive up the price of the internet for low-wage workers and others.
  • Enhance Lifeline, E-Rate, and other internet subsidy programs. Increase access to FCC-administered programs like Lifeline and E-Rate , which provide subsidies to low-income individuals to help pay for internet access, including: increasing caps on funding; expanding program scopes by broadening eligibility requirements or allowing support for home broadband access; supporting device purchases; and providing training and education on digital technology use.
  • Expand targeted internet access programs. Continue programs that expand internet access in targeted ways for specific high-need communities, like the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund , and expand beyond rural communities to un- and underserved poverty-stricken urban areas with limited access.

Although many states have broadband expansion programs, varying in form and structure, the following ideas should also be considered by state policymakers:

  • Remove prohibitions on publicly-owned broadband. Remove state restrictions that prohibit cities and towns from building their own broadband networks. These provisions are often instituted as a result of lobbying efforts by ISPs and telecom monopolies wanting to slow the development of community-owned connectivity and limit competition, which results in higher costs for internet service. As of last year, nineteen states restricted or prohibited publicly owned broadband in their state laws.
  • Connect broadband to other policy priorities (e.g. economic development, transportation, and agriculture). In addition, ensure that federal and state funds, which can be used for broadband expansion are being evaluated to see if that’s the best use. This could help increase the resources going towards broadband connectivity by allowing states to use funds that otherwise may not have been specifically directed to broadband expansion. The Community Development Block Grant program, which provides funds to states, cities, and counties to improve housing and to expand economic opportunities for lower income communities, is an example where federal funds for economic and community development were used to address the digital divide.

Steps should also be taken at both the federal and state level to foster greater coordination and sharing of information and best practices among agencies focused on broadband expansion, in order to ensure agencies working on a variety of issues—from broadband to housing to education—are aligning on broadband access priorities. Earlier this year, a coalition representing state and local governments, including governors, called for more federal investment in addressing the digital divide. The Broadband Interagency Coordination Act and the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand (“ ACCESS BROADBAND ”) Act are examples of programs that were introduced at the federal level in the last year.

2. Make Data More Accessible and Increase Transparency Around Its Use

Right now, lack of access to data and the use of opaque—and sometimes biased—data management practices and algorithms undermine workers’ ability to take full advantage of technology, and erode their power. Federal and state policymakers can better empower workers and close their “data disadvantage” by promoting more “worker-centric” policies on data and technology usage in the following ways:

  • Require companies to disclose to workers what, how, and for what purposes their personal information and data are collected, used, and shared. This data can be used for anti-worker and anti-unionization behavior, or infringe on workers’ civil, labor, and human rights; however it is used, workers have a right to know.
  • Give government agencies and the public greater access to the datasets that companies gather about workers in a way that protects worker privacy, as appropriate.
  • Limit the use and application of software and technologies that surveill workers and monitor the effects of such technologies as well as the amount of data that is collected.
  • Increase workers’ access to their own data. Support policies that give workers greater access to and control over their personal data, and ensure that both individual and collective worker rights are taken into account. For more on this, see here . This is both a question of fairness and justice for workers, as well as a critical part of empowering them to organize and leverage their power vis-a-vis their employer.
  • Promote greater transparency around companies’ data management practices and algorithms: Ensure that companies go beyond the simple disclosure of the fact of the use of algorithms (and artificial intelligence) in management and workplace practices (e.g., recruiting, hiring, performance evaluations) such as in the case of the Artificial Intelligence Video Interview Act, to require them to actually share what their practices are algorithms are.

