The Urgent Need to Move Schools Online: Four Things Your School District Needs to Know Before Taking Action

In the Rush to Plan for Online Contact Hours, Schools Must Consider Equity; Quello Center Report Reveals How Ignoring Deficiencies in Student Internet Access Contributes to Performance Gaps

As the number of cases of COVID-19 (a disease caused by the novel coronavirus) multiplies, and the length of school closures increases, school districts are struggling with the feasibility of providing students with online learning opportunities.

In the rush to plan for online education hours, schools must consider equity and the quality of Internet access that is available to their students. A new report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center reveals the challenges schools face if they plan to move online:

1) Home Internet access is the great unknown.

“We know that there is a serious gap between what official government statistics tell us about broadband availability and the actual experience on the ground,” said Professor and Quello Center Director Johannes M. Bauer, Ph.D. 

In an effort to improve on available data, a first in Michigan and the United States study, the Quello Center, collaborating with Merit Networks, and Michigan school districts, surveyed 3,258 students in grades 8-11. The research team distributed in-class, pen-and-paper surveys in 21 predominately rural Michigan schools, looked at student PSAT and SAT scores, and examined home Internet speed test data. 

Results show that the most rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged students are least likely to have broadband Internet access at home. Only 47 percent of students who live in rural areas have high-speed Internet access, compared to 77 percent of those in suburban areas. Of those who do not have home access, 36 percent live in a home with no computer and 58 percent live on a farm or other rural setting. 

“The only way for school districts to know who has home connectivity is for them to survey parents” said Quello Center Associate Director for Research Keith Hampton, Ph.D., who is a professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. 

Schools should proceed cautiously when collecting this information. 

“Students are generally unaware of why they don’t have Internet access at home. It might be because their families can’t afford access, because parents don’t recognize the need, or because service providers do not have an infrastructure in place, even for cell phone access, which can be the case in rural areas," he said.  

“Asking parents about their Internet access and the devices they own can be a difficult subject, it can reveal income inequalities and family choices that not all parents feel comfortable sharing with their child’s teacher. To get reliable information, it is important that schools follow best practices for how they survey parents.” 

2) Not all access, or all devices, are equal.

Reliance on a cell phone alone for home Internet access has as negative an impact on student performance as having no access at all. 

The report found that students who rely on a cell phone for Internet access at home, those with no access and those with slower access are less likely to collaborate or seek academic support online from their peers and teachers. It also takes longer for students to complete assignments. 

The report found that the students without Internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access are half a grade point average below those with fast access. This gap in student performance exists regardless of differences in socioeconomic status, such as student race and ethnicity, family income, or parental education. 

Students who are able to access the Internet on their cell phone struggle to utilize the resources available on the Internet, whether due to slow connectivity, the small interface, or caps on data use from local service providers. 

“It is wrong to assume that since most have a smartphone, students have sufficient access,” said Bauer. “It turns out that this is not the case. Those who have only cell phone access perform as poorly as those who have no Internet access at all.” 

“Students with appropriate devices can still benefit from cell phone hotspots. However, such interventions need to be implemented with support from local service providers. Users may quickly exceed their data allowance and the addition of many new hotspots in a local area can create data bottlenecks on cell phone networks, affecting connectivity for everyone in an area” said Bauer. 

3) Not all students are digital experts (and neither are their teachers or their parents).

The results show that students who rely on a cell phone only, or have no home Internet access, had a gap in skills that was similar to the gap in digital skill between 8th and 11th grade students. 

“Digital skills are related to proficiency in a range of domains beyond simple technology use, including language and computation. Better home Internet access contributes to diverse technology use and higher digital skills,” said Hampton. 

“Students without home access and those who rely on a cell phone will have less prior experience with online learning and will need considerable additional support to be successful if a school’s curriculum moves online.” Students with Internet access have substantially higher digital skills, and these skills are a strong predictor of performance on pen-and-paper standardized tests, such as the SAT, PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9. 

“We found that students with even modestly lower digital skills perform a lot worse on the SATs,” said Hampton. “We measured digital skills on a scale from 0 to 64. The average score was around a 30, but a student who performs modestly lower in digital skills (13 points or one standard deviation) scores about 7 percentiles lower nationally on the SATs. That is true for standardized test scores across all grades, not just the SAT.” 

“Before moving testing online, teachers and schools need to be aware that students who have not had home Internet access or exposure to many devices at home will struggle with digital skills” said Hampton. 

The report finds that students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) are more disadvantaged in digital skills than other students. 

4) Schools should ask these questions before delivering online learning.

Before replacing school contact hours with an online curriculum, schools need to survey parents about the Internet access and devices they have at home. Below are some best practices and questions that schools should use.

  • Survey by email, but follow-up by phone. 

    Most schools have an existing email list that can be used to contact parents with a survey. Send a link to a standard set of questions administered using a Web based form. A Web based survey can be less threatening, making it easier for parents to reveal accurate information about home Internet access and devices that might be related to family income. Parents may be reluctant to reveal this information over the phone to a teacher or school administrator. Many families without home Internet will still have an email address, but follow up with phone calls and by mail to fill in the gaps due to nonresponse. In some households, English will not be the parent’s primary language and a student may need to help complete the survey. 
  • Do you have high-speed Internet access at home?

    Schools need to identify students that do not have fast Internet access at home. Students who rely on a cell phone alone will experience significant gaps in performance and will have fewer digital skills. Students in low income situations are more likely to experience instability as a result of the household’s ability to regularly pay for Internet and cell phone plans. Some Internet providers are offering trial access and temporary relief from data limits, schools need a plan in place to monitor changes in student’s Internet access. 
  • What devices do you have at home?

    Do students have access to their own computer, laptop, Chromebook or tablet? Students in households where they share devices with parents and siblings will have less time to spend online. Identify households that have devices, but the devices do not work, or where they have problems accessing video or other content online. Students in households with too few devices, too old or inoperable devices will need additional support. 
  • Does your child spend significant time in another home or away from home?

    Students who split their time living with parents in multiple households may not have the same level of Internet access or access to devices at both locations. Parents may also be struggling to provide childcare during the COVID-19 crisis, students may be spending time in the homes of grandparents, neighbors, babysitters, and in other locations. Districts need a plan to accommodate change in students’ daily situations. 
  • Is someone available to help your child online?

    Launching an online curriculum in response to a crisis is not the same as typical online schooling. Highly motivated families are not self-selecting to participate. Parents have varying levels of digital skill and interest in working online with their children. Students in single parent homes, and those with parents who are still working outside the home, are less likely to have support available to get online and use content. 
  • Do you have the resources you need?

    Districts should use any contact with parents as an opportunity to provide support. As COVID-19 progresses, students and their families are more likely to encounter the illness, some will be sick, many will have close contacts that are sick, some may have experienced a loss. For many families, schools provide children with healthy meals. Remind parents of opportunities to access free or reduced priced meals for their children. Self-isolating, the need for social distance, and the economic challenges of responding to COVID-19 will place many families under increased stress. As teachers have increased contact with parents and students at home, they should be aware of their responsibilities and the resources available pertaining to domestic violence and substance abuse. 

Digital inequality will become more apparent, as more and more families cope with the changes facing society during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was been declared a national emergency in March.   

Ensuring that students have sufficient access to the Internet and digital devices to continue learning is more important than ever before.

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By Melissa Priebe and Dr. Keith Hampton

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