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Student Access to Online Learning: Achieving Digital Equality

Online degree programs can unlock educational freedom for many students — but not all. Some are plagued by disparities that make access to online learning challenging. Continue reading to find out why some students don’t have equitable access to online education and what can be done to close these gaps.

Author: Timon Kaple
Editor: STEPS Staff
Reviewer: Kristen Hall

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The coronavirus and social distancing have changed the way we work, shop, and even eat. But the one place that’s experiencing the most change may be flying under the radar: school. While classrooms across the country embrace technology and evolve their teaching models, too many students don’t have the means to change with them. According to a survey conducted by ACT, 1 in 7 students has access to just one digital device at home (usually a smartphone), and 85% of those students are underserved.

The digital divide has many dimensions, but so do the efforts to bridge the digital gap. Where private schools can afford to supply their students with take-home technology, public schools struggle to equip theirs with the devices they need. And even when public schools manage to raise the funding, the issue of internet access at home still exists for students. In this guide, we look at the hurdles schools, students, and parents face when it comes to digital access, what’s being done (and what can continue to be done) to achieve digital equality, and what parents and teachers can do to help bridge the gap.

Barriers to Online Learning

Digital equality in America is not a new problem. Students have had trouble finishing their homework outside of school due to inadequate access to technology and resources for quite some time. However, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, this ongoing problem is in the spotlight today. Let’s take a closer look at this issue.

The Facts

  • Internet access: According to a 2015 study by the PEW Research Center, approximately 15% of households in the U.S. with children 6 to 17 years old don’t have home access to the internet.
  • Racial differences: Comparatively, 25% and 23% of African-American and Hispanic households, respectively, don’t have home access to the internet. Only 10% of students in White households don’t have home access to the internet.
  • Financial matters: At least 35% of homes with an annual income of $35,000 or less don’t have home access to the internet. This disproportionately affects African-American and Hispanic homes at 41% and 38%, respectively.
  • It’s not just “getting better” over time: The National Center for Education Statistics reported that between 2010 and 2015 the number of U.S. children with home internet access declined from 89% to 78%.
  • Rural areas are worse: Approximately 6 in 10 rural residents in America report that gaining access to the internet is difficult, 24% of which say it’s a major problem for them.


Not all areas have the same access to resources in the U.S. A solid internet infrastructure is often hard to come by in remote or rural areas. Teachers in Alaska, for example, report that about half of their students, who live in a school district the size of Indiana, have home access to the internet. And even those that do have internet access find it difficult to receive or maintain speeds that allow them to stream video or join conference calls. Additionally, desirable speeds of broadband service can be tougher to get in areas with underserved populations for reasons beyond their control.


The cost of the internet is a challenge for many families. Some may not be able to afford basic internet access in their homes, meaning students won’t have the same access to online learning as their peers. Furthermore, computers that meet the hardware requirements to utilize streaming services and modern educational tools can be wildly expensive and financially out of reach for many families.

School Disparity

What about computer access in the school? Some schools simply have not been able to (or have chosen not to) go the extra mile to infuse their schools with the latest technologies. A recent article from the National Endowment for the Arts reports that the student-to-computer ratio is approximately 3.8-to-1 in the U.S. These figures, however, account for all the computers located in a school and not only those that students may use for learning purposes.

Children with Learning Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities may have a difficult time breaking their regular routines and learning from home for many reasons. Many students rely on the specialized training of the education professionals and caretakers they see at school each day. The Coronavirus and other situations that lead to school cancellations push students and their parents into difficult situations at home and this especially holds true for students with learning disabilities. Their parents or guardians may need to go to work, or work from home, and can’t offer them the attention and tools they need to make progress while learning at home.

5 Challenges Facing Students Without Online Learning Access

With the forced shift to online learning in light of the coronavirus pandemic, educators worry that many students with inadequate internet access or functional devices will fall behind their peers. Unable to connect virtually with teachers, research online, or collaborate on projects, these students face the risk of getting left behind their classmates. Below we address some the of the challenges students without access to internet must overcome in the face of forced school closures.

Challenge: Students can’t complete their homework assignments.

According to the National Education Association, up to 70% of teachers assign homework that requires students to access broadband internet outside of class. Unfortunately, about 75% of school districts are not ensuring that students can access broadband internet outside of school.

Challenge: Students have a hard time participating in lessons.

Studies from the NEA show that learners without home access to the internet have a more difficult time participating in discussion boards. The social components of learning are also diminished, especially communicating with teachers, working on shared documents, and contributing to group projects. For older students, especially high school learners, conducting original research from home without the internet is challenging.

Challenge: Students can’t put their best foot forward.

The NEA reports that 42% of students claim to have received a lower grade on an assignment because they did not have ample access to online materials to do their best work.

Challenge: Students without home internet are forced to use inconvenient public locations with wi-fi.

