Data from the 2018 Teacher Working Conditions survey issued biannually by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction showed that 70% of high school teachers, 60% of middle school teachers and 43% of elementary school teachers in North Carolina regularly assigned homework that requires internet access to complete. Meanwhile, at least 259,000 North Carolinian households did not have access to adequate broadband in their homes (Federal Communications Commission, 2018). In addition, half of North Carolina’s households did not have broadband because they could not afford it, do not have the skills to use it, do not have a device at home to use it with or do not see its relevance to their lives (FCC, 2018).
Beyond these figures, the true state of the homework gap, its impacts and specific causes in North Carolina were unknown. Without granular data about the number of North Carolina’s school children affected by the homework gap, the primary cause for their lack of access, the location and geographic disbursement of these families and the impact of socioeconomic and demographic factors, targeted, strategic solutions could not be designed.
To gather this data to inform strategic policy design, the Broadband Infrastructure Office, a division of the N.C. Department of Information Technology, partnered with the Friday Institute Research and Evaluation Group at NC State University to issue a survey and convene a group of subject matter experts on the topic of the homework gap. Understanding the common reasons for and implications of the homework gap provides stakeholders who seek to close the gap with the information needed to design effective programs and policies.
The survey results, while not representative of all North Carolinians due to the survey’s pilot nature, offer more detail and color to paint a more focused picture of the homework gap in North Carolina. Of the nearly 8,500 K-12 households that responded to the survey, 10% lacked broadband access at home. For those without service, cost of the service was the most cited reason for not having home access.
Lack of access often extended to the ownership of computers, laptops or tablets. Those without access were less comfortable completing common tasks online in addition and assisting their children with their online homework. Finally, the homework gap impacted low-income households and households with lower educational levels more frequently. Since the partners began studying the issue in 2017, the topic of the homework gap has attracted an increasing amount of attention.
The Department of Education has released a report examining the homework gap nationwide, the Consortium for School Networking has released an updated toolkit designed to assist districts as they address the homework gap locally, and in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper has proposed a $2.5 million grant program to improve home access for students.
This report contributes to the growing body of research and strategic policy recommendations designed to address the homework gap. The goal of this report is to equip policymakers at the local and state level as well as educators, school districts and other key stakeholders with the necessary information to understand the homework gap and strategies for addressing it. After careful analysis of the survey results and a compilation of recommendations made by subject matter experts on the homework gap, this report outlines six key recommendations to close the homework gap in North Carolina.
The state should establish a one-year pilot grant program with the intention of creating a five-year program, or until statewide universal access is established, to provide grant funding for mobile hotspot devices or Wi-Fi for school buses for students without internet service, due to access or affordability, at home.
While further research is needed to understand the full scope of North Carolina’s homework gap, action to close the gap cannot be postponed for the K-12 students who currently fall into the homework gap. To date, numerous individual schools and school districts across the state and nation have completed successful pilot programs to close the homework gap in their districts. Given the urgency of the need, North Carolina should dedicate funding to enact a time-limited grant program through which local education agencies can leverage state funding to develop or scale homework gap solutions in their districts.
The grant program should be managed by the N.C. Broadband Infrastructure Office with expertise provided from partners like the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the Friday Institute. The grant will enable local education agencies to apply for grant funds from the N.C. Department of Information Technology to purchase 1) mobile hotspots devices, 2) service for the hotspots and, if eligible 3) equipment and mobile service to provide Wi-Fi on school buses.
Given that homework requiring internet access is regularly assigned across all grade levels in North Carolina (New Teacher Center, 2018), the grant program should serve grades 3 through 12 at minimum. However, since more high school students are assigned homework requiring internet access than middle and elementary students, the grant program should serve high school students the first year and expand to serve lower grade levels in subsequent years.
Due to the interconnected nature of the factors that contribute to a lack of broadband access and adoption and those that cause the homework gap, policies and programs that increase broadband access, adoption and use will also contribute to a sustainable solution for closing the homework gap. Policies and programs directed toward improving both the availability of broadband and its adoption should be pursued. This includes policies and programs that address the digital divide and digital equity issues.
For example, the N.C. General Assembly’s recent establishment of the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology Program designed to facilitate the increased deployment of broadband to unserved areas will contribute to closing the homework gap if access is expanded to areas in which K-12 households live where it was previously unavailable (S.L.2018-5).
Other policies to consider are increasing access to affordable devices by allowing state surplus computers to be donated to nonprofit refurbishers dedicated to ending the digital divide, programs that increase digital literacy skill class offerings across the state and implementing dig-once and one-touch policies. Additional policy and program recommendations are found in the state broadband plan.
The homework gap is a multifaceted challenge and will require collaboration between a host of partners and stakeholders to solve. Building upon the work of the convening of subject matter experts, the state should engage and convene stakeholders from both the public and private sector to design and implement innovative, sustainable solutions.
Any measure addressing the homework gap should take into consideration all its causes. The survey results confirm that the cost of service, the cost and access to devices and access to the service itself can all inhibit K-12 households from adopting broadband in their homes. In addition, the lack of access at home is intricately bound with households’ ability to effectively utilize the technology to participate in the online activities that define the 21st century. As such, homework gap solutions should be designed to address each of these barriers and utilize the subject matter expertise of a range of organizations and partners.
While the survey provided valuable information about North Carolina’s homework gap, further study is required to understand its full size, scope and the degree to which each factor contributing to it affects North Carolinians. Thus, the Broadband Infrastructure Office and partners should continue collaborative efforts to survey the K-12 population to measure the homework gap, its causes and its effects.
To continue studying the homework gap, dedicated, sustainable funding and continued and expanded partnerships with education-focused organizations, school districts and individual schools will be required. Research and data analysis support from partners like the Friday Institute will also be necessary. The Broadband Infrastructure Office and partners should also investigate alternative and cost-effective ways through which the survey can be administered. Incorporating the survey into existing surveys administered to K-12 populations could prove an effective method of continuing the research in the future.
During the data collection and analysis process, areas in which the questions could be improved were identified. To improve the accuracy and utility of the data, the survey instrument itself should be edited. In addition, the method of distribution should be modified so that the surveyed population accurately reflects the state’s population.
Unlike other intractable issues that impact educational outcomes such as hunger, homelessness or generational poverty, the homework gap is a solvable issue. If implemented, these recommendations, further expounded upon in the remainder of this report, will begin to shrink the homework gap in North Carolina, thus increasing a generation of North Carolinians’ ability to fully participate and thrive in today’s society. Implementation of these recommendations requires dedicated leadership, passion and subject matter expertise. It also requires the establishment of sustained partnerships across the state.