3. Fund Worker Organizations—and Their Capacity—Directly

The reality is that closing the digital divide will take investing in the capacity of worker organizations, directly and through supporting the development of new tools to support their work. Philanthropy has a critical role to play by investing in:

  • Developing technology solutions that help workers to organize and build economic power: Many labor leaders and organizers are interested in creating and using digital tools and services that can help workers to build economic power (e.g. platform cooperatives ), track employer unfair labor practices (e.g. wage theft ), improve their technical knowledge and digital literacy, and bring revenue into their organizations—all while addressing the digital divide. Philanthropy can fund worker organizations directly, or technology companies that are willing to work hand in hand with such organizations, to develop the needed tools and make them widely accessible and “open-source” (made freely available to use, modify, and re-distribute), where appropriate.
  • Improving organizational and individual staff capacity in worker organizations to use technology. Philanthropy can fund more entrepreneurial, community-based endeavors focused on developing new digital tools and content that would enable skill building and leadership development, and encourage greater self-sufficiency, participation, and collaboration among workers; as well as funding worker organizations directly to access such trainings or hire internal staff with stronger technical capacity and knowledge.
  • Funding more partnerships and ventures that support collaboration between worker organizations. Broaden and deepen investments in connecting labor leaders and activists with one another to learn and build best practices. This would help to build their technical knowledge and literacy, allow them to share challenges, resources, and lessons learned, and to generate new ideas for technology solutions. In an interview, Larry J. Williams, founder of the tech-based worker organization, UnionBase, voiced this need, saying, “When it comes to technology, in order to push the innovation needle forward, collaboration and decentralization are key. In the tech industry, coders and programmers like to make things public and open-source because the most skilled developers need to be able to share with one another. I would like to see us do more collaborating in the labor movement around tech.”

Federal and state policy solutions for addressing the digital divide generally involve businesses, colleges and universities, and K–12 schools. However, policymakers can also fund worker organizations in the following ways:

  • Direct grants for digital and technology enhancement. Congress could authorize the federal Department of Labor (DOL) to make grants to worker organizations for building better digital infrastructures, hiring technical staff, and providing technical training, education, and support to workers using the digital tools and applications they develop.
  • Support local entrepreneurs that develop solutions to close the digital divide. Federal and state policymakers could provide loans to small business owners or local entrepreneurs that start businesses that would both help to close the digital divide and create jobs, giving priority to owners from marginalized groups and in underserved communities who will at least partially serve others in their community.

4. Include Worker Voice in Policymaking and Philanthropy

As with many policy areas, one of the reasons we see growing gaps is that we do not have the right people, those directly experiencing some of the challenges, at the table — so the most pressing issues are not prioritized. At all levels of policymaking (federal, state, and local) and philanthropy, we should include workers at the table.

  • Ensure an inclusive and diverse worker voice in policy development, implementation, oversight. Policymakers should directly engage with and involve workers as well as the various types of representative and advocacy organizations that build worker power in developing and implementing policy. Often non-union, or alternative worker organizations, and workers themselves, are particularly underrepresented in these forums, so it is important to have them represented as well as unions. This can be done through formal avenues, such as task forces and councils focused on closing the digital divide, as well as through increased relationship development between policymakers and impacted workers.
  • Include worker presence on boards of philanthropic organizations. There have been calls to have worker representation on corporate boards, but it also could benefit philanthropy to include workers, particularly those who are directly impacted by their efforts and investments, on their boards.

In addition to these four recommendations, it is clear that the impact of the digital divide on building worker power simply has not been deeply studied; nor has its connection to the other structural, cultural, policy, and non-policy barriers to such power which workers and worker organizations face. More research in these areas could help us better define the issue and target solutions.

There are many reasons to close the digital divide: doing so will spur U.S. economic growth and competitiveness, expand access to health services and education, increase the productivity of businesses, and drive innovation. But closing the divide is also a matter of increasing worker voice and power, and doing it in a way that more broadly and inclusively represents our nation’s many workers.

A widening digital divide threatens a brighter future for workers. If we don’t address this, technology will continue to do what it has done in the past: give greater power to the already powerful, while working against those with limited power.

