The Internet is an amazing educational resource. As it has evolved, educational technology (edtech) has provided direct access to topical experts and a multitude of resources that range from videos that can demonstrate concepts to online course platforms.
Unfortunately, the unequal distribution of quality Internet access needs stating. Every school in the developed world might have high-speed Internet access, as well as most of the people who drive the technology revolution. Many still lack quality Internet connections in the home, however, and this hinders improving educational opportunity.
Half of all families below the poverty line do not have access to high-speed Internet connectivity, according to a recent study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. A third of all low and moderate-income families also suffer from a lack of quality Internet access, the study found. Make no mistake—the digital divide and access to the benefits of edtech still exist in 2016, especially among the poor and in countries that lack good infrastructure investment.
The Cost of Poor Connectivity
This poses challenges for schools and the country as a whole. When only certain students can fully take advantage of online resources outside the classroom, teachers must curtail their use of edtech and digital resources or leave some students behind. Homework and curriculum cannot fully take advantage of digital resources if access is only assured during class times.
A survey of more than 3000 teachers last year by the Gates Foundation found that the biggest barriers to using digital resources were a lack of technology access outside of the classroom among students.
Even if teachers skillfully reduce their dependence on digital resources because there is unequal access, the effects of this divergence in student access still is felt. Students with good broadband access in the home are more likely to advance quickly in their studies, outpacing those who lack access. This puts teachers in a quandary: either advance the teaching to meet the pace of those who augment their learning with online resources and leave some students behind, or teach to the lowest common denominator and lose the interest of those who have good online access.
Further, the disparity in quality Internet access also affects schools in more subtle ways. A lack of good Internet access hinders the rollout of innovative parent-teacher interactions such as video chat with busy parents and online portals that deliver feedback on student progress, for instance. Online offerings also fail to reach those who need educational access the most, namely those with poor educational opportunities and those with less earning potential.
How Schools Can use Edtech to Help Students
Obviously educational institutions cannot fix the underlying issue of unequal access among students. This is a problem for the government; there is more need for programs such as the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program that makes broadband more affordable for low-income families.
Schools and educational institutions still can play their part in mitigating the effects of the disparity in Internet access, however. Chief among the help that educational institutions can play, we believe, is taking this unequal access into consideration when launching new initiatives.
“Schools often roll out programs meant to help students but neglect basic issues such as poor Internet connectivity,” our founder, Tony Zhao, has repeatedly stressed. “By using the right technology, schools can overcome poor Internet access and better serve students who might otherwise not be able to take part in digital school initiatives.”
This right type of edtech includes things like mobile hotspots that schools can rent out to families that don’t have adequate access—solutions like the Kajeet SmartSpot. It also includes technology such as Agora.io’s video chat API that works even in low-bandwidth situations thanks to optimized codecs and other quality of experience innovations developed around variable connectivity.
When schools factor in poor Internet access during the design and implementation phases of their e-learning initiatives, including edtech such as Agora.io video communications, they can better prevent unequal access and leverage technologies that compensate for poor connectivity and Internet access.
Educational institutions can’t solve the underlying problem of unequal high-speed Internet access. But they can play their role in reducing the effect that this unequal access has on the students they serve.