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Why the “homework gap” is key to America’s digital divide

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Jessica Rosenworcel testifies before Senate

When the pandemic hit, parents scrambled to get enough devices to get their kids for online schooling. But even when they did, not everything went smoothly. Getting multiple people online for hours at a time in a home was one big obstacle; making sure entire communities were able to sign on was another.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission, wasn’t surprised. For years, Rosenworcel has talked about the “homework gap,” the term she coined to describe a problem facing communities where kids can’t access the internet because infrastructure is inadequate, their families can’t afford it, or both. 

People are now paying attention—not least because rumors are swirling that if Joe Biden is elected president, she could be appointed chairperson of the FCC. (Rosenworcel would not confirm these rumors, citing the Hatch Act.)

The FCC’s current broadband standard is a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second—the minimum for a single 4K Netflix stream. But in rural areas, where a Pew study estimates that one-third of Americans don’t have access to broadband, those speeds are unheard of. And while the Pew data indicates that about three-quarters of urban and suburban households have access to broadband, take that claim with a huge grain of salt: in current FCC mapping, a zip code is considered to be served with broadband if a single household has access .

In light of these problems, Rosenworcel is passionate about getting the FCC to update the E-Rate program , a federal education technology service created in 1996 that offers schools and libraries discounted internet access. 

I spoke to Rosenworcel about her plans to use the program to address the homework gap. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

How did you come up with the term “homework gap”?

When I joined the FCC, I decided that I would visit some schools that were E-Rate beneficiaries when I was traveling for work. And something struck me: I wound up in big cities and in small towns, in urban America and rural America, but I heard the very same things from teachers and administrators no matter where I went: “The E-Rate program is great. We now have these devices we can use in all of our classrooms. But when our students go home at night, not all of them have reliable internet access at home. It’s hard for our teachers to assign homework if we don’t have the confidence that every student has reliable access outside of school.”

The more that I talked to teachers, the more I heard the same stories over and over again: Kids sitting in the school parking lot with school laptops they had borrowed late into the evening, trying to peck away at homework because that was the only place they could actually get online. Or kids sitting in fast food restaurants and doing their homework with a side of fries.

I looked at the data and I found that seven in 10 teachers would assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband at home. I started calling where those numbers overlap the “homework gap” because I felt that this portion of the digital divide really needed a phrase or a term to describe it because it’s so important.

It’s becoming apparent that every student needs this to complete schoolwork now. And then enter the pandemic, right? We sent millions and millions of kids home. We told so many of them to go to online class, but the data suggests that as many as 17 million of them can’t make it there, so now this homework gap is becoming an education gap—and I worry it can become a long-term opportunity gap if we don’t correct it.

Why does the US have such digital inequity?

Well, we’re really a diverse country. We’re also diverse geographically, and that has wonderful qualities but it also has consequences. It takes some work to make sure everyone is connected. But we’ve done it before. We did it with electricity following the Rural Electrification Act. We did it with basic telephony. We can do it again with broadband. 

Early in the pandemic I spoke to immigrant families and people who don’t have access to the internet unless they go to a public space. A lot of them were told they could get reduced-rate internet, but that was difficult in terms of documentation and being able to pay those rates. How has the FCC addressed this issue, and do you think there is a way to move forward here?

I’m one of five people at the FCC. I’m the senior Democrat. I’m not in the majority. I can be noisy and I can be relentless, but I don’t always convince my colleagues.

I am convinced that we can update the E-Rate program using existing law and support schools—loaning out Wi-Fi hot spots, for instance. I think we can do that today with the E-Rate program.

And shame on us for not doing it. Because we’re not doing it, what you see are pictures like the one that went viral of two girls sitting outside of a Taco Bell in Salinas, California, not for lunch—they were there because they were using the free Wi-Fi signal. And what you now see is Wi-Fi in parking lots across this country in places that have been closed down because there’s this cruel virus and students are sitting in hot cars attending class and doing their schoolwork. And then other students are entirely locked out of the virtual classrooms, because they just don’t have a way to get online.

So shame on the FCC for not making it a priority to update E-Rate to address this crisis, because it’s within our power to help right now. I am saddened that my agency keeps looking the other way.

What is the demographic of kids most affected by the homework gap?

It has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. It’s disproportionately harmful to rural America and disproportionately harms low-income households. What’s most cruel to me about this is that we have a program we could update and help fix this, but we keep looking the other way. So many students are unable to attend class in person right now. And if they can’t make it into online classrooms and they’re out of schools for months, it’s going to have a long-term impact on their education. 

Is implementing the E-Rate program even feasible right now?

One of the beauties of the E-Rate program is that it’s set up in a way so that more support goes to schools with greater numbers of students on free or reduced-price lunch programs. In other words, it’s almost a perfect map of where the demand is most likely. We could use that to really figure out how to get devices or wireless hot spots out to students—things that could make a meaningful difference. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that every student didn’t always get textbooks or a grammar workbook. We have to start recognizing that for students who don’t have internet access at home, having the school loan out a wireless hot spot is the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. We can do something to fix this. 

How quickly can we expand the E-Rate program? 

The truth is that we should have started this at the start of the pandemic. Seven months in is too late, but today is better than tomorrow. We should be doing this immediately. And it’s not totally irrational. Years ago, the FCC years ago made some adjustments following Hurricane Katrina to a different program that helps low-income households get internet service, to make sure that everyone who got displaced was able to get phone service started again with a wireless line. 

We have a history of looking at a disaster, trying to assess what’s necessary to keep people connected, and updating our programs in response. We should be doing this right now with E-Rate for the homework gap.

I read that you’re a mom. 

I’m curious what you thought about homeschooling and being online during this time.

