More than 21 million Americans lacked broadband internet access in 2019, according to the FCC. Only two-thirds of rural Americans report a home broadband connection, and low-income families tend to be more smartphone-dependent, and often lack access to multiple internet-enabled devices (e.g., tablets, PCs or laptops). In 2015, a study reported that 35% of school-aged children lacked internet access in their households. And even when you control for income, communities of color disproportionately lack access to the internet. Given the challenges with connectivity and access to devices that many of our students face, remote learning can amplify educational inequities.
When a crisis situation requires an unexpected turn to remote learning, the digital divide that normally disenfranchises many groups of learners is exacerbated. As faculty work to design engaging online courses, institutions need to plan to get all of their students connected to the curriculum. These questions, adapted from this Free Press article, are a place to begin:
- What are local ISPs doing to make broadband more affordable not just for new customers, but for low-income folks, people of color and everyone hit by the crisis? How can your institution broker deals with these ISPs to assure that your students have the connectivity they need?
- How many of your students lack adequate home internet and/or devices? Do you have a plan to loan Wi-Fi hotspots or computers to those students?
- What are localities, states and the federal government doing to help people get and stay connected, and how can your college partner with government officials to advocate for universal connectivity?
- Who is being overlooked? Think about students, contingent faculty, workers, unhoused families, disabled folks, minimum-wage households and communities of color. Try to plan for the margins who are excluded; use demographic data and national research to anticipate who will be challenged during remote learning periods; create systemic plans to ameliorate these problems as faculty and advisors work with courses and individual students.
Examples & Resources
- Some colleges are providing digital devices to incoming students to help them prepare for remote learning. (Morehouse College)
- Many colleges are providing WiFi hotspots (in parking lots or in buses and shuttles parked in various locations) or loaning them out through their library or via their food pantry distribution networks. Faculty and staff can advocate for resources to be allocated for these kinds of loaner program.
- Talk with local carriers about deals they may be able to extend to your students (for example, providing data that they can use through their own mobile device), and whenever possible, try to negotiate these deals institutionally, and get students connected instead of just posting information on a website.
- Work with senators and house members from your state to support federal legislation to expand broadband access (for example the 5-year plan proposed by Democrats to $86 billion in extending access to underserved regions via the Moving Forward Framework).
- Work with state legislators on expanding broadband coverage (for example, here is a Vermont plan aimed at providing broadband capable networks to all of the state’s students, remote workers, teachers, patients, and healthcare workers; read more about the plan here).
- This is the Keep Americans Connected pledge that the FCC asked phone and broadband providers to commit to during COVID-19.
- This report explains how systemic racism impacts home internet adoption.
- This article outlines the data about the digital divide in the U.S., and discusses what the coronavirus reveals about the how the digital divide impacts education.
- Here are steps that policymakers can take to shrink the digital divide (focused mainly on K12).
- Some municipalities have formed work groups to address the digital divide during COVID-19. Here is an example from Portland, Oregon.
- Initiate IT business continuity plans to ensure that your institution will be able to operate mission-critical activities and operations during emergencies.
- A 2020 study of the technology needs of students with disabilities.
- If you have an example of a college that is doing good work to ameliorate the digital divide during a time of crisis, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.