Study Illustrates Severity of ‘Homework Gap” for Underrepresented and Underserved Students

A recently published study reveals that a significant number of K-12 students only have access to one electronic, internet-connected device at home — most commonly a smartphone; these young people tend to be poor, live in rural areas, and come from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. The study also found that when students only have one tablet, computer, or smartphone, they tend to use the device for entertainment purposes rather than homework. 

These findings illustrate the severity of the so-called “homework gap,” a term used to describe unequal access to technology — often across racial and socioeconomic divides — that affects students’ ability to complete tech-based homework assignments. 

The study was conducted by ACT Center for Equity in Learning, a wing of the national nonprofit organization that administers the ACT which focuses on closing equity and achievement gaps for underserved populations. In April 2017, researchers surveyed a random sample of high school students who took the ACT college entrance exam. Respondents answered a list of questions about how they accessed and used technology for educational purposes, both at home and at school.  

According to the researchers, the results indicate that access to technology at home directly correlates with family income and first-generation status. Twenty-two percent of first-generation students and 24 percent of those whose families earn less than $36,000 per year reported having only one device at home. In contrast, 95 percent of students whose families annually earn $100,000 or more and 93 percent of those whose parents are college graduates reported in-home access to more than one smartphone, computer, or tablet. 

The study’s findings also revealed disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. Whites and Asians were the least likely to have only one device, while American Indians were the most likely of any underrepresented group to have just one. Specifically, 26 percent of American Indians/Alaska Natives had only one smartphone, tablet, or computer at home, as did 22 percent of African Americans, 19 percent of Hispanics, and 14 percent of Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders. Meanwhile, 92 percent of white and Asian students had at least two devices at home. 

The homework gap also disproportionately affects rural students as nearly a quarter of those who live in these communities have only one device with which to complete tech-based assignments, as opposed to 14 percent of urban youth.  

Furthermore, the majority of students who reported having only one device at home largely rely on a smartphone to complete their homework assignments. According to a 2016 report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, these students are likely to have problems connecting to the internet. More than half of parents from low-income households said their internet access is slow or liable to be cut off because they can’t afford to pay for it. 

To mitigate this dilemma, educators have been devising simple, innovative solutions to address students’ lack of access to technological devices. As far back as 2015, one southern California school district mounted Wi-Fi routers to its fleet of school buses and parked the vehicles in a trailer park overnight. At the time, President Barack Obama praised the district’s ability to convert “underutilized resources” into internet hubs.  

More recently, at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, a K-12 technology company called Kajeet rolled out its second annual Homework Gap Grant, which is designed to diminish unequal access to technology; these grants also make use of school buses as internet hotspots. On Sept. 28, Kajeet awarded 30 schools and districts — including several independent school districts — either a group of Kajeet SmartSpots, which enable students to connect to the internet from home, or one Kajeet SmartBus, a device that provides free Wi-Fi access on school buses. 

According to data from Kajeet, the average student spends 40 minutes per day on a school bus; this amounts to 20 instructional days per year per student. With its Kajeet SmartBus device, the company is hoping to convert travel time into instructional time. 

Efforts like these to address the homework gap are key, experts argue, especially as more schools move to adopt one-to-one device programs in which every student is assigned a tablet or computer during the school day. According to the Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning, 60 percent of principals say their school provides each student with access to a device while on campus.  

If educators want to prioritize digital learning at school, they need to invest in making such learning accessible for more students at home, argues Sarah Thomas, a member of the leadership team at ISTE Digital Equity Professional Learning Network, an organization that leverages technology to solve educational inequalities. “We want educators to embrace technology,” she told Education Week, “… [but] we have to be mindful not to exacerbate existing inequalities.”