We must close the digital divide for workers if we want to build more inclusive worker voice and power for the twenty-first century and create a more sustainable, democratic, and equitable future.

header photo: John Binns fills out an online application during a job fair hosted by the city of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. Source: getty photos

Tags: labor rights , u.s. economy , labor unions , digital divide

Read more about Phela Townsend

Phela Townsend, Contributor

Phela Townsend is a policy entrepreneur at Next100 and a scholar-activist and part of an emerging generation of voices on a mission to transform how we think about—and value—labor and work in our society. At Next100, she examines how today’s workers and labor organizations are using digital tools and technologies to rebuild worker power in the twenty-first century. Her aim is to identify key policy barriers and solutions to building a scalable, inclusive, worker-centered labor movement. W

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The Homework Gap

Left Offline from National School Boards Assoc. on Vimeo .

Widespread home-based learning has highlighted a long-documented and persistent inequity of students that lack adequate broadband access. This digital divide, commonly known as the homework gap impacts millions of students.

When the pandemic began, 15-16 million K-12 students did not have adequate access to the internet. Up to 12 million students remain under-connected. (Common Sense Media)

The homework gap also impacts some of the most vulnerable students such as those from low-income families and those systematically underserved. As the learning environment for students has shifted from traditional classrooms in school buildings made of bricks and mortar to virtual classrooms, the necessity for each student to have high-quality access to the Internet is imperative. With the current crisis dramatically shifting our children’s education to remote and online learning, it has never been more important to address this inequity.

More than 75% of the temporary solutions enacted during the pandemic to connect students are expected to expire in the next one to three years. (Common Sense Media)

NSBA supports efforts to improve necessary high-speed broadband required for twenty-first century learning both when students are at school and when they are home. School board members across the nation are joining NSBA in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress to focus on ways to improve the overall connectivity and digital infrastructure for all students and abandon efforts to make connectivity more difficult. Closing the homework gap is a pressing national need that must be addressed so all students have the opportunity to receive an excellent twenty-first century education.

Recommendations to the Biden Administration

NSBA has met several times with the Biden-Harris team and provided the new administration with several nonpartisan recommendations to guide their work . One of our major recommendations is to promote digital equity and close the Homework Gap. Working collaboratively, the President, Congress, the Department of Education, and the Federal Communications Commission must eliminate broadband infrastructure gaps and invest in students and families without adequate high-speed broadband and/or internet devices.

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NSBA Asks FCC for Speed and Flexibility in Disbursement of $7.1 Billion Devoted to Closing “Homework Gap”

NSBA urges the Federal Communications Commission to quickly distribute funds from the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to help close the digital divide in education and give school districts flexibility to distribute them based on local needs.

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NSBA Asks Federal Communications Commission to Close Remote Learning Gap

A coalition of education advocates, including NSBA, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to close the remote learning gap for the estimated 15-16 million students who lack home internet access.

Jessica Rosenworcel

Statement from NSBA on President Biden’s Selection of Jessica Rosenworcel as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission

In response to President Biden’s announcement that Jessica Rosenworcel will be the acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, NSBA Executive Director and CEO Anna Maria Chávez issued the follow statement to commend Rosenworcel as a champion of closing the digital divide.

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Bridging the Homework Gap

A small urban district in southwestern Ohio worked to eliminate the homework gap during remote learning. Their success could serve as a model for schools across the country that collectively serve the 16.9 million children without high-speed internet.

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Virtual Connections

In the last few months, nearly every district in the country has transition to online learning. ASBJ explores how school leaders secured the necessary technology, trained teachers as well as student families, and ensured that instruction remains equitable.

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Can a Crisis Lead to Equitable Access?

2020-21 Chair of the CUBE Steering Committee and President of Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School Board Jacinto Ramos Jr. shares how his district continues the equitable delivery of education during a pandemic that has thrown inequities into sharp relief.

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Closing the Homework Gap: Confronting the Digital Divide in Education with Data-Driven Solutions

  • Lightspeed Systems

What is the Digital Divide in education?