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The Homework Gap: Teacher Perspectives on Closing the Digital Divide

The homework gap refers to the divide between students who have home broadband access and those who do not. It is also an indicator of whether or not a student will be able to complete their homework and succeed in school alongside their internet-connected peers. To better understand how this gap persists today, Common Sense conducted a nationwide survey with teachers about how often they assign homework that requires digital tools, and how assignments vary in schools with higher- and lower-income students.

This report is a companion piece to the 2019 Common Sense Census: Inside the 21st Century Classroom .

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The digital divide has left millions of school kids behind

US schools are going back to in-person learning as COVID ebbs, but the so-called homework gap will persist.

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The coronavirus shined a light on the homework gap, or the disparity between the haves and have-nots when it comes to those students with laptops, tablets and high-speed internet and those without even basic online access. But the waning of the pandemic's threat is a stark reminder that this aspect of the larger digital divide was a problem long before, and will remain one even as things return to normal. 

But the seismic shift sparked by the coronavirus has some optimistic that more change is on the way. 

When schools across the country shut down in March 2020 , more than 50 million students across the nation were forced to access their education remotely. This sent districts scrambling to replace their in-person instruction with some form of online learning. Some schools offered live video streams, while others posted assignments online and expected students to access content and assignments.

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More than a year later, with vaccines more readily available, schools are starting to reopen more fully. But the digital divide and the homework gap haven't gone away, even with new attention and funding directed toward emergency relief. The CARES Act, passed by Congress at the outset of the crisis, gave an initial boost that helped many schools purchase devices for students who didn't have them and pay for broadband service.

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An additional $50 billion was allocated for K-12 education in the COVID emergency relief funding passed in December. The funds, which are reaching districts now, can be used for a range of pandemic-related services, including distance learning. More money to close the digital divide is expected as part of President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan. 

Now, as educators and policy makers prepare for what's next, people are taking a hard look at where things stand and what lessons have been learned from this year.  

"The most exciting thing we learned about the homework gap during the pandemic is that schools are uniquely positioned to help close this divide for their students," said Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy for Common Sense, a nonprofit focused on education. "Pre-pandemic, we relied on a patchwork of solutions from low-income programs or benevolent service providers, grand programs from the federal and state government. But most of these programs were developed with no coordination with the schools."

Fazlullah said that's changing as schools see the real tangible effects of the digital divide. Common Sense partnered with the Boston Consulting Group, EducationSuperHighway and Southern Education Foundation, to publish three in-depth reports over the past year looking at the magnitude of the divide and potential solutions.

Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution , has studied the digital divide for more than two decades. She agrees that the pandemic has given schools, as well as policy makers, an opportunity to jump-start efforts to bring digital equity to education. But she cautions that, as students return to the classroom, school leaders shouldn't abandon their efforts to improve digital equity for their students. 

"Schools are now rushing to get their students back into schools, because in many ways they think this will solve the digital access issues they have and the loss of learning some students have experienced," she said. "But what I fear is we're missing the opportunity to get our kids ready for a new digitally connected economy."

She said the past year has been a how-to-solve-the-digital divide pilot of sorts, with school districts, state governments and others trying out various solutions. Now schools are in a precarious moment in the crisis, and she is urging school leaders and policymakers in Washington to not let this moment pass them by in terms of making sure no student is left offline.

To help readers make sense of all this, we've put together this FAQ to give you a better sense of what the homework gap is, why it exists and how it can be solved. 

What is the homework gap? 

The homework gap is a term that's been used to describe the millions of children in grades K-12 for whom access to broadband services at home or access to suitable devices are unavailable, leaving them unable to access homework and other educational resources. 

One thing the pandemic has made clear is that the so-called homework gap is worse than we had thought. Pre-pandemic estimates put the number of unconnected students in grades K-12 at 12 million. A June 2020 study by Common Sense, EducationSuperHighway and Boston Consulting Group suggests that between 15 million and 16 million students, or 30% of all public school students, live in households without either an internet connection or a device adequate for distance learning, or both. 

Who is most affected by the homework gap?

Every state in the US has pockets of unconnected students in all types of communities, according to the Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group report. But it's most significant among rural households, particularly in southern states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi. It also disproportionately affects students in lower-income families. Roughly 50% of unconnected students come from families with annual incomes less than $50,000.

How did the pandemic worsen the gap?

When schools shut down, the coronavirus pandemic brought to the forefront the digital inequities within communities. But it also made the homework gap a more serious problem for students who lacked access. No longer was this lack of access to the internet or a suitable computing device just about not being able to get homework completed. Instead, students without a device or broadband access were cut off from their education almost entirely. 

"It was a homework gap pre-COVID," said Gaby Rowe, the project lead for Texas' Operation Connectivity , which used federal CARES Act money to coordinate the bulk purchase of 1 million computing devices and 500,000 hotspots for students throughout Texas during the pandemic. "But now it's morphed into a much larger and more devastating learning gap post-COVID." 

Because the digital divide disproportionately affects students from lower-income families and students of color, a failure to address the digital divide will likely lead to a widening gap in student achievement, a problem that also existed long before the pandemic. Now the digital divide threatens to widen that gap, further marginalizing students who were already at risk of falling behind. 

Why are people still unconnected?

The overwhelming reason why students lack access to remote online learning is the cost and affordability of services and devices, according to the Common Sense Boston Consulting Group study . That report found that up to 60% of disconnected K-12 students, or about 9 million students, especially Black and urban students, can't afford digital access. 

Up to 40% of disconnected students, or about 6 million students, face adoption barriers, such as a lack of digital literacy skills or the ability to get through the signup process for low-cost services. This group also included families that had language barriers in accessing service or that distrusted the internet because of privacy concerns.  