Not only does this mean that students will have to access learning materials and stream lessons while sitting in their car or outside, many of these locations are relatively far away from their homes. Being that many K-12 students do not drive or have access to a car, they are reliant upon a parent, family member, guardian, or sibling to make sure that they can get to hotspots in a timely manner, which is often easier said than done.

Challenge: Students and parents are left to make sense of assignments and remote lessons without the guidance of teachers

Educators today often receive technology training that helps them more competently integrate technology in the classroom. Whether or not they feel like they are prepared to take that type of instruction to an online classroom, they certainly can deliver more quality instruction than the layperson. Students who do not have access to the internet, however, are likely to spend quarantine time at home with parents, guardians, caretakers, or siblings who likely have much less knowledge and experience with the technology and class content.

Grassroots: Creative Solutions for Lack of Technology

What are students, schools, teachers, and parents doing today to help make up for a lack of technology both inside and outside the classroom? We have listed five of the common tools in use today.


From schools and local news sources to learning websites and publishers, educators and parents are sharing worksheets online that learners can download for free. Even if worksheets don’t match exactly what students are working on with their own teachers, these learning activities can help students stay occupied while at home and learn age-appropriate materials.

YouTube lessons

Some teachers and parents are relying on educational lessons supplied on YouTube to educate their children during times of quarantine. Unfortunately, an active internet connection is typically required to stream a video. Third-party tools such as Keepvid.com and Clipconverter.cc allow teachers and parents to save videos to their computers so they can play them back without needing a consistent internet connection.

Finding wi-fi signals in parking lots

As mentioned above,many students without internet service need to take advantage of internet signals in their school’s parking lot in order to complete their homework. In some cases, families and students are finding wi-fi hotspots through their local libraries.

Companies donating Chromebooks

In some cases, companies are donating technology to help students keep up while they’re at home. Google, for example, is giving away laptops to students in need in California who are affected by the Coronavirus.

Internet connections for low-income families

Some state governments have chosen to provide free wi-fi for rural residents or low-income families during school shutdowns. Alternatively, some school districts are taking advantage of TV WhiteSpace technology. This long-range wi-fi uses available television channels to extend the school’s internet connection to the student’s home.

Where to Find Help

If you are a teacher, parent, school counselor, or student experiencing the digital gap firsthand, there are resources out there to help you. In the section, we offer some solutions and resources for people having difficulty accessing technology while schools are closed, including where to find discounted computers, toolkits, and discounted or free internet access.


CoSN offers a downloadable toolkit to help address the homework gap. It started the Digital Equity Agenda initiative that helps school districts develop useful partnerships and gain access to valuable learning resources that move the U.S. closer to achieving digital equity.


Spectrum, a major internet provider, is currently offering high-speed internet at more affordable prices. In response to the Coronavirus, the company is also offering up to 60 days of free internet access for qualifying households with students or teachers.


AT&T is currently offering several programs through their Bridging Communities initiative to help support teachers, students, and communities in need of connectivity offering free or low-cost plans to people in need.


Comcast Xfinity has opened a free wi-fi network that offers unlimited data. Subscribers and non-subscribers can find free hotspots using this tool.


T-Mobile is offering its customers an extra 20GB of mobile hotspot data per month for up to 60 days.


Kajeet is a technology company that offers several tools for connecting to the internet outside of school.


McGraw-Hill is offering free instructional videos and resources to help K-12 educators better prepare for virtual classroom instruction.


Perlego provides six weeks of free access to 300,000 online textbooks.


Many cities and regions are benefiting from large companies and charities who are donating computers to students and families who can’t afford them during the pandemic. Be sure to check your local news sources to find out if you live in an eligible location. Additionally, there are companies like PCs for People who offer low-cost, refurbished computers.


Accessibyte features a range of free learning and teaching apps for students and instructors for up to 45 days.

FAQ: Making Technology Accessible to All Students

In the future, society needs to come up with a viable and long-term solution to the disparity in access to technology. It’s no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity to have equal access to technology.

In recent debates, many have argued that high-speed internet is an essential part of daily American life, including progressive politicians. Since small businesses, education, and so much more depend on our access to the internet, they believe that basic internet plans should be available to all at an affordable price. Until internet service providers agree to make internet services more easily available to everyone, there are several initiatives taking place to help reduce digital inequity in the U.S. Below we answer some frequently asked questions on digital equality initiatives.

Q: What is being done about the areas where the internet isn’t available?

Some schools are implementing serious technology infusion plans, such as this initiative in D.C., which plans to equip every student in third grade or higher with a computer or internet-compatible device by 2022. Additionally, the government is working with the FCC to develop more accurate ways of mapping lack of access to broadband internet in the U.S. The hope, then, is that areas that need the most technology support will get it.

