Getting Internet to Students in Need

Empty desk chairIn response to COVID-19, many US schools have moved instruction online, yet how will unconnected students fare? One SDP Fellow shares her experience on the front line of the nation’s digital divide.

*This post is part of a series of posts about how SDP Alumni are responding to and supporting students and communities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The 2019-2020 school year may come to be remembered as the lost school year. As schools across the country see classes canceled and closures extend, the U.S. is becoming increasingly divided into students ready to study online and students who do not have access. The digital divide — inequality in the adoption and use of technology and the internet — has never been more acute and exposed than in the time of coronavirus.

Addressing this gap in coverage isn’t simple, as former SDP Fellow Dr. Kate Allison learned during her fellowship project with Internet Essentials. “The digital divide is more complex than many people are aware,” says Kate. To define the divide only in terms of how many students have internet at home and how many don’t ignores the additional factors to digital success outside the classroom. This is why in 2018, Kate sought a new approach to understand internet adoption across the U.S. and help educators and education leaders identify those affected by the digital divide in their communities.

Getting Internet Essentials to Unconnected Students

In hopes of using data to help close the gap, Kate worked with Comcast’s Internet Essentials (IE) program whose mission is to connect low-income households to the internet. The first step for Kate was to identify those eligible for its services — a task easier said than done.

“Finding people without the internet at home sounds simple,” reflects Kate, “but it’s not. We had to determine where the data sets were, then figure out how to bring them together, account for overlap, and determine how many students did not have internet access and where they were.” Though Comcast did have proprietary data that bolstered their understanding of customer coverage and internet adoption in particular areas, Kate utilized many public data sources to locate the highest-need students. 

“Data are only useful if people know they exist and where to find them,” explains Kate. Thus, public sources such as the American Community Survey, FCC Form 477 Census Tract Data on Internet Access, US Census TIGER/Line Shapefiles, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) and IPUMS National Historic GIS enabled Kate to produce a model replicable by other organizations. “By using and presenting data people don’t know exists or how to find, this project facilitated a broader conversation about the digital divide and how it was affecting schools, students, and communities.”

As a result of Kate’s analysis, her team was able to be more targeted with resources, outreach, and partnerships where support was needed most.

Closing the Digital Divide in Response to Coronavirus

Through her work, Kate learned to view the digital divide with a broader lens. Many people think that cost is the number one barrier to internet adoption, but broader research in digital inclusion reveals that access to appropriate devices, as well as digital literacy — knowing what to do once your device is actually connected to the internet — are equally, if not more, important. This expands the conversation beyond simply identifying who is connected to think about students’ experiences in more nuanced ways.

“Mobile devices have provided a workaround for students without a home internet connection, but those students have a very different experience than their more well-resourced counterparts,” explains Kate. “If you have to do your research or homework in a local fast food restaurant parking lot on a cell phone after buying something from the $1 menu, for example, you’re going to have a tougher time.”

And it’s not enough to simply know how to get connected — people need to know basic things like how to find information, how to set up email accounts, how to avoid unsafe areas of the internet, and how to vet information and sources. 

As the U.S., and the world at large, grapples with how to quickly move students online during quarantines and shelters in place, the lived experience of the unconnected or under-connected ground larger conversations about things like online learning and OERs. Kate, who decided to stay on with Comcast’s IE program upon completion of her fellowship, is now on the frontlines of this work.

“Getting people that home internet connection is our first priority,” says Kate, “and we have been working hard to support vulnerable students who have suddenly found themselves at an even greater disadvantage.” A strong grassroots approach has also enabled the IE program to move quickly to identify those in need. By working with local groups in each community, those on the IE team have been quickly getting information and support into the homes that need it most.

“It’s been amazing to see such a holistic response from companies, nonprofits, and local groups. People are really stepping up and taking responsibility for their communities. We'll be stronger in our responses and the ways in which we can accommodate people because of the responses everyone is putting into place now.”


What are you doing to measure digital access? Share it with the network here.


Cohort 8 Fellow Kate Allison is the Director of Research and Analytics with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program.