Understanding the Big Picture: Context for the Homework Gap

The Homework Gap is a subset of the digital divide or “the gulf between those who have access to computers and internet and those who do not,” (Oxford Dictionary, 2018). Both the Homework Gap and the digital divide can be studied through the lens of broadband adoption or households who subscribe to broadband service.

Causes for the Homework Gap mirror those that prevent households from adopting broadband in their homes. Research shows that the four major obstacles to broadband adoption are:

  • A lack of digital literacy knowledge
  • The unaffordability of either the internet service or the digital device necessary for utilizing the internet
  • A lack of access to broadband service
  • The lack of understanding how the internet is relevant to a person’s life.

In the 2015 study, The Numbers Behind the Broadband ‘Homework Gap’, the Pew Research Center found that households with K-12 students are more likely to adopt broadband than households without them. The study found that 82.5% of surveyed households with K-12 students adopt broadband, while roughly 73.5% of households without K-12 students adopt. But among households with K-12 students, low-income households fall about 20 percentage points behind average income households, and Pew found they make up a disproportionate portion of the 5,000,000 households in the Homework Gap. In addition, the Homework Gap disproportionately impacts low income black and Hispanic households, which are about 10 percentage points more likely to fall into the Homework Gap than white households.

Data from previous North Carolina reports mirror these findings. In a 2013 survey, 86% of respondents with children in the household reported having home internet service while 81% of respondents overall reported having internet service (Wilson, 2014). Meanwhile, school districts, schools, and teachers increasingly use digital resources and tools in and outside the classroom to supplement or replace their traditional teaching methods. For those without home access or digital devices, the Homework Gap results in digital inequities that prevent those students from participating at the same levels as their peers.

Two 2013 statutes passed by North Carolina’s General Assembly encourage a transition from a reliance on physical textbooks to a comprehensive digital learning ecosystem in North Carolina’s K-12 schools (S.L. 2013-11 and S.L.2013-12). The FIRE Group developed a digital learning plan for the State Board of Education and DPI to guide the statute’s implementation. The plan identified five major components of the education system to address and support to successfully implement a digital learning environment: 1) leadership, 2) professional learning, 3) digital-age content and instruction, 4) technology infrastructure and devices, and 5) effective use of data and assessment (The Friday Institute, 2015).

All five components of the plan rely upon a robust broadband infrastructure in the schools and their surrounding communities to effectively implement and realize the full benefits from the plan. In addition, the plan indicates that equity of access to all schools and students cannot be achieved without reliable, consistent access to digital resources. Building from this plan, the Friday Institute hosted the “Equity for Digital-Age Learning Convening” in 2016 where attendees learned from subject matter experts the necessity of promoting digital equity practices and programs within and outside of the schoolhouse. Attendees also brainstormed solutions for solutions to five key topic areas, all of which impact the Homework Gap in some way (The Friday Institute, 2016):

  • Out of school internet access
  • Professional development and preparation for educators
  • Personalized learning in high-need classrooms
  • Building parent and community support
  • Planning for sustainability for devices, networks and resources

The convening accentuated the Broadband Infrastructure Office’s finding from the State Broadband Plan – that further study of the Homework Gap at the state level would be necessary to inform the creation of policies and programs to address the Homework Gap (DIT, 2016).

To understand the Homework Gap, it is necessary to understand the broadband availability and adoption landscape in North Carolina. Broadband availability – also sometimes referred to as access or deployment – measures the supply of broadband while broadband adoption measures its demand.

Broadband availability and subscription data are provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). According to its latest data release, 93.7% of North Carolinians have access to broadband at the FCC recommended speed threshold of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload (2018). Due to the FCC’s method of data collection and analysis, the data are overstated, thus the estimates reported underestimate the number of North Carolina residents without broadband access. The state’s rural areas are particularly affected by the lack of access with 95% of those without service in rural communities.

As previously discussed, households cannot adopt broadband if access is unavailable at their locations. For 259,000 households in North Carolina, a lack of access is their primary barrier to adoption as broadband service is not available at their home (FCC, 2018). Within North Carolina, 43 of the 100 counties have a household broadband deployment rate at the FCC recommended speed threshold, equal to or above North Carolina’s average of 93.7% (FCC, 2018).