Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Coronavirus Has Taught Us About the Digital Divide

By Guest Blogger — May 18, 2020 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Stefanie Sanford is the College Board’s formidable chief of global policy and external relations. Prior to joining the College Board, Stefanie spent over a decade at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—much of it as the chief of U.S. policy and advocacy. She’ll be writing about what coronavirus has taught us about the digital divide, keeping students on track outside the classroom, and the College Board’s experience with virtual AP instruction.

There’s a long list of policy problems we should have solved before a global pandemic turned almost everything into a crisis. Top of the list in education circles: the digital divide between students with access to home technology and those without it. As schools made an abrupt shift to online learning, a lack of technology suddenly meant a lack of schooling.    

When the College Board moved the 2020 Advanced Placement exams online—after 91 percent of students told us they wanted the chance to finish what they started and take the test—we knew access would be a challenge. We promised an all-out effort to get students the support they need, even if that meant hand-delivering laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots.

Colleagues from across the College Board volunteered to staff a help desk, and we heard from nearly 28,000 students, parents, and educators. We partnered with nonprofits already in this arena, school districts, and companies eager to pitch in. DonorsChoose connected us with teachers trying to get their students online. Four thousand students received a Chromebook delivered to their door thanks to a gift from Amazon. Another 1,000 received T-Mobile hotspots and data plans thanks to the Walton Family Foundation. We found another 4,500 devices to loan out through the end of June.

All of that made a huge difference for the students we reached, but it’s just a small piece of a nationwide scramble. As educators across the country prepare for a fall semester sure to include a lot more online learning, here’s a quick rundown of what we learned from our access work:     

Hardware is easy. Reliable internet is tough. If we could close the digital divide by handing out laptops, we could do it in a semester. But affordable, fast internet—the 25Mbps that allows for streaming classes and interactive work—isn’t available in many places. We heard from a family in rural Texas who said their local provider wanted $10K to run broadband to the house. The FCC estimates that more than 21 million Americans live in areas without any broadband options. That includes small towns in upstate New York and sprawling counties in Southern California. And even where service is available, a lot of families can’t afford it. Some of the highest concentrations of offline Americans are in urban centers.   

Mobile internet is better than no internet. Pew estimated in 2019 that more than a quarter of adults in low-income households relied on cell service alone to get online. For schools that care about equitable access, mobile-friendly content is crucial. One of the most useful things we did for expanding access to this year’s AP tests was to make them cellphone-friendly. Students can read prompts on phones, answer on paper, and upload a photo of their work. Not all exams can work that way, but a lot of school work can.

A keyboard is not a classroom. Even students with an excellent computer and solid internet worry about all the things they can’t control—noise, disruptions in the house, stress from siblings and parents. At their best, schools offer predictability and routine, and that matters a lot. Even the best tech doesn’t automatically turn a household into a decent remote classroom—something both teachers and admissions officers must keep in mind.

Social-media savvy does not mean tech savvy. Just because a high schooler has a killer Insta doesn’t mean they can troubleshoot a Wi-Fi outage. Like the rest of us working from home, students have serious anxiety about tech problems. We found simple devices with built-in Wi-Fi hotspots worked well, but flexibility was key. We had to be ready to support laptops, tablets, phones—whatever students were comfortable using.    

The internet is great for learning ... and for distraction. After watching one of the AP videos we posted to YouTube, I left the window open. Within minutes, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm took me from a class on political reform to a series of chatty makeup tutorials hosted by teenage influencers that you’ve never heard of (unless you favor a much more aggressive approach to eye shadow than the average EdWeek reader). The internet is an attention trap, which is why online education requires discipline. Many schools already use content blockers and other security tools on classroom computers. Installing similar software on at-home devices might be helpful. 

We need to talk. We’ve all dealt with some online hassle—an insurance claim, a travel refund—and wished we could just talk to a human. A lot of students apparently feel the same, because our call center was flooded with students who needed guidance, reassurance, or the chance to vent. Patient, sympathetic listening made a big difference.

I’ve seen predictions that online learning will only serve to widen inequality. It’s a reasonable worry and heightens the case for action. Students want to keep learning, parents want to see their kid’s progress, and we have the tools to make that possible even as school buildings remain shut.  

With school disruptions likely through the fall, we need dependable infrastructure for distance and blended learning. New federal investment through the CARES Act and intense focus from policymakers can make it happen. “Reliable internet access has long been a necessity for students to reach their full potential, and now we are seeing the true cost of the homework gap,” said Dr. Kiesha Taylor, T-Mobile’s national education administrator. “Bridging the digital divide must become a national priority.”

It will be hard, it will be messy, and it will not instantly create perfect conditions for all students. But that’s no reason to hesitate. It’s the right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it.  

— Stefanie Sanford

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.