Roughly a quarter of students, or about 4 million, lack access to reliable broadband infrastructure. This reason mostly affected students living in rural regions, and it disproportionately affects Native American students. 

Why does it matter?

Solving the homework gap or digital divide issue for schoolchildren is important for several reasons. For one, it's essential that all students have equal access to distance learning because it ensures workforce development and readiness for the next generation of Americans. 

Also, research has long demonstrated that access to quality education can help break the cycles of poverty. There are early indications that students who have been unable to access distance learning over this past year are falling behind. 

Last, ensuring that households with K-12 students have access to broadband and affordable devices can go a long way in terms of solving the broader digital divide, providing greater access to employment opportunities, job training and remote health care for all Americans. 

Because the digital divide affects a third of students in the US, the consequences of not addressing the issue could be dire, experts say. Even though the vaccine rollout has improved in the US, the global pandemic is still far from over with variants of the virus still circulating around many parts of the world. Many communities in the US remain vulnerable to the virus, meaning schools could continue an on-again, off-again return to distance learning for the foreseeable future. Not dealing with the problem now will only exacerbate inequities in schools and throughout society that existed prior to the pandemic.

What's being done to solve it?

Last March, Congress allocated $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act funding to help schools close these gaps as they pivoted to virtual learning amid school closures. Several states also put CARES Act money to help address the digital divide and homework gap for schools. 

These efforts closed 20% to 40% of the K-12 connectivity divide and 40% to 60% of the device divide as of December 2020, according to the Common Sense and Boston Consulting report. But 12 million school-age students still remained disconnected going into 2021. This was due to a slew of issues, including poor broadband data, infrastructure and supply chain issues, and lackluster adoption of existing programs as well as inadequate funding to continue to address the issues. 

In December, federal lawmakers approved additional COVID-19 relief funding for schools , including $50 billion that can be used for pandemic-related expenses including distance learning. But analysts say more than 75% of the existing efforts aimed at closing the digital divide for schools will expire within three years. This means that there's no long-term solution in place to ensure digital equity in the future. 

Some are hoping that Biden's infrastructure plan can help address some of these issues more broadly. He is calling for spending $100 billion to expand broadband in rural communities where access doesn't yet exist and to help make broadband more affordable across the country. Though the proposed spending makes up only a tiny fraction of the overall $2 trillion in spending that Biden wants to see Congress allocate for his infrastructure plan, the policy and political ambitions around the issue are huge.

Still, Common Sense's Fazlullah is optimistic that with support in Congress and among policy makers in Washington, progress can continue. 

"With policy changes and a commitment to providing necessary funding, we can close these gaps for good," she said. 

What still needs to be done?

Fazlullah says that more state and federal funding is necessary. The Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group report estimates that closing the digital divide will require between $6 billion and $11 billion in the first year and between $4 billion and $8 billion annually thereafter, to address affordability and adoption gaps. This doesn't include the cost of deploying new infrastructure, which some have estimated at $80 billion or more. 

In addition, the report recommends funding be targeted to achieve efficient use of funds. This includes adopting policies to enable bulk purchasing of devices and internet service with transparent, affordable pricing and digital inclusion support. Public policy should also encourage technology-agnostic investment and encourage broadband networks to be built  where it doesn't currently exist or where it's insufficient to meet student needs. 

Success will also require strong partnerships between the public and private sector to assess students' needs and to address issues. 

Turner Lee said that Congress also needs to make statutory changes to existing programs to ensure they have enough flexibility to direct federal dollars where they are most needed. For instance, she suggests expanding the federal E-rate program to help ensure broadband access in public housing and other public areas, like parks. 

"There are statutory restrictions that define where money for our existing programs can go," she said. 

She told members of the Trade subcommittee of the House of Representatives Ways and Means committee last week during a hearing that what is needed is America's Tech New Deal, a program that she said "would deepen investments already made by the private sector in high-speed broadband networks and also provide new models to use that infrastructure to create jobs, expand small businesses and reimagine delivery of services, including remote education, work and health care."

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The Homework Gap

Left Offline from National School Boards Assoc. on Vimeo .

Widespread home-based learning has highlighted a long-documented and persistent inequity of students that lack adequate broadband access. This digital divide, commonly known as the homework gap impacts millions of students.

When the pandemic began, 15-16 million K-12 students did not have adequate access to the internet. Up to 12 million students remain under-connected. (Common Sense Media)

The homework gap also impacts some of the most vulnerable students such as those from low-income families and those systematically underserved. As the learning environment for students has shifted from traditional classrooms in school buildings made of bricks and mortar to virtual classrooms, the necessity for each student to have high-quality access to the Internet is imperative. With the current crisis dramatically shifting our children’s education to remote and online learning, it has never been more important to address this inequity.

More than 75% of the temporary solutions enacted during the pandemic to connect students are expected to expire in the next one to three years. (Common Sense Media)

NSBA supports efforts to improve necessary high-speed broadband required for twenty-first century learning both when students are at school and when they are home. School board members across the nation are joining NSBA in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress to focus on ways to improve the overall connectivity and digital infrastructure for all students and abandon efforts to make connectivity more difficult. Closing the homework gap is a pressing national need that must be addressed so all students have the opportunity to receive an excellent twenty-first century education.

Recommendations to the Biden Administration

NSBA has met several times with the Biden-Harris team and provided the new administration with several nonpartisan recommendations to guide their work . One of our major recommendations is to promote digital equity and close the Homework Gap. Working collaboratively, the President, Congress, the Department of Education, and the Federal Communications Commission must eliminate broadband infrastructure gaps and invest in students and families without adequate high-speed broadband and/or internet devices.

