Jul 31, 2020

Online learning requires internet access and a device — for teachers, too

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Hundreds of thousands of teachers lack either the hardware or the connection to teach online.

This week on Marketplace Tech, we’ve reported on the innovations that will help us transition to a post-pandemic future. There are new tools to help with online learning, but a recent report from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group found that at least 15 million students in the United States lack either a device or internet access, and 9 million kids lack both.

Those disparities are worse in rural communities and Black, Latinx and Native American households. Hundreds of thousands of K-12 teachers also lack hardware or internet access. I spoke with Elizabeth Gettelman Galicia, vice president for policy at Common Sense Media. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Elizabeth Gettelman Galicia (Photo courtesy Gettelman Galicia)

Elizabeth Gettelman Galicia: There was a student who was trying to download a four-minute algebra video, and it took over half an hour. We heard from teachers who weren’t able to upload videos that they had made or host a Zoom class, so had to drive to a parking lot where they could access free Wi-Fi. What else do you need? You need a device. Data shows that nearly all U.S. households have at least a mobile phone. Try to do a book report or navigate a chemistry lesson on your phone. Mobile-only is not going to cut it either when it comes to distance learning.

Molly Wood: How much would it cost to try to close this divide, given all those factors?

Gettelman Galicia: It’s a range — $6 billion to $11 billion to get students ready to learn. That range represents, so if you’re talking about just basic access for kids, they have high enough speed that they can participate in a couple of hours of interactive instruction during the day, but a lot of learning may happen independently where they’re figuring out when they can download things and there’s one device in the home. The high end, you would allow for a device for each student. You would have an environment where you could be participating in interactive, online learning throughout the day, that it would allow for the kind of learning environment that I frankly think teachers are really hoping for if they want students to succeed when it comes to distance learning.

Wood: Does that need to be a federal investment?

Gettelman Galicia: This would be something, and this is an ask out to Congress, and this is talking about putting in funding that would allow schools immediately to purchase hotspots for families. It’s interesting. We have precedent in the past, so if you think about free and reduced-price lunch, why not have something like free and reduced-priced access?

Wood: Are there conversations or investments or innovations that you see happening now that do give you hope that you think could potentially get us to a more equitable future?

Gettelman Galicia: (Long pause.) I’m trying not to be cynical.

Wood: We all are. That’s why I’m asking you, “Help. Help us!”

Gettelman Galicia: We’re supporting, we’re co-sponsoring a bill in California, Broadband for All. There’s a parallel effort in California to close the digital divide that has industry involved, and we’ve seen tech companies step up with providing devices to students. We see a lot of low-cost and free broadband opportunities, so I think if industry can continue to lead the way by showing where they’re willing to step up, that really sends a message to policymakers.

Two brothers are busy with homeschooling activities suggested by their school’s online learning website as their mother works from home. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

A quick spin through Google News searching for online school internet access will show you that many districts are in a scramble to figure out how to get kids online in time for online classes in the fall. One of our show favorites, Nicol Turner Lee at the Brookings Institution, published a piece this week that’s the first in a three-part series on remote learning, the digital divide and the gaps that need to be closed. This first piece is titled “For schools to reopen, Congress must include broadband funding in the stimulus bill.” Democrats included some subsidies for internet access in the House bill they passed in May. The Center for American Progress estimates it will cost $4 billion to close the digital divide for schools.

The current Republican relief proposal includes about $70 billion for schools, but ties about two-thirds of that to in-person learning. So the guaranteed amount for remote-learning support is about $23 billion, plus another $5 billion or so in grants. The Republican proposal, which will, of course, have to be negotiated with Democrats and is not a done deal, includes $29.5 billion of defense spending, including $375 million just for tanks and another $1 billion for one specific kind of fighter jet for the Navy. Forbes has a good roundup on some of the other stuff in the bill.

Correction (August 3, 2020): An earlier version of this story inaccurately described The Center for American Progress’ cost estimate for closing the digital divide. The text and audio have been corrected.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer