The digital divide, or the gap between those who are able to benefit from technology and those who are not, has been a persistent problem across the American education landscape for years. Studies show again and again that students without access to the internet at home struggle more academically than their connected peers. In fact, closing this gap was a priority of the ConnectALL Initiative, which brought broadband to 45 million Americans in 2016 – but even that did not solve the problem. 

 

COVID has brought the stark realities of the digital divide to the forefront. With schools closed across the country, millions of children have been falling behind because they don’t have access to the technology they need to succeed. In this piece, we’ll take a deep dive into the digital divide: what it is, who it impacts, and how reading challenges can help. 

 

 

How Wide Is the Digital Divide?

In past years, the digital divide was frequently called the “homework gap” because many students who had connectivity at school couldn’t use the same programs to complete their work at home. But during COVID, with schools shuttered across the country, that “homework gap” translated into a complete lack of access to public education for millions of students. 

 

In April 2020, Pew Research Center conducted a study on how the digital divide is impacting learning during COVID. They found that “roughly one in five parents” reported that their children would struggle to complete schoolwork because of lack of access to internet or a computer at home. In the same report, 29% of parents said their children would have to do their work on a cellphone. 

 

This interactive map from Common Sense Media shows the percentage of teachers and students that lack access to internet or appropriate devices in each state. In some states, these numbers are startling, with between 40% and 50% of students trying to learn without internet in Arkansas, New Mexico, and Mississippi. 

 

Though numbers vary by state, in general the families most impacted by the digital divide are Black, Hispanic, lower-middle income (LMI), and/or living in rural areas. According to Pew, 60% of LMI parents say their child will face at least one digital obstacle to complete schoolwork at home, between lack of access to a computer, doing work on a cellphone, or relying on public Wi-Fi.

 

 

Connecting Parents With School Literacy Programs

As the gap between students with and without access to the internet grows, digital reading challenges offer an unexpected solution to this complex problem. Why? Because though many families don’t have Wi-Fi or computers, nearly every household has access to a mobile phone. 

 

A recent study in The Journal of Children and Media puts it this way: “Given the prevalence of mobile devices – even in the lowest income communities – and the low cost of apps, educational apps may be a promising avenue of intervention to address early achievement gaps.”

 

Digital reading challenges, provided through mobile apps like Beanstack, offer the opportunity for teachers and administrators to more easily connect with LMI families. With Beanstack’s mobile app, students without access to internet at home can track their reading and connect with other students via digital badges and leaderboards. Because internet connectivity has been directly linked to improved learning outcomes, offering students without Wi-Fi the opportunity to learn in a digital environment is a big step toward bridging the digital divide. 

 

When you consider this data alongside decades of evidence that independent reading improves academic outcomes, it’s clear that digital reading challenges are about more than convenience or cool features. They make a huge difference in students’ lives.

 

 

Reading Challenges Make a Difference

Educators and administrators need tools to connect them with at-risk students and their families. Digital reading challenges, especially those with mobile functionality like Beanstack, are accessible to nearly all families, even those without access to other kinds of technology. 

 

COVID has surfaced a problem that educators and policymakers have been trying to solve for years – and though we’ve made great progress, many students are still struggling. By embracing digital reading challenges and mobile technology, we can bridge that gap and better support our students and families. 


To learn more about how your district can use Beanstack to bridge the digital divide, go to: https://www.beanstack.com/schools.

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