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Arkansas State University

The Digital Divide During COVID-19

As schools quickly implemented online learning in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, virtual teaching curricula drew stark lines between students with access to technology and those without it. Students whose households didn’t have computers or high-speed internet access were likely left out of video lessons, chats, streaming tutorials and other online learning elements.

Rural households disproportionately face these challenges. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that in 2017, nearly 21.3 million Americans (or about one-third of the population) lacked broadband internet access. In 2015, 35% of households with school-age children didn’t have broadband internet at home, a concern FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dubbed “the homework gap.”

This raised alarm bells for educators concerned that students without technology would fall behind in their reading skills and learning during the pandemic. Not only could those students not stream lessons, but they’re potentially cut off from digital tools that can benefit struggling readers.

Tools to Bridge the Digital Divide

As the pandemic has highlighted the need for widespread internet, some communities are finding innovative ways to connect students with Wi-Fi access.

Several communities across the U.S. have repurposed school buses as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots that can park throughout neighborhoods or in central hubs to provide access. In 2017, Greenville, South Carolina, equipped hundreds of its school buses with such technology; using social media and maps, the local school district kept families updated about where Wi-Fi and student meals would be provided during the pandemic.
In Missoula, Montana, the public library — using donations from Verizon and T-Mobile — loaned roughly 100 mobile Wi-Fi hotspots during the pandemic. Students could check them out for a period of two weeks at a time.

But high-speed internet access is not the only tool students need to participate in online learning: They also need the right type of device. While older teens across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups have similar rates of mobile device ownership, smartphones alone are not entirely suitable for all school assignments. Longer-form writing or complex interactive programs, for example, generally require a laptop or desktop computer. Students whose families don’t own computers are at a disadvantage in completing these assignments.

Supporting Digital Reading at Home

Some students may actually benefit from the increased use of technology as part of their reading curriculum. Struggling readers may find that tech tools increase their motivation to read and keep them engaged.

Traditional book reports can also take on multimedia formats: Older students might be asked to create podcasts about a topic they read about or produce animations or videos dramatizing a written work. Digital video conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom might also allow for authors themselves to join a remote classroom for a question-and-answer session about the work the students just read.

Multimedia is also a lens through which struggling readers can engage. Some schools have created “book trailers” — like movie trailers, but for books — and uploaded them to websites like Book Trailers for Readers or YouTube to spark students’ interest. Likewise, working collaboratively to produce one of these videos is also a way students can celebrate the accomplishment of finishing a particular book.
Technology also allows students to read along with text and hear it spoken aloud. Students can use several programs that translate text to speech, or they can pair audiobooks with the physical copy of the book for read-along lessons. Translation tools are useful for creating connections between the written word, audio and different languages. In fact, the educational tech tool Read&Write combines several of these features into one toolbar. Students can interact with digital text much in the way they would a physical book and with even more interactive options: highlighting, dictionary functions, sticky notes and proofreading.

When students have access to broadband internet and the proper technology devices, remote learning can be an opportunity to explore new digital tools that foster a love of reading. Education experts note that the digital divide should continue to concern government officials. Funding should aim to close the Wi-Fi access gap between students and provide teachers with the educational tools they need to lead their classrooms into the digital future.

Learn more about the Arkansas State University Master of Education in Reading online program.


Brookings: What the Coronavirus Reveals About the Digital Divide Between Schools and Communities

Federal Communications Commission: 2019 Broadband Development Report

Greenville Journal: Greenville County Schools Will Continue to Provide Wi-Fi and Meals to Students

International Literacy Association: Overcoming the Digital Divide

KPAX: Missoula County Public Library Offers Wi-Fi Hotspots for Checkout

Pew Research Center:
Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-Income American Make Gains in Tech Adoption
Nearly One-in-Five Teens Can’t Always Finish Their Homework Because of the Digital Divide

5 Reasons Why Struggling Readers Benefit from Using Technology
Help Students Understand, Engage and Express Themselves
WYFF: Greenville County School Buses Get Wi-Fi Over Spring Break

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