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Homework is much harder when you can’t get online at home

Tracey Samuelson Apr 4, 2019
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Larry Brown gets online at the library or a friend’s house when he needs a good connection, bigger screen and keyboard to do homework. Like many New Orleans students, he doesn’t have internet service at home.
Jess Clark/New Orleans Public Radio

Education experts and digital divide researchers call it “the homework gap.” It’s when students suffer academically because they don’t have consistent access to the digital tools they need. Pew Research says almost a quarter of students from low-income families often struggle to finish their homework because they lack a dependable computer or internet connection. Jess Clark is an education reporter at New Orleans Public Radio. To help explain the homework gap, she shares one student’s experience.

I wanted to find out what it’s like to try to graduate high school without internet access. So I met a student I know outside his school one afternoon.

Jess Clark: Can you just introduce yourself?

Larry Brown: Larry Brown, I go to Cohen College Prep, currently 19.

Larry is super thoughtful. In fact, when I met him, he was getting ready to head to American University in Washington D.C. to speak on a panel about gun violence. Money is tight for his family. There’s no extra. The New Orleans teachers I’ve talked to say about half of their students don’t have internet at home.

Jess Clark: Do you have internet at home now?

Larry Brown: No. But I mean, I have a phone.

Jess Clark: You ever do your homework on your phone?

Larry Brown: Sort of. I mean, I have internet on my phone and the answer comes up eventually. 

Jess Clark: Is that ever frustrating because the keyboard is kind of small?

Larry Brown:  The keyboard is not the best thing to try to type on. There’s been times I got to lay the phone down and go like this. So it can get a bit annoying.

Sometimes the phone just doesn’t cut it, not for a project like a research paper. For that Larry needs a full-sized screen, a reliable connection and an actual keyboard. For those situations, he has to figure something else out.

Larry Brown: I either go to the library or any other place that has internet access, or I probably just ask a friend who does have internet access. Or make a mental note, or put it down in my agenda.

Yes, Larry keeps an agenda. He’s a planner. He has to be with his schedule, working late nights at a fast food place.

Larry Brown: I start at 4 [p.m.] and finish around 12 [a.m.] and get home around 2 [a.m.].

Jess Clark: 2 in the morning? And then you go to school the next day.

Larry Brown: Mm-hmm.

It’s about an hour commute each way on two public transit lines. But sometimes, even with all the planning, getting online for homework just doesn’t work out. For one science project, for example, he had to map out a food chain.

Larry Brown: I had to keep going to the library, and then I had work. So it was only like a good 40 minutes in the library, and then work. That became kind of problematic, because I had to run to the library, trying to hurry up and get what I can off the internet, and then run to work. I kind of gave up on it, honestly.

Jess Clark: What did your teacher say?

Larry Brown: She said, “I understand Larry. You have a lot going on in your life, and I see you are still trying. But you still have to try harder, because if you really want these things you have to push for it.”

She had to fail him on that assignment.

Teachers in New Orleans know many students can’t get online at home. They make all the accommodations they can. But they’re also trying to prepare these students for college and give them modern research skills.

Larry says most of his assignments don’t require the internet. But the ones that do are often important, things that make up a big part of his grade.

Larry Brown: There are a lot of things on the internet that can make work a lot easier. But not having it, it’s kind of like an “if only” you know.

Like a lot of students in New Orleans, Larry is resourceful. He just keeps trying, finding ways to get online and get his work done.

Related links: more insight from Tracey Samuelson

One Iowa school district is turning to local businesses to increase students’ internet access after hours. A local bakery, pharmacy and a couple of fast food chains have all agreed to let kids use their Wi-Fi to do homework. The superintendent of Winterset Community Schools told EdSurge, a site for education tech news, that not a single business she reached out to turned her down.

At the other end of the digital divide, The New York Times took a look this fall at affluent families’ concerns that their children are spending too much time with technology. Parents in some communities are teaming up to try to limit their kids’ screen time, finding lessons about digital wellness more valuable than using tech as a educational tool.

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