Ever since coronavirus shut down the school buildings, conversations about internet and equity have been the talk of the education community. Many people are coming to the consensus that if school has moved online then the internet needs to be provided for students and families as well. That, of course, is a salient and timely argument, and it has struck a chord with many people. However, there is one drawback to this argument. It rests on the premise this unusual situation is the only reason we are debating this issue, and that is the wrong impression to give. COVID-19 induced E-Learning didn’t create the need for internet equity; it just illuminated it.
Students without the internet at home have been at a disadvantage for years. Home connectivity mattered even when I was in school, and I’m almost 31 years old. This product of the digital divide prior to COVID-19 was called the “Homework gap.” It refers to the difficulty unconnected students have completing assignments at home. Lack of internet hampers their ability to research, communicate with teachers and classmates, or even submit assignments.
Students will often cope by going to a relative’s house or the library. Recently, some have resorted to working through the small screen of a smartphone. These coping mechanisms are poor replacements for high-speed internet through a desk or laptop device.
Places that have addressed these gaps have seen results.
This does not even begin to touch the non-educational needs that are satisfied by home internet. This leads many people to believe the internet should be a public utility anyway, even outside of the education benefits.
I’m not naïve. Obviously, the need for online capability is greater in a situation where literally all functions of school happen on the web, but these gaps were worth debating before and they will be after.
Many districts have rolled out robust internet and computer programs for their students during this crisis. Hopefully, when the crisis is over, those same districts will consider maintaining those programs.