The digital divide in education refers to unequal access to technology and digital resources for learning.   Disparities in digital access, also referred to in terms of digital equity, have long been a challenge for K-12 education. Thanks to long-term e-rate investments schools and libraries are connected, but post-pandemic, ensuring students have adequate internet connectivity when they leave campus is critical to academic success.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)  reports that nearly 17 million schoolchildren are without internet access at home. The “homework gap”—a disparity between students who have access to the internet and technology at home, and those who don’t—persists and is a key priority for education leaders and their communities to solve to ensure all students have equal academic opportunity.

Infrastructure limitations effect home internet connectivity

According to  Pew Research Center , 15% of students still lack access to high-speed internet at home. In rural areas, the problem is even more pronounced, with one-fourth of the population—14.5 million people—lacking access to high-speed internet,  according to the FCC . The report also notes that rural districts face significant challenges in providing adequate internet connectivity to bridge the digital divide in education with students due to geographic barriers and infrastructure limitations.  

Digital divide infographic

Socioeconomic status impacts equity of access

Research shows that the digital divide, and in turn the ‘homework gap,’ disproportionately affects low-income, rural, and communities of color.  According to the  2022 CoSN Home Internet Connectivity report , one-in-four socioeconomically disadvantaged students are below the guideline for connectivity outside of school hours and are twice as likely to lag behind their counterparts in access.  Pew Research Center  data shows that 44% of households with an annual income below $30,000 do not have access to high-speed internet at home, compared to only 6% of households with an income above $75,000. Additionally, Black and Hispanic families are less likely to have access to high-speed internet at home than white families.

Unstable connectivity attributed to declining student performance

Lack of  stable intern et connectivity  often  affects students’ academic performance.  In fact, according to the  Pew Research Center , about three-in-ten teens face at least one challenge related to the ‘homework gap.’  The survey reveals  22 %  of U.S. teens  us e  a cellphone to complete their  homework  and   12 %  of students  are not able to complete homework assignments because they  lack  reliable access to a computer or internet connection .  A study by  Quello Center and Michigan State University   f ou nd that students who do not have access to the Internet from home or are dependent on a cell phone alone for access perform lower on a range of metrics, including digital skills, homework completion, and grade point average . Further,  these  students are less likely to complete their homework and are more likely to drop out of school.

What can be done?

Fortunately, there are solutions being developed to address the homework gap. Lightspeed Digital Insight’s new  Digital Equity module  provides real-time data to district leaders so that they can identify and address internet access issues for their students. The federal government has also allocated funds to help schools and districts provide high-speed internet access and devices to students who lack them.     The digital divide in education is a complex and persistent issue that requires continued attention and action. By working together, educators, policymakers, and technology companies can help ensure that all students have the access and resources they need to succeed academically and thrive in today’s digital world.  

Want to hear how district leaders are making progress and learn about the role of technology moving forward?

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Grant helps 'Enterprising Latinas' establish a computer lab to bridge the digital divide

WIMAUMA, Fla. — Technology is all around us and for many of us, it’s a way to stay connected. About 92% of jobs in the U.S. require you to have digital skills, according to the National Skills Coalition .

What You Need To Know

Spectrum digital education grant awarded to "enterprising latinas,"  an organization aimed at providing education to latinas in wimauma the grant is helping to establish a computer lab in the enterprising latinas facility the computer lab will help bridge the digital gap for hispanics in the community.

In Wimauma, the organization "Enterprising Latinas"  and the Hispanic Federation are hoping to help people boost their digital skills by establishing a new computer lab, thanks to a Spectrum Digital Education Grant.

“This is now a new resource that our members can use when they’re looking for jobs, when they’re looking to educate themselves, when they’re looking to start and launch their business,” Enterprising Latinas CEO Elizabeth Gutierrez said.

Since Spectrum Digital Education launched in 2017, funds have been used for digital education classes, distributing devices including laptops and helping to create over 150 tech labs.

The grant is already helping the community, including Prisca Cruz.

She knows Wimauma like the back of her hand. “I’ve been here in the Wimauma community…I want to say about 35 years. I was born in Mexico.”

