Infrastructure

Remote and Hybrid Learning Are Declining. But the ‘Homework Gap’ Will Still Be a Problem

By Alyson Klein — May 05, 2021 2 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.

The end of the pandemic may be in sight as more districts contemplate in-person instruction next school year. But the so-called “homework gap"—the problem of students who don’t have the home internet capability to do their class assignments, much less virtual learning—is far from solved.

An estimated 15 to 17 million students did not have the connectivity at home to make virtual learning possible, according to a report released May 4 by the Consortium for School Networking or CoSN. The report suggests that district, state, and federal officials consider helping students obtain greater internet speeds, stronger Wi-Fi connections, and better devices. It also recommends more systemic support for rural districts.

“No district can afford to make guesses about connecting students,” said Tom Ryan, the chief information and strategy officer for the Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico, in a statement with the CoSN report. “We now have a much better understanding of the factors that prevent all students from fully participating in hybrid learning and can take corrective action.”

For instance, the current minimum bandwidth per household recommended by the Federal Communications Commission is 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed. But that isn’t fast enough to support even one student learning virtually, let alone multiple kids. That’s important because the report found that more than 70 percent of K-12 students live in households with at least one other school-age child.

Instead, CoSN suggests a better minimum might be the same download speed and upload speeds of 12 megabits per second, per student. That would enable more than one kid to learn from home, and would support the use of video. The CoSN report emphasizes that the recommendation is per student, not per household.

The organization also suggests that the FCC consider reevaluating minimum recommended speed every three years, as new technology, such as augmented reality, necessitates faster broadband speeds.

Video eats up the most broadband of any other virtual learning activity, according to the report, accounting for more than 85 percent of network traffic.

What’s more, the vast majority of students—95 percent—who log on to the Internet from home are doing so using a Wi-Fi connection. That means that sometimes a student will think they don’t have the connectivity to attend virtual school, but in reality, what they have is a problem with their router.

The report recommends that districts help families purchase new routers if the ones they currently use have not been upgraded for several years, work with internet service providers to replace old routers, and help families figure out where to best place their router and how to maintain it.

Students also need first-rate digital learning devices if they are going to learn from home, since a poorly functioning device can slow down or derail a virtual lesson. Schools across the country have taken steps during the pandemic to address the need for devices.

The CoSN report notes that school districts in rural areas need extra help in connecting students. Allowing federal E-Rate funds to be used for home connections—like Wi-Fi hotspots—would be a good first step in meeting the needs of schools in rural areas. (That’s something the FCC, which governs the E-rate, is already contemplating.)

Thirteen urban, suburban, and rural school districts from across the country participated in the six-week CoSN study. The districts shared information on internet usage and performance.

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