Q: How does access to technology put all students on equal footing?

Equal access to technology helps level the playing field among students by providing easier access to learning materials, improves the learning tools that their teachers use or create, and offers multi-faceted academic support to meet the needs of a diverse student body. Additionally, technology helps teachers and school districts make better choices for all their students based on data they can obtain from these systems.

Q: Aside from internet plan fees, how is technology in education going to be affordable?

Computers and tablets must have updated software so that students have access to the latest information. Additionally, updates serve to make programs run more smoothly. While there are online resources such as laptopmag.com that offer free software downloads for students, it’s essential that school administrators ensure that remote students have access to the software and updates they need to participate to their fullest potential.

Q: What’s one way to deliver learning materials to students without a computer or laptop at home?

Some schools take advantage of the fact that students may have access to a smartphone or tablet by using mobile-friendly content. While this may not be ideal in terms of visibility or usability because of the smaller screen, some K-12 students can keep up remotely by using their cellular data plan.

Q: How can schools help accommodate students who have infrequent access to the internet, such as those who need to go to public libraries or school parking lots to get a signal?

Schools can benefit those students by offering their lesson materials in a downloadable format that works across platforms. Downloadable content allows students to get what they need in a short amount of time and be able to complete assignments without further use of the internet. In other words, these students can download assignments in a few minutes while they have a signal and then finish their work from home. Additionally, content that works across all common platforms for Windows and Mac can also be beneficial and cause less headaches for both teachers and students.

Careers Making a Difference: Helping Students Get Access to Digital Learning

There are many professionals out there who position themselves to improve learning scenarios for students of all ages. From national to local efforts, here are five career paths that continue to shape the future of education in the digital age.


Teachers and Educators

Educators are on the frontlines of brining positive change to the lives of their students. Every year, teachers receive extensive training in the latest education technologies in order to successfully integrate lesson and use updated software.


Social Workers

These professionals work with individuals, couples, and families to help them cope with challenges in their lives. Social workers are often in a position to advocate on the behalf of students, especially those in underserved communities. They can play a role in helping students gain access to the technology they need to succeed.


Social and Community Service Managers

These managers help organize and supervise programs that benefit their communities. They often work with community members and other interested parties to help bring necessary programs and services to the area. They can play a role in bringing needed technology and training to students and teachers in their area.


Public Administration

Public administrators can hold a variety of positions, many of which strive to serve the public good or meet the needs of particular populations. They may work for government agencies, civil and social service institutions, nonprofit organizations, and more. Depending on the role, public administrators can help bolster students’ access to online services.


School Principals

In addition to managing school activities and staff, these professionals also help develop, implement, and maintain curriculum standards at their schools. They also keep track of teachers’ performance and interact directly with students’ parents and guardians. Principals are often directly tied to how their schools prepare for and support digital education.

Inside the Shift to Online: Q&A with a Teacher


Kristen Hall
Elementary Music Teacher

Kristen Hall is an elementary music teacher in a small town in rural Ohio. She teaches general music and choir to approximately 650 students in grades K-5. She holds a master’s degree in music education from Heidelberg University.

Q: For some background information, what ages are your students? What is the racial background/ethnicities of the majority of your students?

I teach elementary music to students in grades K-5. These students range from age 5 to 11. My school is in north central Ohio and is a rural community. The majority of my students are Caucasian, but we also have a large population of Hispanic students. According to the Ohio Department of Education, 28.7% of our student population is Hispanic and many of these families work in the fields surrounding the community. It’s important to note that 12.7% of these Hispanic students are ELL, or English Language Learners. We also have a high percentage of students who are considered to be at an economic disadvantage at 56.7%.

Q: In light of the Coronavirus epidemic, has your school chosen to make a concerted effort to teach students online to the best of their ability? What kinds of challenges have come up regarding the remote aspects of it for you as a teacher?

Once we began the coronavirus quarantine, my school district made the decision to give hard copies of schoolwork to students in grades K-3 and online assignments to students in grades 4-12. The reason for this decision was that our 4-12 students are 1:1 with Chromebook devices, while our K-3 population does not have access to their own personal device provided by the school. We do communicate with our K-3 students through a program called ClassDojo. There is an app available for ClassDojo which both parents and students can download on their cell phones and communicate through both public and private messaging with the school district and individual teachers. Our 4-12 grade students have been using Google Classroom to receive assignments and communicate with their teachers. The challenges that I have faced have been numerous, but I think the most difficult part has been making contact or communicating with all of my students and their families. I teach approximately 650 students in 30 different classes and I would estimate that only 20% of those students have turned in work or contacted me with questions about an assignment.

Q: Have your students voiced any particular concerns or challenges? What percentage of your student population does not have easy home-access to the internet?