Read the Full Report Read the Summary

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NSBA Asks FCC for Speed and Flexibility in Disbursement of $7.1 Billion Devoted to Closing “Homework Gap”

NSBA urges the Federal Communications Commission to quickly distribute funds from the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to help close the digital divide in education and give school districts flexibility to distribute them based on local needs.

a girl, with her back toward the camera, raises her hand during remote learning

NSBA Asks Federal Communications Commission to Close Remote Learning Gap

A coalition of education advocates, including NSBA, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to close the remote learning gap for the estimated 15-16 million students who lack home internet access.

Jessica Rosenworcel

Statement from NSBA on President Biden’s Selection of Jessica Rosenworcel as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission

In response to President Biden’s announcement that Jessica Rosenworcel will be the acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, NSBA Executive Director and CEO Anna Maria Chávez issued the follow statement to commend Rosenworcel as a champion of closing the digital divide.

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Bridging the Homework Gap

A small urban district in southwestern Ohio worked to eliminate the homework gap during remote learning. Their success could serve as a model for schools across the country that collectively serve the 16.9 million children without high-speed internet.

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Virtual Connections

In the last few months, nearly every district in the country has transition to online learning. ASBJ explores how school leaders secured the necessary technology, trained teachers as well as student families, and ensured that instruction remains equitable.

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Can a Crisis Lead to Equitable Access?

2020-21 Chair of the CUBE Steering Committee and President of Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School Board Jacinto Ramos Jr. shares how his district continues the equitable delivery of education during a pandemic that has thrown inequities into sharp relief.

AI and the next digital divide in education

Subscribe to the center for universal education bulletin, michael trucano michael trucano visiting fellow - global economy and development , center for universal education.

July 10, 2023

The evolution of the “digital divide”:

The first digital divide : The rich have technology, while the poor do not.

The second digital divide : The rich have technology and the skills to use it effectively, while the poor have technology but lack skills to use it effectively.

The third digital divide? : The rich have access to both technology and people to help them use it, while the poor have access to technology only.

The theme of the most recent Education World Forum (EWF), the world’s largest annual gathering of education ministers, was “ new beginnings .” The program featured perspectives from education leaders from all over the world on a variety of topics, many of them evergreen: access to education; educational quality; equity; jobs; skills; the role of teachers; gender; and sustainability. Post-pandemic, more attention was paid to issues of building resilience in education systems than it had been in past years. Reflecting larger societal trends, discussions of the role of education vis-a-vis climate change were heard more often, and at a higher volume. However, one new topic did serve as a sort of thematic connective tissue across all three days of discussions, infusing doses of concern, confusion, worry, and excitement into considerations of whatever was on the formal agenda for ministerial deliberation: the potential role and impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in education .

I sat in on one well-attended and lively discussion session in which a participant recounted a recent assembly at a university in a lower-middle income country in Asia where a student asked a question about the use of ChatGPT—the chatbot that ignited the current explosion of excitement about AI use in education when it was released late last year. The head of the university quickly interrupted, noting that such questions were largely theoretical at the institution as the tool was not yet used in the country in any real way. The speaker then asked the few hundred students in the audience if they had ever used ChatGPT—100 percent of them raised their hands. (Eighty percent of the students kept their hands up when asked a follow-up question: “And how many of you have used it in the last 24 hours?”) Responses in the EWF event hall were a mix of looks of concern and knowing chuckles.

In response, one minister expressed excitement about what new AI tools could do for students in his country, especially those not enrolled in school, those in classrooms where the student-to-teacher ratio often exceeds 60:1, or those in schools where teachers are inadequately trained or poorly supported. We don’t have enough qualified teachers for all of our students and aren’t likely to in the near future , he said . AI technology can bridge this gap.

The promise of AI and personalized learning

The promise of a personalized digital tutor or teacher, an always-on “ teaching machine ” that never sleeps and is responsive to the cognitive needs of an individual learner, has been a consistent theme across the history of educational computing. Influential academic papers and even science fiction books have inspired generations of educational software and hardware developers to create tools and devices to enable more personalized learning. While to date the impact of such efforts has been mixed , at best, and related rhetoric has often outstripped observable reality, progress is being made—and quickly. Tools like Khanmigo from Khan Academy, which is built on the AI technology that powers ChatGPT, offer tantalizing glimpses of what may soon be possible and accessible for millions of learners around the world.

In a world experiencing a global learning crisis , where as many as 70 percent of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income economies can’t read and understand a basic text, over 244 million children and youth are out of school , and there is a projected global teacher shortage of almost 70 million teachers by 2030, a new wave of AI-enabled educational technology innovations can’t come too soon.

Digital divides in education

The existence of a “ digital divide ” in education—the idea that some children, families, teachers, and schools have access to information and communications technologies to support learning and others do not—has been observed and lamented for over a generation. As access to computing devices has improved, a “ second digital divide ” has emerged which, according to the OECD , “separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without.” Increasingly recognizing this, education systems around the world—rich and poor alike—consider difficult trade-offs related to investing in computing infrastructure and the cultivation of teachers’, learners’, and administrators’ skills to make productive use of this infrastructure. This often happens in fiscal environments where resources are constrained , related know-how is scarce, and the challenges affecting the sector remain abundant. At the same time, it’s hard to go a day without reading a headline speculating about the potential for new advances in artificial intelligence to transform education . Might access to AI represent a new (third?) digital divide in education?

Might access to AI represent a new (third?) digital divide in education?

