Lack of internet access keeps rural Tennessee students struggling

Growing up as a baby boomer in South Dakota, I was amazed learning there were nearby farmers who had to make do without electricity. Even decades after the introduction of electric lights, they were still getting by with just gas lights, candles and wood stoves. It took a purposeful effort to get them on the electric grid.

The grid that matters today is the one that offers broadband wireless. Serving as a national leader in K–12 education, I often would visit communities where it was very tough to get on the internet.

Recognizing the severity of the gap

A new research study examining the digital divide affecting students confirmed the severity of the gap. Surveys of high school students who took the ACT college entrance exam found that one-third of those who live in rural areas lack access to broadband at a minimum speed that would allow for high-quality voice, data, graphics and video.

They also are more likely to say that their internet access at home is unpredictable compared to those in non-rural areas (16% vs. 9%).

Rural students are more likely to live in a home with only a single device (24% vs. 11%), which significantly limits their opportunities for personalized learning. They also report that they are less likely to use the internet for homework or looking up information.

Most rural students are from low-income families in half of the states. They often have a greater need for technology than their urban peers. Access to high-level courses may be limited by the availability of certified instructors.

In terms of providing broadband technology to schools, there has been progress. This is due to the federal E-Rate program, which provides large discounts to schools for internet access.

According to Education Super Highway, a nonprofit organization that focuses on upgrading internet technology in every classroom, 45 million students and 2.6 million teachers now have the internet access they need for digital learning.

Making technology more accessible

Yet we know that in order to help all students achieve, they must have more technology at home, where they can do homework, read online, code and fall in love with computers just as Bill Gates did when he was a child.

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning and others have called for state and local interventions to ensure students have access to digital resources at home, including having internet connections with sufficient connection speeds for completing homework.

We’ve taken big steps like this before. In the 1930s, 90% of urban residents had “juice.” Electricity providers did not want to take on the expense of extending wires that last mile (the final distance to each home). They also worried that farmers wouldn’t be able to afford the cost if they did.

All that changed when the nation made a commitment to extending wiring to every farmhouse. Suddenly, farm kids could stay up past sundown and do their homework without worry. Farmers could listen to the news on their radio. The world, quite literally, opened up. By 1945, 90% of farms were electrified.

Now it’s time to go the last mile with broadband and ensure that students have access to internet resources at home, just as most do at school.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Kris Amundson

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Published July 26, 2019