She not only lives in Wimauma, but works there too as a school nutritionist and a CNA.

However, she’s hoping to get a receptionist position soon after taking computer courses offered by “Enterprising Latinas.”

“I knew how to turn on a computer and turn it off, how to copy and paste, but I didn’t know how to do with the control C. I knew how to do it from the file,” she said.

Research shows that affordability, access and skills play a big role in why there’s a digital divide among Hispanics. According to the Pew Research Center , Hispanics are less likely than white adults to have a computer or broadband internet in their home.

Prisca says that’s her situation, so she’s grateful for the computer courses offered through the organization. “It’s a video that shows you how to open up a new page, how to close it, how to open up another page and it shows you different stuff, which is helpful.”

Prisca says it hasn’t been easy. She spends up to five hours a night taking the course, jotting down notes and practicing her skills.

“I wrote what is control B which is bold. Simple things, but it helped me out,” she said.

She received certificates for her hard work and has learned basic computer skills like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Prisca said there’s another benefit for her as well. “It’s easier for a parent as a Latino to help their kids with their homework from school.”

Helping her family has been her biggest motivation, and now she’s hoping to get “connected” to more opportunities.

Spectrum is part of Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum Bay News 9.

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Fort Worth ISD is turning to LTE to keep students connected after school. Here’s why.

T he Fort Worth Independent School District is testing out a plan to offer high-speed internet to students who don’t have it at home.

The district is in the middle of a pilot project to provide private LTE access to students without home internet connections. District officials say the program is the latest step in its years-long efforts to ensure every student has broadband at home.

Under the program, students use district-supplied LTE routers to connect with transmission towers and rooftop antennas at two dozen campuses. Private LTE allows network administrators to place restrictions on which devices can connect to the network. All tablets and laptops the district provides to students can connect to the private LTE devices, allowing students to work on homework and school projects after they leave school for the day.

LTE, which stands for “long-term evolution,” allows the user to connect to the internet via a cellular network. Ramesh Krishnamurthy, Fort Worth ISD’s chief technology officer, told the district’s school board this month that over the past few months, his department provided private LTE routers to 27 students who didn’t have internet access at home.

Once the pilot project is complete, district officials will take stock of how it went before looking to expand the program to more students, he said. The technology department is working with campus leaders to identify students who don’t have internet access at home and would be good candidates for a private LTE device, he said. Krishnamurthy described the project as “one of our top accomplishments in the past four months.”

“I’m extremely excited about this project because it’s directly and positively impacting our students,” he said.

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FWISD expands home broadband efforts

Jessica Becerra, a spokesperson for the district, said the devices allow students to access the district’s network. That means they’re subject to the same content filters they would have at school, so they can’t access illegal or inappropriate material using the devices. The project is intended to be a next step in the district’s efforts to give all of its students access to high-speed internet at home, she said.

Fort Worth school officials have been working to expand home broadband access for students since the beginning of the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, as schools across the country began to shut down and move instruction online, Fort Worth ISD, like most other districts nationwide, scrambled to get Wi-Fi hotspots to students who didn’t have internet access at home.

Although those hotspots provided access to students who wouldn’t have had it otherwise, district officials acknowledged it was an imperfect solution. Families who had more than one student at home told the Star-Telegram that the connection the hotspots provided wasn’t strong enough to support multiple students in online learning at once.

In 2021, Fort Worth ISD embarked on a project to install public Wi-Fi towers in underserved areas of eastern, southern and southeastern Fort Worth, blanketing entire neighborhoods with broadband service . The plan, which was based on a previous project in Castleberry ISD, ran parallel to an effort by the city of Fort Worth to bring free public Wi-Fi to the Stop Six, Ash Crescent, North Side, Como and Rosemont neighborhoods. District and city officials said they launched those two plans separately, but coordinated their efforts to avoid duplicating service.

