Dubbed "the homework gap" by researchers, students without the use of reliable internet access at home find it harder to complete and submit homework assignments, further expanding the inequality already seen in low-income communities.
While some US schools provide their students with laptops or iPads, according to Pew Research Center
, almost 5 million American households with school-aged children lack broadband in the home. Low-income homes with children are four times more likely to lack broadband as middle or high income families.
With the gap widening, some school districts have taken it upon themselves to change this dynamic by introducing an innovative solution.
WiFi school buses are one new approach to help students without access to fast broadband at home get connected. The school buses are equipped with routers and students use a public network to connect to the internet. This allows children who have long commutes, which can be two hours each day, to finish homework assignments on their journey.
Richmond County School System in Augusta GA is one of the school districts piloting a WiFi school bus program. According to a national survey
in 2012, 24.4% of Richmond County's population lived in poverty with a high school graduation rate of just 61.8%. Many households in the community did not have broadband access so the district, which has more than 30,000 students, introduced two WiFi school buses in 2016.
Kaden Jacobs, Richmond County School System's director of communications, says that the WiFi buses were introduced to close the digital divide students in the district were facing.
"Our goal is to offer all students in Richmond County equal access to broadband that is required for students to meet academic rigor and obtain 21st-century skills," says Jacobs.
The buses transport children to and from school and were parked at two community centers daily during the summer. The district is currently analyzing how the program has impacted grades.
A global issue
But the homework gap is not just an American problem -- schools all over the world are trying to battle the digital divide.
Cell phone ownership in developing nations is increasing substantially. According to a report by Pew Research Center
, cell phones are as common in Nigeria and South Africa as in the United States.
A report by
Ericsson Mobility suggests that by 2020 around 70% of the world's population will be using smartphones.
Using this new trend to their advantage, schools around the world are implementing mobile learning programs as a tool to connect students outside of the classroom.
One example is a program in Niger that used exercises on a mobile phone to improve reading and numeracy in adult education. In South Africa, a Nokia program called MoMath Project
let children answer math problems via their cell phones and reportedly improved math skills by an average of 14%.
Keith Krueger is the CEO of Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) a nonprofit professional association for education technology leaders. He strongly believes the homework gap is a major issue that needs to be addressed all around the world.
"Teachers expect that students can do their homework from home, which requires Internet. While many low-income students [in the United States] have a phone, it typically is on a data plan. Imagine trying to write your senior thesis or apply for college on a smartphone using WiFi at a McDonald's," says Kreuger.
Innovative solutions like the WiFi school buses are crucial in helping to end this divide, says Kreuger.
Kreuger continues: "It makes bus time a new study hall to do homework. And, this is equally true for times when students are transported to sporting or other school activities."
Until last year Coachella Valley Unified School District in California used WiFi school buses. The buses were then left overnight in low-income neighborhoods for students to use. Google also recently
granted money to a school in South Carolina to equip their buses with WiFi access.
Innovations to bridge the homework gap might even help create more equal societies. As Kreuger puts it: "This is today's civil right -- ensuring that all students have access to equal educational opportunity in a digital world."