By Dr. Julie Evans, CEO, Project Tomorrow
Last fall, Speak Up asked education stakeholders – educators, students and parents – across the country about their perceptions and views on the homework gap. We wanted to know how the homework gap is impacting students and teachers everyday and some ways that school districts are approaching the challenges associated with providing safe and consistent access to the Internet outside of school.
More than 505,000 K12 students, teachers, administrators and parents representing 7,800 schools and 2,600 districts nationwide responded. The data included respondents from urban, rural and suburban communities.
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Administrators’ views on the importance of out-of-school connectivity have changed over the past few years. As schools and districts are increasingly emphasizing the importance of personalized learning empowered by the use of digital tools, content and resources in the classroom, the issue of homework connectivity (what we used to call the digital divide) has raised its ugly head again.
A majority of district leaders such as superintendents and directors of curriculum and learning now say that the effective use of technology within learning is the best way to prepare students for college and career success and improve student achievement.
Sixty-seven percent say the effective use of technology is extremely important to student success.
The increased emphasis in the district or central offices is obviously trickling down to the classroom too. Based upon our new 2015 data, teachers are using more digital content than ever before. In our national report (From Print to Pixel) released a few weeks ago, we reported that teachers’ use of online videos within instruction increased by 45 percent since 2012. Additionally, the use of online curriculum increased by 71 percent in the past three years, and we document the increase in the use of digital content in the classroom as 4x what is was in 2012.
To fully leverage these tools and also take advantage of advanced tools that facilitate stronger school-to-home communications, it is increasingly imperative that students have not just any access to the Internet outside of school but rather safe and consistent access. Access through devices and connectivity that is appropriate for doing online research, for using online tools to submit homework, to facilitate communicating with their teachers about questions and collaborating with classmates on school projects.
The students understand this very well. Two-thirds of students say that is important for them to have safe and consistent access to the Internet when they are outside of school for them to be successful in school.
Unfortunately, one in five students say this type of appropriate learning environment is not available to them on a consistent basis. Many tell me through focus group discussions that they are using their mom or dad’s smartphone to check on school assignments or checking grades, but that these access points are totally insufficient, inconvenient and inappropriate for doing the types of sophisticated learning tasks we expect from students today. Tasks such as doing research on online primary sources such as from the Newseum to write a paper for history class, or participating in online labs or simulations for chemistry class, or writing that thoughtful essay about Hawthorne for their English Literature class.
I am impressed with the resourcefulness of these students impacted by the homework gap: One-third are getting to school early or staying late to do their online academic tasks using the school’s wifi. Another 24 percent say that they regularly are using their public library as their place for doing homework. One in five are doing their homework at a fast food restaurant or coffee shop. But being impressed with their resourcefulness does not mean that this is the way it needs to be. I think that we will all agree that McDonalds is not the best way for our nation’s potential best and brightest to do their homework. The quality of the out-of-school Internet access matters.
Teachers are the front lines of this situation today. Per our data from this past fall from 36,000 teachers from all kinds of communities and teaching all grade levels, two-thirds say that they are sometimes reluctant to assign digital or Internet dependent homework out of concern that their students may not have safe and consistent out-of-school connectivity.
Consequently, 51 percent of school principals say that ensuring student access to technology outside of school is a top challenge for them today – only 30 percent said the same in 2010. This issue is top of mind today for educators throughout schools and districts nationwide. And the majority are exploring various innovative solutions to remedy this situation – both in terms of local approaches and advocating for state and federal policies to support new solutions.
There is no shortage of good ideas on this, but the challenge for many districts is how to realistically implement sustainable options that fit for their community. We know that a one-size-fits-all approach will probably not work and so understanding how some districts are experimenting or exploring new ideas is helpful for the entire discussion. When we asked administrators about how they were addressing this challenge, the most common response was to allow students to be on campus early or to stay late (68 percent of administrators say they are doing that already). Additionally, one-third are providing wifi access in their school parking lots. We hear from students that they are taking advantage of that also. Fifty-two percent are working with public libraries to expand their hours or allow students to have priority access to the library’s computers in the after school times.
Many of us are familiar with some other innovative approaches such as equipping school buses with wifi hotspots or paying for home Internet access for families. Per our data, only five percent of administrators say their buses are wifi enabled; only four percent are paying for home access. Less than one-quarter of administrators say they are considering either of these options for their districts.
Unfortunately, too many districts report that they are effectively stifling the use of technology within learning by discouraging their teachers from assigning Internet based homework (37 percent) or telling students to download online resources to USB sticks (45 percent).
The Speak Up data validates what many of us already know.
The homework gap is real.
This situation is a critical equity issue.
Failure to address this issue will have significant impact on students’ learning and their preparation for future success in college or the workplace.
The time is now to act with new solutions and new ideas that address the seemingly insurmountable challenges for schools and communities.