Even after COVID shutdowns, Digital Divide remains a concern

Since the beginning of the pandemic, education leaders and policymakers have become increasingly concerned about the so-called Digital Divide. Nationwide, between 15 million and 16 million students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet service and tools for learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent National Educational Technology Plan , which was released in January.

The report notes that Black, Hispanic and Native American students made up a disproportionate share of those without broadband access at home, and Black and Hispanic students are less likely than their white peers to have a computer at home. The plan recommends several steps states and district leaders can take to bridge that gap, including partnering with private companies to bring broadband access to areas where it doesn’t exist and taking advantage of states’ purchasing power or regional consortia when buying tech devices and software.

Besides the lack of home internet access, the report points to two other gaps affecting students: the digital design divide — not every teacher has the training or resources to use classroom technology to its full potential — and the digital use divide — even some students who have access to high-speed internet and digital learning tools don’t make the best use of them. States, districts and campus leaders will need to deal with all three of those gaps if they want to take full advantage of the opportunities that instructional technology offers, the report says.

Broadband access is a big factor in school performance

Research suggests that access to a high-speed internet connection at home can be a big factor in how students do in school. In a report released last year, researchers at Michigan State University’s Quello Center for Media and Information Policy found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that students with better internet connections had fewer problems during remote learning .

But the divide between students with broadband access at home and those without is still a major concern, even after nearly all students are back at school in person, said Keith Hampton, a Michigan State professor and lead author on the paper. School curricula, particularly at the high school level, are increasingly based around content that students access online, he said. That means students without strong, reliable internet access at home will have a harder time reaching that content outside of school hours.

That lack of access makes it harder for those students to work with classmates on group projects and communicate with teachers about questions, Hampton said. In many cases, it can even prevent students from doing their homework, he said. And because homework completion is a good predictor of other metrics like classroom grades and state test scores, he said, a lack of internet access at home can be a major hindrance to students’ academic success.

“If we’re interested in providing the best opportunities to young people, internet connectivity is everyone’s concern,” he said.

©2024 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

A fourth-grader works on an assignment using online learning in a 2020 archive photo. Fort Worth ISD is testing out a new plan to offer high-speed internet to students who don’t have it at home.

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Digital exclusion is hurting the life chances of millions in Britain

Equality and equity are not possible without equal access to the internet, so it’s vital for the government to bridge the digital divide, says Claire Marshall . Plus a letter from Kathryn Davidson

I welcome your article on the digital divide ( What’s it like to be a refugee in the UK without internet access? Mostly impossible – and often unbearable, 13 March ). Our charity started as a small team of volunteers building a wifi network for refugees and support workers in the Calais “Jungle” encampment – connecting and helping more than 5,000 people. Equality and equity are not possible without equal access to the internet. About 92% of jobs are only advertised online , and the government ambition was for 75% of adults in England to be using the NHS app by March 2024. Even access to news requires the three Ds: digital confidence, data and devices – a term I coined for a digital inclusion programme with BT in 2022. According to the Digital Poverty Alliance , millions of people in the UK are affected by digital exclusion. As well as a rights and social justice issue, digital inclusion makes economic sense. A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research finds that “investment of £1.4bn could reap economic benefits of £13.7bn for UK plc”. All parties and government departments need to send representatives to the all-party parliamentary group for digital inclusion. The next meeting – a roundtable on a long-term settlement for digital inclusion – will be chaired by Julie Elliott MP and take place on Wednesday 20 March. As a member, I can testify that scant few MPs attend these sessions. The House of Lords currently has more to say on digital inclusion than our elected government representatives. Our next government needs to put a digital strategy, including the (soon to be published) first set of minimum digital living standards, by Prof Simeon Yates with teams at Liverpool and Loughborough universities, at the top of its to-do list. Claire Marshall Director at Jangala, a tech charity

Your article highlights the increasing exclusion of many poorer people from digital access ( Nearly half of UK families excluded from modern digital society, study finds, 17 March ). It rightly describes the enormous damage that this does to life chances and the ability to function successfully in 21st-century society. Something the piece fails to mention is the impact that austerity and the brutal destruction of the public libraries network has had on this issue.