To be clear: The existing digital divides in education, gaps traditionally measured in the number of computing devices available to support teaching and learning and the availability, speed, and reliability of internet connectivity, aren’t going away any time soon. While access to educational computing tools is near ubiquitous in countries like South Korea and Estonia , stubborn gaps remain across education systems even in the “advanced” economies of the OECD in terms of both access and skills. The reality in less developed countries in Africa , Asia , and Latin America is worse. And even where schools are well-resourced and connected to the internet, access at home is another matter , as the recent global experiment in emergency remote learning made clear .

While progress in this area isn’t being made fast enough for many learners—especially those in marginalized communities and in the poorest countries—the playbook for progress is largely known. Even where components of a solution may involve getting internet access from satellites orbiting the earth, this isn’t rocket science: Related progress is a function of a combination of money, planning, and political will. Whether measured in days or decades, the related trend line over time is positive.

Let’s posit that the connectivity challenge in education can be solved, and will be, and that students will (eventually) have access to their own devices for learning, turbocharged in various ways by AI. What then? Let’s further hypothesize that students will possess the skills and competencies that will enable them to take full and productive use of the technology available to them. Might this mean the end of the “digital divide”?

Looking forward

Closing the digital divide in education has traditionally been about eliminating a gap between the rich and the poor, where, to oversimplify, rich kids have access to lots of devices and fast, reliable connectivity, and poor kids do not.

Is it possible to imagine a future in which a new digital divide emerges: where the rich have access to technology, increasingly powered by artificial intelligence, and to teachers to help them use this technology as part of their learning, while poor kids just have access to the technology?

From the perspective of 2023, when limited access to reliable connectivity and sufficiently powerful computing devices for learning remains the norm in so many schools and communities around the world, this may perhaps sound far-fetched.

That said, some experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic might offer a potential glimpse of things to come. Even in countries where access to devices and the internet at home was widespread and (relatively) equitable, there were still noticeable gaps in achievement between rich kids and poor kids in many places engaged in remote learning. Many plausible reasons have been advanced to explain gaps that occurred during the pandemic related to lack of access to digital learning opportunities and the quality of those opportunities. In addition, an emerging body of research from around the world during the pandemic (in places as diverse as Ghana , Indonesia , Poland , Saudi Arabia , and the United States ) explores how, even when the use of technology played a dominant role in education, the involvement of parents and tutors in the learning process—in other words, people —was often consequential.

It’s been observed that, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” Proponents of increased use of AI education claim that various flavors of AI will soon be able to perform the first three duties. But what about the fourth? Education is, after all, a fundamentally human endeavor.

What if, in the future, access to technology is something available to all, and not only the privileged, while access to people (engaged parents, private tutors, trained teachers) is limited?

What might this mean—and what might we do about it?

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What Is the Digital Divide?

Understanding the digital divide.

  • Consequences

Bridging the Digital Divide

  • Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act

The Bottom Line

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The Digital Divide: What It Is, and What's Being Done to Close It

Erika Rasure is globally-recognized as a leading consumer economics subject matter expert, researcher, and educator. She is a financial therapist and transformational coach, with a special interest in helping women learn how to invest.

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Investopedia / Jiaqi Zhou

The digital divide is the gap created by unequal access to modern telecommunications technology among different demographic groups and regions. This can include inequalities in access to computers, smartphones , the Internet, or digital literacy.

When the term "digital divide" was first used in the late 20th century, it described the gap between those with cellphone access and those without it. The term has since expanded to include the technical and financial ability to use available technology and access the internet. However, the meaning of the "digital divide" is constantly shifting with the development of technology.

Key Takeaways

  • The digital divide encompasses the technical and financial ability to utilize available technology, along with access (or a lack of access) to the internet.
  • Digital divides exist between developed and developing countries, urban and rural populations, young and educated versus older and less educated individuals, and men and women.
  • The consequences of the digital divide include isolation, which can affect mental health, educational barriers as postsecondary education increasingly moves online, and worsening gender discrimination.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the differences in digital coverage in the U.S., such as among children forced to attend school remotely and in less affluent communities where people have struggled to get vaccination appointments.
  • The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $65 billion for narrowing the digital divide.

The digital divide describes the gap between people who have access to affordable, reliable internet service ( and the skills and gadgets necessary to take advantage of that access) and those who lack it.

This is an issue within many countries, with rural populations much more likely to be cut off from digital technologies than city residents are. The divide also exists among countries and continents. And it exists between men and women: In 2022, 62% of the global male population was using the internet, compared with 57% of the female population, a gap that has been narrowing over the past decade.

Beyond the gaps between developed and developing countries, rural and urban populations, and men and women, there are other types of digital divides:

  • The access divide: This is the most visible digital divide. It refers to the socioeconomic differences among people and the impact on their ability to afford the devices necessary to get online. In developing countries, many people have limited access to technology or the internet and do not have the skills necessary to use it effectively.
  • The use divide: This refers to the difference in the level of skills possessed by individuals. There is a generation gap when it comes to the skills necessary to use the internet. It is also affected by the quality of education that an individual receives. Younger, educated people tend to have more skills than older, less educated ones. 
  • The quality-of-use gap: This measure is a little more complicated. It refers to the different ways that people use the internet and the fact that some people are far more able to get the information they need from it than others.

These gaps in connectivity and skills reflect existing differences in wealth and access to education, as well as gender discrimination. The digital divide also exacerbates these same differences by barring many people from the information necessary to break out of their current living situation.

Meanings of Digital Divide

The original "digital divide" was the gap created by unequal access to cell phones. Since then, the term has been adapted to other aspects of communications technology. There are also digital divides in:

  • Inequalities in internet access for socioeconomic reasons
  • Geographical differences in internet speed and access.
  • Unequal access to 4G/5G networks for mobile internet
  • Unequal access to computers/mobile devices
  • Gaps in digital literacy, due to generation and/or education gaps.

