The Absence of Internet at Home is a Problem for Some Students

While it may seem like almost everyone has internet access, a shocking number of families lack fast or reliable internet connections. There are roughly 5 million households with school-age children who don’t have broadband internet access at home. That means millions of students are being left behind.

There are many ways that a lack of internet access can affect a student’s academic performance. Students without internet can’t connect with teachers or classmates, do independent research, or get online homework help. For families, not having internet access can mean missing out on information or losing out on a direct line of communication with schools and teachers.

One of the biggest problems faced by students without internet access at home is their inability to complete homework. Homework has long been a source of hot debate within the education community. Should homework be assigned? Those who say yes argue that homework allows students to continue learning at home and prepares them for the rigors of college. Others claim that homework is unfair—home is not an even playing field, and some students have access to more resources and a better environment for completing homework.

The internet has only intensified this debate. Up to 70% of teachers assign homework that requires the use of the internet. About 65% of students use the internet to complete homework, which includes doing research, submitting assignments, emailing teachers, and collaborating online with classmates. But what does that mean for students who don’t have internet access at home? They may fall behind, or they might spend hours looking for free Wi-Fi access points.

Schools increasingly expect parents to be able to log on, too. Teachers use email lists to update parents on field trips, class activities, and more. School websites may be the only place for parents to find valuable information. Even grades are going online, with many schools using internet-based grade books. In theory, this allows parents easier access to their child’s grades. In practice, this can mean certain parents are left behind—namely, those without reliable internet access.

Who exactly are these students without internet access? In 2015, the Pew Research Center analyzed data from studies on internet access and found that the problem is mainly in low-income families. Among households with an annual income under $50,000, 31.4% don’t have broadband internet access. For households with an annual income over $50,000, the number is much smaller—only 8.4% lack access to broadband internet.

There is also a racial gap when it comes to internet access. Eighty-eight percent of White households and 92% of Asian households with school-age children have high-speed internet access. On the other hand, only 72% of Black and Hispanic households with school-age children have high-speed internet access.

Students from low-income families and minority students are often already at a disadvantage. Black and Hispanic students score lower on standardized tests and are less likely to earn a college degree. Students from wealthier families consistently make better SAT scores than those from lower income families.

A lack of reliable, high-speed internet will only make the so-called achievement gap wider. Now low-income and minority students may also have to fight against the gap between students with internet access and those without. This new inequality is often called the digital divide, and it is a growing problem in education.

There are many proposed solutions. Some school districts now provide free Wi-Fi on school buses, allowing students to complete homework during their commute. Programs sponsored by the government and other organizations help provide low-income families with internet access. But nothing has yet completely eliminated the digital divide, and there are still millions of students who don’t have internet access.

How can school districts and other stakeholders help students who lack high-speed internet access? Tell us what you think!

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