Tony Blair’s People’s Network project in the 1990s made public libraries a free and trusted point of access for those unable to afford connectivity in the home. This became a core service until the 2010 coalition took power and dismantled the role of libraries as key community hubs, providing many services including access to books, computers and activities.

Millions of people will continue to be extremely deprived long after this dreadful government is replaced. We need a strategy to quickly reconnect them to mainstream society, and properly funded libraries are the perfect way to do this, Kathryn Davidson Dundee

  • Social exclusion
  • Digital media

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Digital divide persists even as americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption.

More than 30 years after the debut of the World Wide Web , internet use, broadband adoption and smartphone ownership have grown rapidly for all Americans – including those who are less well-off financially. However, the digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted Jan. 25-Feb. 8, 2021. In fact, the shares of Americans in each income tier who have home broadband or a smartphone have not significantly changed from 2019 to 2021.

Americans with lower incomes have lower levels of technology adoption

Roughly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (24%) say they don’t own a smartphone. About four-in-ten adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services (43%) or a desktop or laptop computer (41%). And a majority of Americans with lower incomes are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

Americans with higher household incomes are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. Roughly six-in-ten adults living in households earning $100,000 or more a year (63%) report having home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared with 23% of those living in lower-income households.

Pew Research Center has studied Americans’ internet and technology adoption for decades. In continuing this research, the Center surveyed 1,502 U.S. adults from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, 2021, by cellphone and landline phone. The survey was conducted by interviewers under the direction of Abt Associates and is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, education and other categories. Here are  the questions, responses and methodology used for this analysis.

Conversely, 13% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year do not have access to any of these technologies at home, while only 1% of adults from households making $100,000 or more a year report a similar lack of access.

The share of Americans with lower incomes who rely on their smartphones for going online has roughly doubled since 2013

With fewer options for online access at their disposal, Americans with lower incomes are relying more on smartphones. As of early 2021, 27% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are smartphone-only internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home. This represents a substantial increase from 12% in 2013. In contrast, only 6% of those living in households earning $100,000 or more fall into this category in 2021. These shares are statistically unchanged since 2019, when the Center last polled on this topic.

This reliance on smartphones also means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens. For example, smartphone owners with lower incomes were especially likely to use their mobile device when seeking out and applying for jobs, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report .

The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The digital divide has been a central topic in tech circles for decades, with researchers, advocates and policymakers examining this issue. However, this topic has gained special attention during the coronavirus outbreak as much of daily life (such as work and school ) moved online, leaving families with lower incomes more likely to face obstacles in navigating this increasing digital environment. For example, in April 2020, 59% of parents with lower incomes who had children in schools that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.

Note: Here are  the questions, responses and methodology used for this analysis. This is an update of a post originally published March 22, 2017, and later updated on May 7, 2019 by Monica Anderson and Madhumitha Kumar.

Read the other posts in our digital divide series:

Home broadband adoption, computer ownership vary by race, ethnicity in the u.s..

  • Some digital divides persist between rural, urban and suburban America
  • Americans with disabilities less likely than those without to own some digital devices

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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

The challenges and opportunities with Ethiopia's digital transformation

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Caption: Ethiopia is pushing its digital transformation from the capital to remote rural areas

Ethiopia is pushing its digital transformation from the capital to remote rural areas Image:  Unsplash/Yohannes Minas

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digital divide homework

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Stay up to date:, emerging technologies.

  • Launched in 2020, Ethiopia's Digital Transformation Strategy aims to harness technology to drive economic growth and citizen engagement.
  • Yet, many hurdles must be overcome to make this transformation a reality.
  • Recognizing the critical role of collaboration in bridging the digital divide, the Ethiopian government seeks partnerships with organizations and has partnered with the EDISON Lighthouse Countries network .

