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Inequities in Technological Devices and Internet Connection Persist During the Coronavirus

What students are experiencing during the coronavirus outbreak

At least 55 million students are now learning at home after approximately 124,000 public and private schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus. This has resulted in uncertainty in the minds of high school students, including whether they will attend prom, what graduation will look like, and how to navigate the college-going process in the current environment.

ACT wanted to hear from students about their experiences during the pandemic. We invited 130,000 college-bound high school students who registered to take the national April or June 2020 ACT test to participate in an online survey. A total of 13,000 students participated between March 26 and April 1, resulting in a 10% response rate.

We sought to gather students’ responses related to…
  • the technological device and internet quality that they have access to at home for school-related activities.
  • how well they are learning at home and online compared to when they were in school.
  • whether their basic needs (e.g., housing, food) are being met during the pandemic.
  • their current living situation, including whether they are employed, need to care for others, or are home alone.
  • the types of health behaviors (e.g., eating healthy, exercising) they are engaged in during the pandemic.
Today, and in the coming weeks, we will highlight students’ responses related to these topics in a series of blog posts. We begin with a summary of the technological devices available to students at home as well as their internet access and quality.

Inequalities in Technological Devices and Internet Connection Persist During the Coronavirus

At least 124,000 US public and private schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus, forcing at least 55 million K-12 students to now learn at home. Most, if not all, of that learning is occurring online, where students must have access to a technological device (e.g., computer, tablet, smartphone) and a stable internet connection to participate. Yet, we know that the digital divide—the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who do not—persists. And even though schools are trying to provide their students with the technological resources they need to learn while at home, millions of students are still left without.

Given these issues, ACT wanted to hear from students about their experiences learning from home during the coronavirus outbreak. As part of a blog series on students’ experiences during this extraordinary time, we summarize results from a survey of college-hopeful high school students about their technological devices and internet connection. This research is unique in that it focuses on students in the K-12 setting, unlike other research that has focused on college students. An important caveat, however, is that the ability to access the internet was crucial to survey participation. Given this, responses might represent only select students who have internet access.

Almost all students had access to at least one type of technological device and at least an “OK” internet connection at home.

From more than 13,000 survey responses, we found that almost all students (99%) had access to at least one type of technological device at home. Likewise, the same percentage also had some type of access to the internet. However, the type of device and the quality of that internet connection varied, with most students having access to a smartphone (86%) and/or a laptop computer (76%). The internet connection was described by most as either “OK” (52%) or “great” (35%).

Most students have access to a smartphone and/or a laptop computer to complete school-related activities while at home.

While most students had a great or OK internet connection at home, 14% reported an unpredictable or terrible connection.

While most students had access to multiple devices at home to complete their school-related work, a meaningful number of students (n = 1,656, 13%) reported having access to only one device. Students with only one device at home were more likely to be African American or Hispanic, in rural or urban areas, or first-generation college students—students who are often already marginalized with limited educational resources.

African American and Hispanic students, rural and urban students, and first-generation college students were more likely to have access to only one device at home.

81% of students who had access to only one device had a device that would allow them to complete school related activities.

Of those students who had access to one device, 81% had access to a device that would easily allow them to complete school-related activities—a desktop, laptop, Chromebook, or a tablet—given the devices’ bigger screens, easy applicability of word processing software, and use of educational apps. The remaining students (19%), however, had access only to a smartphone at home to complete school-related work. We specifically draw attention to students whose sole device is a smartphone—who make up 2% of all students in the survey—because during the pandemic both the school building and the libraries that these students rely on for computers are likely closed. These students are, therefore, left with only a smartphone to complete school-related work such as writing papers, a task that can be difficult to do on a smartphone.

Taking a deeper dive into the data on students with access to only one device, we also looked to see how many of them had to share their device with someone else in the home. So, even if they have access to the technology, they might have access during only certain windows of the day, limiting the amount of time they could allocate to completing school-related work on a device. In total, 23% of students who had access to a desktop, laptop, Chromebook, or tablet had to share that device with another person. If students had access to only a smartphone, only 11% shared it with someone else in the house.

It is also important to keep in mind that students are likely to be asked to use those devices in many ways not previously asked of them. For example, students might be asked to video chat with their teacher or with other students, to audio or video record themselves and upload recordings to a learning management system, or to download an assignment from a website when they would have otherwise received it in class. Among other things, these activities require reliable and consistent internet service.

Approximately three of four students had access to the internet that was separate from their cell phone.

Recent estimates show that between 9 and 12 million students do not have internet access at home. And while some internet providers are offering to provide free access to students during the pandemic, gaining such access can be a challenge.

Most students (79%) reported having access to the internet that was separate from their cell phone; a small minority reported having access only from their phone (4%) or from a hotspot (1%). The remaining percentage of students (16%) weren’t sure how they got internet at home, but they did report having access. Not surprisingly, 30% of students who relied on their cell phone for internet services reported that the service was “unpredictable” or “terrible,” nearly three times the proportion of those who had access to the internet separate from their cell phone (11% reporting unpredictable or terrible service). Furthermore, first-generation college students, students from rural communities, and Hispanic and African American students were more likely than their counterparts to report that their internet connection was unpredictable or terrible. For some rural students, access to any internet connection remains scarce, and adapting to the new normal of online learning, even if temporary, poses a huge challenge to rural students and schools as technological infrastructure lags in remote areas.

First-generation college students, students from rural communities, and Hispanic and African American students were more likely than their counterparts to report that their internet connection was unpredictable or terrible.

ACT is doing its part to close it by conducting research, advocating for policy change, and partnering with communities to improve internet access.

ACT has been focused on issues related to the digital divide for several years. We have researched the learning implications that living in a technologically sophisticated society has had on underserved populations.

We have and continue to encourage the adoption of policies that close the digital divide for all students. We continue to recommend that device access and internet access be expanded and made reliable for those who lack them. Now, more than ever, students need access to technological devices and the internet to complete school-related work. First-generation college students, students of color, and students in rural settings reported having access to fewer devices and lower-quality internet than students who were not disadvantaged. Inequitable access to electronic devices and ineffective internet connections will only compound these existing inequalities as students continue to learn from home.

In addition, ACT has partnered with businesses to address the digital divide in their communities by leveraging the Community Reinvestment ACT (CRA). These efforts work to address potential equity issues by helping students who would otherwise lack access take advantage of digital learning tools, including our upcoming launch of online and at-home testing. Programs that help to rectify device and internet access can help improve educational opportunities for those in need.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.