The Global Digital Divide

For many years, the global digital divide was seen as a consequence of economic development. As countries and individuals became richer, the common expectation was that they would purchase digital devices and infrastructure and the digital divide would close naturally.

Yet incomes have risen around the world over the past two decades, and access to digital services has remained stubbornly low in much of the developing world. In many cases, this is due to a lack of investment in internet infrastructure. Citizens may have internet-enabled devices, but still no connection to the World Wide Web. The internet penetration rate still varies widely among continents: In 2022, 80% of Europeans had internet access, compared with just 22% of Africans.

Between 2015 and 2021, the percentage of the world population that was projected to be covered by a 4G network doubled, reaching 88%. More current forecasts project the world to be 95% covered by 2028.

However, those statistics hide a great deal of variation within countries and regions. Large countries with ocean borders tend to have much better internet access, even when they are underdeveloped in other areas. This is why the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies, started to provide statistics on landlocked developing countries and small island developing states based on aggregate statistics in the developing world.

Similarly, there are major disparities in internet access even within highly developed countries. Many rural Americans are still without adequate internet access, and still more lack the skills to take full advantage of the access they do have. Indeed, the most accurate predictors of the digital divide are not age or country. They are educational level and the urban-rural divide. According to recent studies, people living in urban areas globally have roughly twice the level of internet access in their homes compared with those who live in rural areas.

Some analysts fear that, instead of narrowing, the digital divide is getting wider. In addition, some questionable business practices appear to be widening the gap even within developed nations: The ongoing debates about net neutrality and versioning can be seen as issues about equitable access to the digital world.

Consequences of the Digital Divide

Until quite recently, access to the internet was seen as a luxury, and disparities in digital access were seen in largely the same terms. However, there is now widespread consensus that technological discrimination is a form of social exclusion because it deprives certain citizens of essential resources for wealth development.

This is most visible when one looks at the balance of the world economy and particularly at the rapid growth in the number of jobs that require digital access and skills. In the U.S., for instance, nearly half of all jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are in computing. Lack of access to learning these skills is a barrier to these jobs and the income that comes with them.

You don’t have to aspire to a career in tech to be affected by the digital divide. The impacts of the phenomenon reach many people, in several important ways:

  • Lack of communication and isolation: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the isolation that people without internet access or skills can quickly experience. This can have serious concomitant effects—from not being able to secure appointments for vaccination against the coronavirus to limiting individuals’ job prospects and affecting their mental health.
  • Barriers to education: As education is increasingly delivered online, those without the resources to access the internet, including schoolchildren limited to remote learning during the pandemic, can be cut off from opportunities to develop their skills. As a result, children may have educational gaps, and adults may miss out on job opportunities or be unable to gain the basic skills necessary to contribute to their community.
  • Worsening gender discrimination: As noted above, the digital divide also exacerbates many existing forms of discrimination. One of the most widespread is gender discrimination. Women who lack equal access to the internet are unable to gain an education or information that could help them challenge (and have a better chance of raising) their status.

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on digital technologies, these consequences are likely to become more serious and widespread. It is incumbent upon societies to address the digital divide in a holistic way that recognizes its many aspects and negative outcomes.

A 2021 study by Deloitte revealed more than $186 billion of economic output and more than 875,000 additional U.S. jobs would have occurred had there been a 10% increase in broadband access the country in 2014.

In recent years, programs have been launched that aim to combat particular aspects of the digital divide. Many of these are being coordinated at the highest level, including within the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9, which allows individual countries to coordinate their activities toward ending digital discrimination.

Within the developed world, some analysts point to successful 20th-century programs that lifted millions of people out of poverty. One commonly mentioned example is the Rural Electrification Act during the Great Depression , which stands as an example of how the government can help provide technology to underserved areas that private companies don't consider profitable enough to include in their networks.

In addition, two programs have been launched in the past few years to address other aspects of the digital divide:

  • The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) aims to reduce the cost of broadband internet in specific areas in the world.
  • Starlink provides high-speed internet and global coverage at affordable prices via satellites it has launched into space.

Many countries now also run digital literacy programs aimed at teaching both adults and children the skills necessary to breach the digital divide.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

On Nov. 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. Passed with bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House, the many-faceted bill takes dead aim at reducing the digital divide by providing $65 billion to bring high-speed internet to rural areas of America.

Providers who accept the funds are required to offer a low-cost, affordable plan to consumers and display a broadband nutrition label, which will allow people to comparison-shop for the best offer. It also mandates that the Federal Communications Commission must adopt rules prohibiting digital redlining , and creates a permanent new perk to help low-income households access the internet in the form of an affordable connectivity benefit, for which more than one-fourth of American households will be eligible.

Wrapped into the bill is the Digital Equity Act, originally proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in 2019 and co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), which establishes two new federal grant programs “to promote digital equality nationwide.” One program will be run by state governments and provide “state-by-state digital equity planning followed by implementation grants to qualifying programs.” The other program creates a yearly national competitive grant program “to support digital equity projects undertaken by individual groups, coalitions, and/or communities of interest anywhere in the U.S.”

When Did the Term "Digital Divide" Originate?

The term has been around since the late 20th century, when it labeled the difference between people with cellphones and those without them. Today, it refers to the difference between those who have internet access (as well as access to other forms of digital communication) and those who do not.

Who Is on What Side of the Divide?

The divide exists in myriad ways, including between urban and rural areas, developed and underdeveloped countries, men and women, and even ocean-bordering and landlocked countries. In all of those cases, the former category is doing better than the latter.

What Is Being Done to Close the Digital Divide?

