Though about 12 million students in this country still lack any internet access at all—a problem cast into relief during the pandemic—there is good news: That number is steadily shrinking.
Multiple studies and surveys have documented the ever-narrowing digital divide.
Yet, even as the number of unconnected students declines, there is another group that, for years, has made virtually no headway. That is students who are “under-connected.”
“There are still a proportion of families who have no internet access, and that’s massively important,” says Vikki Katz, associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. “But there are many, many, many more kids who, if we’re just focused on ‘access,’ we’re ignoring. We’re going to miss this huge number—millions—of families.”
Students and families who are considered under-connected are those who have internet access and devices in their home, but not at a caliber or quality sufficient for smooth and consistent online learning.
In the spring, exactly six years since conducting a similar study and one year since the start of the pandemic, a team at New America surveyed more than 1,000 low-income families with children between the ages of 3 and 13 to understand what remote learning was like for them.
The team, which included Katz, specifically talked with families with household incomes below the national median of $75,000 a year and reached them by landline and mobile phones, rather than through the increasingly popular method of online questionnaires. These methods, the researchers felt, were essential for getting a true sense and scope of the issue. (As one of the researchers explained, you can’t fully understand how families are experiencing digital inequity if you only talk to those reachable through the internet.)
Among the findings, which were recently released: Rates of home internet access and computer ownership have increased significantly since the survey conducted in 2015, from 64 percent then to 84 percent today, though one in seven children whose families earn less than $75,000 per year still lack any broadband access.
A plurality of those disconnected families rely on mobile phones to get onto the internet. Others still use dial-up or have no internet at all. Cost remains the biggest barrier, though a notable number of families say there are simply no service providers in their area.
Of the 84 percent of low-income families who have computers and broadband internet access in their homes, a majority remain under-connected.
For 56 percent of these families, the issue is internet speed. It’s often too slow to support what they are doing—be it using a search engine, streaming a lesson or joining a live video call. Another 18 percent say their service is intermittent because they cannot consistently afford to keep it on.
Some families rely exclusively on cell phones to get online, which in many cases comes with data limits or is shared by several members of the household.
For others, the trouble is with the devices in the house. Their computers are too old and run slowly, or do not work properly. Or the device is communal and is not available consistently enough for children to get online and do all of their schoolwork.
“The proportion of families who are under-connected has barely budged in the six years since we last did this survey,” Katz explains. “That’s bad news. Maybe we’re measuring this thing wrong.”
Though New America’s survey findings were nationally representative, the researchers stopped short of estimating how many total students in the U.S. live in homes that are under-connected. They can say only that it is likely many times greater than the number of students who lack any access.
Katz notes that the term “digital divide,” which is commonly used to describe the inequities that the New America survey sought to measure and understand, does a disservice to many under-connected families.
“The phrase ‘digital divide’ frames this as binary—there is no access or there’s all access,” Katz says. “This study gives a powerful argument for why we need to reframe the definition of ‘access.’”
More than half of the families surveyed by New America said their students had experienced disruptions to their education in the last year due to being under-connected. With either insufficient internet speed or device access or both, 53 percent said their child was at times unable to participate in school or finish their school work.
This mattered during the darkest days of the pandemic, but it will continue to matter moving forward, too, Katz says.
For one, it’s possible that students will experience periods of remote learning next year, especially as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread. But even beyond this crisis, “that consistency and quality and connectivity of devices is an issue we need to resolve,” Katz adds.
“Education technology is going to make up a bigger proportion of what we’re doing in school moving forward,” she says. “We’re not putting the genie back in the bottle.”
She has a piece of advice for school and district leaders: Survey your families. But don’t just ask them a yes-or-no question about “Do you have broadband internet access?” or “Do you have a computer at home?” Ask them how well those things work, and get to know what families are dealing with and what they need “in a much more textured way.”
In the meantime, the Federal Communications Commission is hoping to alleviate some of the burden with its Emergency Connectivity Fund, which provides more than $7 billion to help students and families get home internet access to support virtual learning.