The Homework Gap is Not Just a Rural Problem

It’s been interesting watching the States react to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are headlines from all over the country about how States are taking emergency steps to bring some broadband to rural students using steps like beefing up external broadband at schools, creating temporary hotspots installed in school buses, and giving out computers and hot spots to rural students. These steps are all needed at a time when students are being asked to learn at homes in communities that have no broadband.

It’s easy to forget that there are many more students in our towns and cities without home broadband than rural households. Consider the list of the ten cities with the worst household broadband penetration rates, as compiled by NDIA – the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

1          Brownsville, TX                     47.13%

2          Pharr, Texas                            46.24%

3          Rossier, LA                             45.30%

4          Lorain, OH                             37.29%

5          Compton, CA                         37.05%

6          Lynwood, CA                         36.19%

7          Newport News, VA                35.58%

8          Shreveport, LA                       35.49%

9          Flint, MI                                  35.16%

10        East Los Angeles, CA            33.06%

Right below this list are plenty of other cities with high numbers of home with no broadband. For example, sitting at number 20 on the list is Memphis, TN at 29.38%. Add to this the staggering statistic from the National Center for Homeless Education that over 1.5 million students are homeless in 2020 and are not counted in the above statistics – a statistic that’s likely to skyrocket due to high unemployment.

Solving the urban homework gap is often a huge challenge due to the sheer number of student homes with no broadband. Getting computers and hotspots for huge numbers or urban students can be an overwhelming problem that cities have been struggling with for years.

We know that lack of home broadband directly correlates to poor performance in school. Earlier this year, the Quello Center at Michigan State University released a definitive study that was able to isolate the lack of home broadband from other factors like poverty. That study showed that:

  • 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.
  • The most important finding of the study 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.

A recent article talks about steps that Detroit has been taking to try to bring broadband to more students.

  • A local ISP, 123Net has been bringing gigabit access to southwest Detroit. A pilot project has brought Internet access to a few student homes and the goal is to find funding to expand the initiative.
  • There is a petition drive underway to create a ballot initiative that would ask the public to have the city address the digital divide as a basic city service.
  • The Public Lighting Department has been installing streetlights that come equipped with Internet connectivity. The hope is that over time that low-income neighborhoods can be blanketed with outdoor WiFi.

There are no easy answers for solving the urban homework gap because the issue is generally wrapped into the larger issue of addressing poverty. But as the Quello study points out, it’s vital that we try.

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.

Welcome, Merit Network!

The rural broadband community has a new ally in Merit Network of Michigan. Merit Network is a non-profit network that is governed by Michigan’s public universities. The organizations was founded in 1966 and was an early player that helped to develop some of the practice and protocols still used on the Internet. Their early mission was to seek ways for universities to network together, something that they accomplished by connecting Michigan and Michigan State in 1971. Merit went on to manage NSFNET, a nationwide network sponsored by the National Science Foundation, that was used to connect advance research labs and universities.

Over time, the company also collaborated with the Internet 2 project but also turned its attention to Michigan where it cobbled together a network comprised or owned and leased fibers used to provide bandwidth to K-12 schools around the state.

In the last year, Merit decided to further expand their mission. They now see that the biggest problem in Michigan education is the lack of home broadband for students. 70% of the teachers in Michigan assign computer-based homework, and yet 380,000 homes in Michigan don’t have a broadband connection. They are convinced, like many of us, that this homework gap is creating permanent harm and disadvantaging students without broadband.

The organization recently held their first statewide broadband summit and invited communities, service providers, anchor institutions, and broadband ‘activists’ to attend the summit. I’m pleased to have been invited to be a speaker. The goal of the conference was to describe the homework gap and to talk about real solutions for solving the problem in the state. The summit hoped to bring together stakeholders in rural broadband to form alliances to tackle the problem.

Merit has also taken several extraordinary steps that is going to make them a major player in the national effort to solve the homework gap. They’ve undertaken what they call Michigan Moonshot. This is an intensive effort to map and understand the availability of broadband around the state. The effort is being undertaken in collaboration with M-Lab and the Quello Center of Michigan State University. The concept is to encourage state educators to get students to take a specific speed test and to pair that effort with a program that teaches students about gathering scientific data.

The Moonshot effort is also going to correlate student test scores with broadband availability. This will be done in such a way as to guarantee student anonymity. This has been done before, but not on such a large scale. The project solicited participation from several school districts in Spring 2019 but expects to include many more in the future. The results of the data collection will be analyzed by scientists at Michigan State. The results of Moonshot studies should be of interest to educators and rural broadband proponents all over the country. Preliminary results show that it’s likely that there will be a strong measurable negative impact for students without home broadband. This study will provide peer-reviewed statistical evidence of that impact and should be a useful tool to educate legislators and to goad communities into action to find a broadband solution.

Merit is also nearing completion of a lengthy document they call the Michigan Moonshot Broadband Framework, which they hope will be a living document (meaning that collaborators can make edits) that lays forth a guide for communities that want to find a local broadband solution. This document is a step-by-step roadmap for how a community can tackle the lack of broadband.

It’s always good to have another major player in the national battle to tackle the lack of household broadband. I have high hopes that Merit Network will spur finding broadband solutions for rural and urban students in Michigan.