There are programs to alleviate the situation, both internationally and in the U.S. The former group includes the Alliance for Affordable Internet, which aims to lower the cost of broadband around the globe; One Laptop Per Child, which supplies low-cost laptops to children as well as programs to teach them digital skills; and Starlink, a for-profit enterprise that offers affordable access to high-speed internet around the world thanks to its dedicated space satellites.

U.S. action is exemplified by the recently passed bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a multifaceted piece of legislation that includes $65 billion for programs that will work to bring high-speed internet to the nation's rural areas.

The digital divide refers to the unequal access and usage of technology, particularly the internet, among different groups within society. This disparity often stems from factors like socioeconomic status, geography, education, and age, leading to limited opportunities for those without adequate digital resources to participate fully in the digital world and benefit from its opportunities. There are many legislative efforts to promote digital accessability.

International Telecommunication Union. " Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures ," Page 3.

International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group. " Bringing Africa Up to High Speed ."

International Telecommunication Union. " Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures ," Page 10.

Ericsson. " 5G Network Coverage Forecast ."

International Telecommunication Union. " Measuring Digital Development: Facts and Figures ," Page 6.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. " Why Computer Occupations Are Behind Strong STEM Employment Growth in the 2019-29 Decade ."

Deloitte. " Deloitte: Quantifying the Economic Impact of Closing the Digital Divide ."

United Nations. " Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development Goal 9 ."

Living New Deal. " Rural Electrification Act (1936) ."

Alliance for Affordable Internet. " Affordability Report 2020 ."

Starlink. " Order Starlink ."

The White House. " President Biden to Sign Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Monday ."

The White House. " Updated Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ."

Digital Equality Act. " The Digital Equality Act ."

U.S. Department of Commerce. " Fact Sheet: Department of Commerce's Use of Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Funding to Help Close the Digital Divide ."

digital divide homework

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Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption

More than 30 years after the debut of the World Wide Web , internet use, broadband adoption and smartphone ownership have grown rapidly for all Americans – including those who are less well-off financially. However, the digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted Jan. 25-Feb. 8, 2021. In fact, the shares of Americans in each income tier who have home broadband or a smartphone have not significantly changed from 2019 to 2021.

Americans with lower incomes have lower levels of technology adoption

Roughly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (24%) say they don’t own a smartphone. About four-in-ten adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services (43%) or a desktop or laptop computer (41%). And a majority of Americans with lower incomes are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

Americans with higher household incomes are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. Roughly six-in-ten adults living in households earning $100,000 or more a year (63%) report having home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared with 23% of those living in lower-income households.

Pew Research Center has studied Americans’ internet and technology adoption for decades. In continuing this research, the Center surveyed 1,502 U.S. adults from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, 2021, by cellphone and landline phone. The survey was conducted by interviewers under the direction of Abt Associates and is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, education and other categories. Here are  the questions, responses and methodology used for this analysis.

Conversely, 13% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year do not have access to any of these technologies at home, while only 1% of adults from households making $100,000 or more a year report a similar lack of access.

The share of Americans with lower incomes who rely on their smartphones for going online has roughly doubled since 2013

With fewer options for online access at their disposal, Americans with lower incomes are relying more on smartphones. As of early 2021, 27% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are smartphone-only internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home. This represents a substantial increase from 12% in 2013. In contrast, only 6% of those living in households earning $100,000 or more fall into this category in 2021. These shares are statistically unchanged since 2019, when the Center last polled on this topic.

This reliance on smartphones also means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens. For example, smartphone owners with lower incomes were especially likely to use their mobile device when seeking out and applying for jobs, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report .

The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The digital divide has been a central topic in tech circles for decades, with researchers, advocates and policymakers examining this issue. However, this topic has gained special attention during the coronavirus outbreak as much of daily life (such as work and school ) moved online, leaving families with lower incomes more likely to face obstacles in navigating this increasing digital environment. For example, in April 2020, 59% of parents with lower incomes who had children in schools that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.

Note: Here are  the questions, responses and methodology used for this analysis. This is an update of a post originally published March 22, 2017, and later updated on May 7, 2019 by Monica Anderson and Madhumitha Kumar.

Read the other posts in our digital divide series:

  • Home broadband adoption, computer ownership vary by race, ethnicity in the U.S.
  • Some digital divides persist between rural, urban and suburban America
  • Americans with disabilities less likely than those without to own some digital devices
  • Digital Divide
  • Economic Inequality
  • Emerging Technology
  • Income & Wages
  • Technology Adoption

Emily A. Vogels is a former research associate focusing on internet and technology at Pew Research Center .

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Teens and internet, device access fact sheet, what americans know about ai, cybersecurity and big tech, how teens navigate school during covid-19, what we know about online learning and the homework gap amid the pandemic, most popular.

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Two girls in a classroom working on laptops

Bridging the divide: The new program tackling digital exclusion

For students living in poverty, being digitally excluded can be another barrier to making the most of their education. A new program from The Smith Family is helping bridge what’s known as the digital divide

Every day, thousands of parents are making impossible decisions between paying bills, putting food on the table and buying essentials for their children’s education. But in an increasingly digitised landscape, where online learning is standard, learning essentials now include a laptop and internet access; not just pens, paper and textbooks.

A working laptop, a reliable home internet connection and the skills and resources to use them are vital to a student’s educational outcomes. When students start behind, they will often stay behind as each year goes by. Those unable to catch up are far less likely to finish school, enter university or find stable employment.

“What was once a ‘nice to have’ is now an absolute essential for children to be able to fully participate in education,” says Wendy Field, head of policy, programs and strategy at The Smith Family.

The charity believes digital inclusion is key to bridging the digital divide: the gap between those with access to digital devices, connection and skills, and those without.

