Technology Counts 2015: Learning the Digital Way
Published Online: June 10, 2015
Published in Print: June 11, 2015, as Students Struggle When the Internet Is Scarce at Home

Lack of Home Internet a Challenge for Students

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Attending a high school that has a 1-to-1 computing program when you don’t have Internet access at home is a challenge.

South Carolina high school senior Sherel Bello said without home access, she couldn’t use her school-issued Chromebook to check the online homework site, print out documents, read online textbooks, watch videos, or do research without going to the local library or getting to school early. She’d try to squeeze in schoolwork during her shifts scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins, which offered free Wi-Fi to employees.

Sometimes, her mother was unable to take Ms. Bello and her twin brother, Brian, to the library to get Internet access, and the homework just didn’t get done.

But a year ago, Ms. Bello’s family received a Kajeet hotspot unit that brought free access to their Columbia, S.C., home, through a Richland School District Two program intended to cover the gaps in student Internet access. Ms. Bello and her brother, along with their two younger sisters (one in 7th grade and one in 9th grade), all use the Kajeet daily.

“It’s helped a lot,” Ms. Bello said. “Everything is online” she said, referring to her schoolwork.

The free Kajeet program began during the last school year through the 27,000-student district’s technology department, which set out to identify “Internet dead zones” where a high number of district families were without connections. Using a survey and a Google maps tool to outline the zones, the district targeted 25 Hispanic families that could use the hotspots, said Ronald Huff, the district’s Hispanic-family liaison.

Homework Challenges

Nationally, the Federal Communications Commission notes that 7 out of 10 teachers assign homework that requires high-speed Internet access, yet in some communities, only 1 in 3 students can access the Web at home. It’s an issue that many schools, particularly those delving into 1-to-1 computing initiatives are grappling with, said Marie Bjerede, the project director for the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking’s Smart Education Networks by Design initiative, which supports districts’ attempts to expand broadband.

“Once schools get over the idea that learning only happens in the classroom or they want to send devices home with kids, the equity issue comes up,” Ms. Bjerede said.

At first, Ms. Bello’s mother, Rebecca Hernandez, was suspicious of the Kajeet program, she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It seemed a little bit strange that it was free,” she said.

But like her daughter, Ms. Hernandez quickly saw the benefits. Her children “spent more time on their homework,” she said. “I could go to work resting easier because I knew they had Internet at the house and I didn’t have to rush home to take them to the library.”

But recently, the Kajeet—a small rectangular device—went missing and can’t be found. Ms. Bello said she and her mother have smartphones the family can use as a hotspot when they can’t go to the library, but accessing the Internet with those devices is slower and costs extra money. The family will have to pay $150 to replace the Kajeet unit, Mr. Huff said.

With only a few weeks to go until the last day of the school year, they’ll likely try to get by without the Kajeet unit, though Ms. Hernandez said the slow Internet makes it difficult for the children to get their homework done and they’re going to bed later because of it. When asked if it would be difficult to find the money to purchase a replacement, she responds, “Si, very hard.”

Vol. 34, Issue 35, Page 25

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