Graphics by Josh Lee
The BRB Bottomline: to put into context the impact that COVID-19 has had on education, 124,000 schools have closed in the US, affecting 55.1 million students. This spells out an enormous problem with 15% of US households with school-age children not having internet access. The coronavirus pandemic has not only pushed along the trend towards digital education, but has also exposed the urgency to close the already-existing “homework gap.”
UC Berkeley’s policy decisions this past spring around remote learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic elicited a wide range of reactions from my peers. One of my classmates, Dick, was ecstatic as he opted for the Passed/Not Passed grading option for all of his classes—saving his GPA from completely tanking. Many of my graduating friends, on the other hand, were despondent as their last semester at Berkeley was cut short, leaving them prematurely saying goodbye to all their friends and the place they had called home for four years.
Still, UC Berkeley’s transition to digital learning has largely been smooth. With experience already webcasting certain lectures and access to online resources like Piazza and bCourses, UC Berkeley was adequately prepared for remote learning. Many other schools, however, have been struggling to keep up with curricula amidst these unique circumstances.
Coronavirus Exposes the Homework Gap
Before school shutdowns started to take place, many students across the United States were already disadvantaged due to a lack of internet access. Now with remote learning, many of these same students do not have access to an education, period. Some school districts like Northshore in Bothell, Washington (a well-to-do suburb in Seattle), have been able to quickly improvise; superintendent Michelle Reid stated that her school district was able to loan 4,000 laptops along with hotspots because they had funding available. Many other school districts, however, unfortunately do not have such a financial cushion to provide their students with these types of devices. Trico District 176, a rural school district in Illinois, has been printing worksheets to keep students learning, for instance. Many of the school districts which were inadequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic were largely from rural and underprivileged areas. This disparity stems from “years of lagging behind broadband infrastructure construction” and the lack of financial resources to acquire the technology for learning. Thus, the homework gap cannot be solved through a one-time grant, but rather must be addressed through long-term funding.
What Exactly is the Impact of the Homework Gap?
Online resources continue to increase and those without access find themselves continuously more disadvantaged. Websites like Khan Academy, Shmoop, and Codecademy offer students a way to supplement or even substitute the education they receive at school. Having internet access also leads students to find further resources that they might not have known existed. All of these implications can be seen through an empirical study done at Michigan State University. Those with access to high-speed internet at home boast an average GPA of 3.18; compare this with the trailing GPA of 2.81 for those who lack the same access. In addition, those with high-speed internet at home are 65% likely to pursue higher education versus the 47% likelihood of those without. It’s crucial to note that this study controlled for a myriad of factors including socioeconomic status. Steady access to technology can hugely translate into better education and thus better career prospects.
Digital Education is the Future
With technology playing an ever-increasing role in every aspect of our lives including education, the homework gap will only widen if nothing is done about it. As student loans continue to increase, people will look for cheaper options to traditional college through online education. In fact, a whopping 74% of American undergraduates classify as “nontraditional,” a term that encompasses both the single mother and the army veteran. These students often do not see college as the “best four years” of their lives, but see it as a means to an end. Education is a tool which progresses their careers and it is starting to appear more cheaply in the form of digital software. The growth of digital education has been seen empirically and the coronavirus pandemic promises to springboard it further. Digital education does not necessarily even have to outright replace traditional education for its impacts to be felt; more and more classrooms are beginning to synergize their teaching with technology.
Furthermore, this trend toward technology transcends education alone, as job openings have begun to place a greater emphasis on digital literacy. If students are not learning how to operate devices early on, this will only stunt their job search in the future. While the coronavirus may not exactly be the “disease [to] Topple Traditional Higher Education,” it certainly marks a turning point for whether policymakers are able to close the homework gap or see it widen exponentially.
Narrowing the Divide Before it’s Too Late
While the opportunities for technology in education may rise, so will the homework gap if nothing is done about it. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is credited for coining the term, voiced that the coronavirus pandemic “is a clarion call that we should start addressing the homework gap.” While the homework gap is an issue which cannot be solved overnight, there are short term steps which must be taken in order to alleviate the problems concerning remote learning.
The first step would be to draw funds from E-Rate to provide hot spots to school districts who cannot afford them. E-Rate is a government program which supports schools in securing affordable broadband. This strategy has been endorsed by Jessica Rosenworcel herself and a myriad of senators who serve on the FCC’s oversight committee, including Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), who co-sponsored the bill.
However, no matter how adept school districts and policymakers may be, impromptu remote education will often fall short of the originally planned curriculum. So, school districts should plan for damage control after this crisis blows over. Preparing an accelerated curriculum for the future now can ensure that students will immediately learn what they missed when they finally return to school. Perhaps assigning summer homework or even offering supplementary tutoring sessions may also help in getting students caught up.
The nature of these solutions embodies the fact that one has the security they’ve prepared, not the security they want. Accordingly, policymakers should prioritize fixing the homework gap. The US government could do this through subsidizing the providing of bandwidth where it might not be otherwise profitable for private companies. This is similar to how unprofitable-but-essential drugs like antibiotics are subsidized. In addition, the importance of the internet must be more widely recognized. The UN took steps towards this direction by recognizing internet access as a human right. However, the US government should take actions to ensure this, perhaps through welfare programs. While this proposal may seem expensive and unnecessary, the ramifications of the homework gap have been clearly studied and shown, and it would be a worthy investment of the US government to maximize the digital literacy of its citizens.
Finally, state governments should update curriculums to train teachers to place a heavier emphasis on digital literacy. This can be done by introducing more devices into teaching, utilizing online resources, or even introducing more computer-related courses. Implementing some of these proposals will be long and hard fought. While it is easy to spew out solution ideas, fleshing out the details is certainly a whole other beast. Still, the US government has a duty to begin tackling the homework gap as soon as possible.
Take Home Points
The coronavirus has put the homework gap in the limelight. In the aftermath of this pandemic, US governments should recognize the crossroads they stand at: solving the homework gap right now or letting it blow up as technology’s tide comes crashing down.