About 60,000 students currently receive access to resources for school participation through The Smith Family’s Learning for Life education support program. One in six families with which The Smith Family works don’t have a computer or the internet connected at home, Field says. And many of the parents indicate they aren’t confident enough in their digital skills to help their children learn. A new donor-funded program aims to address this gap.

“The aim of Digital Learning Essentials is to ensure that all children on our Learning for Life program are digitally included within the next four years,” Field says. “We are expecting 100,000 children to be on that program by 2027.”

The new frontier

Digital literacy and access are rapidly becoming cornerstones of all aspects of life. A 2021 report by RMIT Online says 87% of jobs in Australia require digital skills.

“We’re seeing an increasing gap in digital skills and capabilities, which is having really significant implications,” Field says. “Particularly when you think about the workforce of today and into the future.”

Andrew FitzSimons is the principal of Dapto High School in Wollongong, New South Wales. Over the past 47 years, he’s seen first-hand how digital skills have become essential to a 21st-century education and how digital inclusion can make a vast difference to student outcomes and future employment.

Since his first year teaching in 1976, FitzSimons says the classroom has changed “enormously” because of technology. “It’s transforming learning and teaching as we speak: the communication we have, as a result of good technology, the research kids do, the sophistication and standard of work they hand in,” he says.

Children in a classroom using laptops

The digital divide is almost non-existent at Dapto High thanks to more than a decade of investment in hardware and training for its students; ensuring “good digital citizenship” requires more than just equipment.

“Kids turned up with a laptop, they’ve got a mobile phone, and we assumed they were more skilful with the intricacies – how to research and all that sort of stuff – than they actually were,” FitzSimons says.

This scenario exemplifies the complexity of the digital divide. Despite technology’s ubiquity in the classroom, availability does not equal competency or literacy. Without access to digital resources in the home, and the chance to play, experiment and teach themselves, disadvantaged students continue to fall behind. This issue is compounded when parents are not digitally capable.

Field says: “You don’t only want to be a consumer of technology; you want to have the opportunity to be a creator. If your parents or your networks are not clear on the importance of digital skills development for future opportunities, then they’re not going to lean into that.”

A complex problem

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index tracks how effectively Australians access and use digital technologies, based on three key measures – access, affordability and digital ability – in a bid to identify barriers to digital inclusion.

Income, education level, employment status and an individual’s age, location and whether they are from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background can have a significant impact on their level of digital inclusion. The 2023 report found that while the national index had increased by 2.1 points in two years, to 73.2, the digital divide between those in the highest and the lowest 20% of household incomes had increased from 26.5 points in 2021 to 28.8 points in 2023. The gap between those who did not complete secondary school and those with bachelor’s degrees was 23.6 points.

If these barriers aren’t addressed, Field says, there’s a risk the digital divide will become “entrenched along income, education and employment lines”.

“The findings from the Digital Inclusion Index highlight the ongoing need for access and affordability measures for low-income families needing digital support – and the necessity of increasing digital ability,” Field says.

Taking an individualised approach

Since the introduction of other digital-specific programs in 2007, The Smith Family has helped thousands of families by providing devices and internet access, as well as ongoing tech support. While this can help people overcome important barriers, Field says recent consultation with about 2,800 parents and carers supported by The Smith Family has revealed that a one-size-fits-all, tech-distribution model isn’t enough. As the digital world gets more sophisticated, parents’ capacity – and confidence – is decreasing.

Two girls in a classroom working on laptops

“What’s really clear is that parents are really important in supporting their children’s participation in education,” Field says. “That translation of parenting into an online world is really key and it really speaks to the need to think about people in their context when you think about digital inclusion.

“If you don’t provide that support and enable people to access it in a way that makes sense for them and helps them to navigate their already quite complex lives, then you’re losing from the start.”

This is the ultimate goal of Digital Learning Essentials; by providing access and ongoing, holistic and contextual support to students and their families both at home and in the classroom, it can help students flourish.

FitzSimons says: “The support [from The Smith Family] is vitally important. Having a digital device, digital skills and access to the internet is a necessity for learning in 2023. It means students, no matter their circumstances, have the opportunity to realise their potential.”

Donate today to help provide students in need with the digital resources and skills they need to keep up at school and make the most of their education.

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  18. Digital Divide

    Americans' Use of Mobile Technology and Home Broadband. Most U.S. adults today say they use the internet (95%), have a smartphone (90%) or subscribe to high-speed internet at home (80%). About four-in-ten report being online almost constantly. fact sheetJan 5, 2024.

  19. The State of the Digital Divide in the United States

    Introduction. The COVID-19 pandemic shed a bright light on an issue that has been around for decades: the digital divide. As parents, children, and workers scrambled to learn, socialize, and work from home, adequate internet connectivity became critical. This analysis takes a detailed look at the digital divide as it was in 2020 (latest year ...

  20. AI and the next digital divide in education

    The existence of a " digital divide " in education—the idea that some children, families, teachers, and schools have access to information and communications technologies to support learning ...

  21. The Digital Divide: What It Is, and What's Being Done to Close It

    The digital divide is the gap created by unequal access to modern telecommunications technology among different demographic groups and regions. This can include inequalities in access to computers ...

  22. Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains

    The digital divide has been a central topic in tech circles for decades, with researchers, advocates and policymakers examining this issue. However, this topic has gained special attention during the coronavirus outbreak as much of daily life (such as work and school ) moved online, leaving families with lower incomes more likely to face ...

  23. Bridging the divide: The new program tackling digital exclusion

    The digital divide is almost non-existent at Dapto High thanks to more than a decade of investment in hardware and training for its students; ensuring "good digital citizenship" requires more ...