Both students and parents have felt overwhelmed with the amount of schoolwork that has been assigned. For this reason, the “special” subjects which are classified as Art, Music, and PE were told to give joint assignments to ease the workload. In March my “specials” team assigned a BINGO assignment where students had a list of 25 activities that they could choose to complete. They had to do five assignments in a row to complete a BINGO. Then, they had to turn in the BINGO card, email a picture or video of them completing a task on the BINGO card, or they could send the teacher a private message on ClassDojo or Google Classroom explaining what they did to complete the assignment. We have had to be very flexible with how we grade and at this point we are only giving participation grades. Approximately 20% of our student population does not have internet access at home. Our district has ordered hot spots that they will be providing for these families, but the company estimates that it will take 6-8 weeks to get these hot spot devices delivered.

Q: As a teacher in the performing arts, how are your challenges different from your colleagues?

At the elementary level, it’s a constant struggle for both general classroom teachers and students to understand the importance of the fine arts in the curriculum. Because of this, less work has been turned in for music, art, and PE than other subjects.

Q: Do you have any students with special needs? How does the switch to online-heavy learning affect them? Alternatively, perhaps there are some language barrier issues with non-native English speakers. What are the problems there and how do you remedy that?

According to ODE, 14.7% of our student population are students with disabilities. We also have 12.7% of students who are considered ELL. Our students who are on IEPs are still receiving help from our special needs teachers. They are doing their best to communicate with them and provide accommodations for their students. However, I believe it is our ELL population who is suffering the most. We only have one certified ELL teacher in our district. This person is assigned to provide assistance to all our ELL students in grades K-12, a job that is difficult for a single person to accomplish. Also, our district technology director has indicated that the majority of students who are having difficulty getting internet access at home are our ELL families.

Q: What can we do to avoid this kind of digital gap in the future, so all students have the same chance of learning remotely?

I certainly think that school districts should be providing every student in the district with a device with internet capabilities that can be used at home. The Internet is without a doubt an essential need in the twenty-first century. School districts should find a way to provide internet access for all their students both at school and at home. I do think that most school districts were certainly surprised by the turn of events that happened due to the coronavirus and were not prepared to provide online learning assignments to the entire student population. Our middle and high school students were the best equipped to deal with this situation since many secondary teachers were already utilizing Google Classroom to provide assignments, but the elementary level was certainly not prepared. As I indicated earlier, our district has ordered internet hot spots that they will provide for families without internet, but at this time those devices are still weeks away from arriving.

Q: What can parents and teachers do to help their students make it through these moments of at-home learning? Are there tools that are more easily accessible or usable that can increase the likelihood of students doing some meaningful learning while away from the school building?

Communication is the key to student success. This is truer now than ever. Teachers, parents, and students should realistically be communicating on a weekly basis. We do this through school wide posts on our Facebook page, ClassDojo, and on Google classroom. If a student does not have internet access, this makes it very difficult. My district has provided a list of free online websites that are offering some supplemental learning material to students and parents and I think those resources are a great way to continue student learning outside of the material already being assigned by teachers. For example, I have given my students access to MusicPlay online and they can explore free music lessons that are organized by grade level in addition to the assignments I am giving in conjunction with the other “special” subject teachers. I have also video recorded enrichment lessons for my students with additional songs and rhythm composition material that I have posted to ClassDojo and Google classroom.


The Atlantic: What Happens When Kids Don’t Have Internet at Home?This article describes how students without access to the internet deal with the digital divide on a daily basis.

Brookings.eduThis article provides a closer look at the statistics behind the effects of school closings in the digital age and how certain populations suffer more than others from being disconnected.

The Journal: Transforming Education Through TechnologyThe site offers up to date news regarding the Coronavirus outbreak and what schools are doing in response in terms of digital learning. The site also includes dozens of free resources for teachers and students.

LiveScience.com: Activities and Online Resources for Homebound KidsThis site features a list of educational resources for young students and regular updates with new lessons.

NewAmerica.orgThis article provides a close look at the homework gap and what policymakers should do to remedy it.

Pew Research CenterThis research center offers detailed explanations and statistics regarding the homework gap in the U.S. and how students and teachers can confront the reality of the Coronavirus today.

Scholastic Classroom Magazines The site offers resources and articles to help teachers inform students about hard-to-teach topics in an engaging and informative way that meets them at their level.

Spectrum.orgThis tool can help students, parents, and teachers locate Wi-Fi hotspots in their state.

Tolerance.orgThis article was written based on responses from nearly 2,000 educators who responded to a survey regarding their needs during school closures and the Coronavirus pandemic. The article offers resources for teachers and students that may be particularly useful in times of quarantine.

The Verge: How Bad Maps are Ruining American BroadbandThis article helps explain how the FCC uses mapping to determine the quality of service of the internet in geographic areas. The article focuses on the pitfalls of these techniques and their negative outcomes.