Quantifying the Homework Gap – Finally a Definitive Study

The Quello Center that is part of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University just released a definitive study that looks at the impact of lack of broadband on students. The study was done in conjunction with Merit Networks, the organization that acts as the ISP for schools in Michigan.

I describe the study as definitive because it used study techniques that isolate the impact of broadband from other factors such as sex, race, and family income. The study was done in conjunction with the schools to allow Quello researchers to get blind performance results from student participants without violating student confidentiality. The study involved 3,258 students in grades 8 – 11 in Michigan from schools described as being in rural areas.

The study showed significant performance differences for students with and without home broadband. Students with no Internet access at home tested lower on a range of metrics including digital skills, homework completion and grade point average. Some of the specific findings include

  • Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18 while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.
  • During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.
  • Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.
  • The study showed that students with no Internet at home often had no alternative access to broadband. 35% of students with no broadband also didn’t have a computer at home. 34% of students had no access to alternate sources of broadband such as a library, church, community center, or homes of a neighbor or relative.

One of the most important findings was that there is a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.” It’s almost too hard to grasp that the average 11th grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband. Digital skills not only involves competence in working with technology, but also is manifested by the ability to work efficiently, to communicate effectively with others, and managing and evaluation information.

Students with lower digital skills don’t perform as well on standardized tests. Students who are even modestly below average in digital skills (one standard deviation below the mean) rank nearly 7 percentiles lower on their total SAT/PSAT scores, 5 percentiles lower in math, and 8 percentiles lower in evidence-based reading and writing. Students who are even moderately lower in digital skills are also 19% less likely to consider a STEM-related career (that’s science, technology, engineering, and math).

The study also showed lower expectations for students without broadband at home. For example, 65% of students with home broadband have plans to pursue post-secondary education. Only 47% of students with no Internet access have such plans.

This study is significant because it is the first study I know of that isolates the impact of home broadband from other factors. There are other studies that have shown that lack of broadband hurt school performance, but in other studies it was impossible to isolate Internet access from factors like household income levels.

This study should be a wake-up call for getting broadband into the home of every student. It’s not tolerable to allow a big percentage of our kids to underperform in school due to the lack of home broadband. We know that underperforming in school translates to underperforming in lifetime earnings, and so the cost to society for not fixing the homework gap is far larger than the cost to find a broadband solution. If you are lucky enough to have a home computer – do the math.