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Policymakers Seek to Bridge the Internet Connectivity Gap for Students

Proposed federal policies could accelerate states' efforts to provide Internet access to students outside of school.

Federal policymakers have turned their attention to a digital equity gap between students who can access high-speed Internet outside of school and those who can't. 

Because school districts have historically struggled to provide Internet access at school, that's where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and legislators have focused. But that is changing, and the FCC revamped the E-rate program in December to provide additional funding for school and library broadband subsidies. Now the governing body and legislators are paying more attention to Internet access outside of school. 

On Thursday, June 18, the FCC announced a public comment period on a potential restructuring of its Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income families for phone service. While the actual questions for public consideration have not been released in an order yet, the FCC is considering whether the program should shift its focus from phone services to broadband access and affordability.

The same day, two legislators introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015, a bill designed to start a pilot program where states and communities work together to provide students with Internet access outside of school. U.S. Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) emphasized rural innovation pilots, community partnerships and quality access to broadband in the federal legislation.

"We can't expect that school districts are going to solve this alone," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. "So the exciting thing that I think we could start is a conversation about how communities enable digital equity, and that means working with mayors, working with community foundations, working with businesses because schools alone probably can't pay for this."

The homework gap

As school districts increasingly shift to digital learning, more teachers require students to do homework that requires them to use digital learning resources. And that means they need access to the Internet -- connections to which are difficult to come by, partularly in rural communities and for low-income families. This lack of access poses a problem when students are trying to complete their homework, hence the term "homework gap."

In pockets throughout the country, schools and libraries have been trying out ways to tackle this problem. For example, Coachella Valley Unified School District in California equips school buses with routers and parks them in low-income neighborhoods and trailer parks at night so students can access Wi-Fi. And Kent School District in Washington places Internet kiosks in public housing complexes. 

On the library side, this federal legislation was inspired by a pilot program at Cherryfield Public Library in Maine where students can check out mobile Wi-Fi devices. A mostly rural state, Maine instituted one of the first mobile device initiatives for every student more than a decade ago while King was governor. Since then, Maine libraries and government officials have focused on how to provide Internet access outside of school. 

In fact, libraries often provide a bridge between school and home where students can access the Internet.

"The broadband kind of shuts down at 3 o'clock because so many kids are coming to do their homework or meet up with friends and use the Internet at the library, now more and more on their own devices," said Marijke Visser, associate director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association.

And that extends outside the library too as more libraries check out tablets and laptops to students so they can access their digital learning resources elsewhere.

While these school and library initiatives work well, they're in isolated pockets of the country, and not everyone knows about them. In fact, more than 80 percent of school districts aren't doing anything to address students' lack of Internet access outside of school, according to CoSN’s 2nd Annual E-rate and Infrastructure Survey 2014.

Legislation seeks to jumpstart creative problem-solving

That's where the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015 comes in. The main thrust of the legislation is to provide grants to state educational agencies and community partnerships so they can spend up to two years demonstrating a way to approach the Internet access problem that low-income students have.

At least 30 percent of those grants must go to rural pilots, which is important because low-income rural students often are overlooked since they're so far from major urban centers. And the Internet access cannot be dial-up or restricted by monthly data caps lower than 1 gigabyte, a critical distinction because so many digital learning resources do not work well with these constraints.

State education agencies have been working to address these issues, but like school districts, they can't do it alone. These pilot grants would enable them to work with libraries, businesses and community groups to develop creative ideas that will address this access problem. 

The grant applicants have to specify how they will measure the success of their pilot, and a national evaluation of the pilots will study which methods worked and what effect they had on student learning. Because the pilots' success will be measured on two levels, state directors will be able to see what other states are doing well and adopt similar approaches. 

"You want kids to be able to have access so they can learn better," said Lan Neugent, interim executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. "That will resonate with a lot of people. They do want to see kids get access, but they also want it to make a difference."