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While 2020 has been a challenging year for those of us in the learning community, education researchers like myself hope that it provides a chance to elevate data showing critical opportunity gaps faced by our students. One of those opportunities lies in ensuring students’ access to education via technology.

The rapid transition schools were forced to make from in-person to remote learning shined a light on what’s known as the digital divide. Simply put, some students lack Internet or computer access, and this makes remote learning extremely difficult for them. The digital divide serves to exacerbate existing inequalities, as historically disadvantaged students are also more likely to face technology access issues. Many education experts and government officials have predicted that the resultant achievement gaps from the pandemic could lead to major issues for students the world over.

Infographics Shed Light on Rural Internet Connectivity Issues

As part of the Rural Education Research Alliance, REL Central has been working with six of the states in our region – Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming – to examine where students are more likely to lack reliable home Internet access. This work, which can be found under the Equitable learning opportunities dropdown HERE, reveals considerable access gaps and disparities across place. For example, in Missouri about 11 percent of school-aged individuals lack broadband Internet at home. While this might not sound alarming at first, it equates to roughly 124,000 students on the wrong end of the digital divide. And, as averages often do, it obscures meaningful differences across groups: Less than a quarter of rural districts in the state serve a student population with home connectivity rates of 90 percent or greater.

Wayne Stewart, REL Central Governing Board member and superintendent for Glenwood R-8 school in rural Missouri, addressed the disparity and noted the need for the infographics to both compile critical connectivity data and highlight the challenges for policymakers and others as they make critical infrastructure decisions.

“I have known that many of my district’s patrons were lacking at-home Internet capabilities. I just didn’t know what a shortage our state of Missouri actually had,” said Stewart. “I plan to use this infographic to leverage the might of people at literally every level of society to urge decision-makers to plan for and implement whatever measures are necessary to ensure that every household that has electricity and sewer services also has access to high-speed Internet connections.”

It’s important to note that, like all data, these are not perfect. Other survey data might find slightly different data trends, and practical concerns are at play. For instance, some of those kids who have Internet connectivity according to our data might still face difficulties because they share their connection with parents and siblings. And because these particular data are at the school-district level, we can’t drill down to understand how certain subgroups of students might face differing levels of Internet connectivity. Regardless, experts would agree that Internet connectivity varies considerably, and that rural places are at a serious disadvantage in this regard.

As we look ahead toward an unconventional school year in 2020/21, prioritizing pressing issues such as the digital divide should be on the minds of everyone in the education community. Providing education leaders with data to help address the issue will hopefully help close this existing opportunity gap and slow the growth in disparities that many believe to have resulted from the pandemic.

“For quite some time now I have spoken about the need for far greater high-speed Internet access by students, but when asked for specifics or details, I was at a loss,” said Stewart. “Now when I discuss this great need, I will have the data to back up what I’ve been saying. Sometimes what one believes is ‘common knowledge’ is very hard to quantify.”

Check out each infographic by clicking on the image below.

image of infographic: Internet Connectivity across Colorado
image of infographic: Internet Connectivity across Kansas
image of infographic: Internet Connectivity across Missouri
image of infographic: Internet Connectivity across Nebraska
image of infographic: Internet Connectivity across South Dakota
South Dakota
image of infographic: Internet Connectivity across Wyoming