Launched in July 2020, Ethiopia's Digital Transformation Strategy aims to harness technology to drive economic growth, citizen engagement, and improved quality of life. While the past three years have seen progress, a closer look reveals a digital landscape with promising developments and significant challenges to address.

Ethiopia boasts a large population exceeding 128 million , a large proportion of which are young people. This youthful demographic presents a tremendous opportunity, with over 26 million Ethiopians enrolled in education. By harnessing the power of digital development, Ethiopia can equip this young generation with the skills necessary for future jobs, fostering innovation and driving inclusive economic growth across the nation.

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How digital payments can change the lives of women in ethiopia’s coffee industry, ethiopia’s blockchain deal is a watershed moment – for the technology, and for africa, ethiopia will soon introduce visa-free travel for all africans, internet usage surges in ethiopia.

Over the past three years, Ethiopia has made strides in building its digital foundations.

Internet usage has surged, with users exceeding 36 million in 2023. However, this impressive growth still translates to only about 35% of the population. Despite this gap, initiatives like digital IDs and mobile payments are laying a solid groundwork for a thriving digital ecosystem. Ethiopia's high mobile phone penetration rate, with over 40 million mobile accounts, further highlights the potential for digital inclusion.

But several hurdles remain to bring an inclusive digital transformation across Ethiopia. The current landscape lacks platforms designed explicitly for Ethiopians living in rural areas. There are, for example, only a few e-commerce platforms tailored to local products produced in rural areas and to support agricultural practices.

With elections taking place in more than 20 African countries in 2019, the world’s youngest continent is facing a new era.

Held under the theme 'Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution' the 28th World Economic Forum on Africa will convene more than 1,000 regional and global leaders from government, business, civil society and academia.

The event (held 4-6 September 2019) will explore new regional partnerships and entrepreneurial and agile leadership to create pathways for shared prosperity and drive a sustainable future.

Participants will discuss ways to accelerate progress on five transformative pan-African agendas in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, addressing the African Union’s Agenda 2063 priorities.

Read more about the Forum's Impact in Africa and our launch of a new Africa Growth Platform to scale the region’s start-ups for success.

Read our guide to how to follow #af19 across our digital channels. We encourage followers to post, share, and retweet by tagging our accounts and by using our official hashtag.

Become a Member or Partner to participate in the Forum's year-round annual and regional events. Contact us now .

A digital skills gap must be bridged in Ethiopia

A significant proportion of the population lacks the digital skills needed to navigate the online world. This digital divide excludes many from accessing the benefits of digital growth. While major cities boast improved connectivity, rural areas, where most Ethiopians live, often struggle with limited internet access. This creates a significant barrier to inclusion, hindering equitable participation in the digital economy. Furthermore, the lack of electric power in many rural areas makes relying solely on commercial power for digital transformation a challenge.

While mobile phone penetration is high, the functionality of these devices for rural populations is often limited to voice communications. A restricted number of use cases are tailored to their specific needs and challenges.

Ethiopia looks to partnerships to boost its digital transformation

To unlock the true potential of digital transformation, Ethiopia must prioritize e-government services, e-commerce platforms designed for local products and digital tools for health and education that can empower citizens, businesses and institutions. Ethiopia must also work on expanding internet access, particularly in rural areas, which is critical for inclusive participation. Most importantly, comprehensive skilling, reskilling, and digital literacy training programmes must be designed to equip the population, especially the youth, with the necessary skills to navigate the digital world confidently. The country must also expand mobile use cases by developing and promoting mobile applications that cater to the specific needs of rural populations.

By confronting these challenges head-on, Ethiopia can unlock the full potential of its digital transformation journey. Recognizing the critical role of collaboration, the Ethiopian government seeks partnerships with experienced organizations. Ethiopia has partnered with the EDISON Lighthouse Countries network as part of this initiative to help bridge its digital divide. This collaborative approach will accelerate the development of essential infrastructure, transformative platforms and crucial skilling and reskilling programmes. Ultimately, by working together, Ethiopia can create a truly inclusive digital economy that empowers all its citizens.

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