The term ‘homework gap’ has traditionally been used to refer to the lack of digital connectivity some students experience when trying to complete assignments for their school education from home, typically those at a socio-economic disadvantage. There have been efforts to provide funding for these students – in the U.S., for example – to get connected to the internet. But internet connectivity, or lack thereof, is only part of the problem that causes a homework gap. In this blog we’re going to tackle the topic in more depth, and look at the wider issues involved.
First, it’s useful to have a quick look at the term itself. The meaning and significance of the word ‘homework’ has changed drastically since the pandemic, from referring to a supplementary element of learning which formed only a small proportion of a child’s overall education, to being the main method by which a child’s education was delivered. And even though students are returning, or have returned to schools, more activities are online than ever before.
Because of this change in focus, the issues surrounding the homework gap referred to above – starting but not ending with digital connectivity – have become much more significant.
What are the issues causing the homework gap?
So what are the issues that cause the homework gap? The two main categories which the issues fall into are:
Digital equity – the ideal aspired to by educational leaders – is a term that has sprung up in response to the idea of a digital divide, which came into existence long before Covid-19 hit. The causes for the lack of digital equity amongst students which are of a digital nature can be divided into the following types:
- Hardware availability
- Digital connectivity
- Digital literacy
In this list, the issues are named in hierarchical order – they have to be solved in order. In other words, if you don’t have a computer (or other device), or at least access to one, then you can’t solve the other problems on the list. Digital connectivity is essentially just the availability of an internet connection. Once students have that, the next question is what speed and bandwidth are necessary for them to be able to satisfactorily access and complete online assignments? In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission has suggested that a benchmark of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream is adequate to support remote learning. Not everybody agrees with this, though: the Los Angeles Unified School District says that those speeds are “inadequate for supporting uninterrupted teaching and learning, particularly in households in densely populated urban areas where multiple students are often struggling to stay connected”.
These issues have been addressed in the richer countries of the world, and funding has in many cases been provided to address this part of the gap, for example in the U.S. by the FCC. The last thing on the list of digital issues is digital literacy. It’s this final requirement which is the hardest to address when attempting to deal with digital inequity – and especially at the time of a pandemic – as it involves learning in itself, and not just the provision of resources. Without it, though, the first three become meaningless.
The non-digital issues which contribute to the homework gap in remote education are by their socio-economic nature the most wide-reaching and therefore the most difficult to overcome. These can be divided into the following types:
- Home environment
- Learning difficulties
First, let’s look at the home environment. For socio-economic reasons, there are often large families living in small houses or apartments. In these cases, the home environment doesn’t lend itself to being a place where serious education can take place, as students don’t find the space or the quiet they need to complete their studies. According to John King, Jr., the former Secretary of Education under the Obama administration and current president and CEO of the Education Trust, race is also an issue, because people of color were overrepresented in jobs considered essential during the economic shutdown. It was estimated that only one in five Black Americans and one in six Latinos were able to work from home during COVID-19, which meant more Black and Latino students were trying to get their school work done in homes without parents present.
Learning difficulties can also cause a further gap when students need to study at home. Students can have a variety of different learning difficulties such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, ADHD, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, to name a few. These are often addressed in a face-to-face learning situation with extra accommodations and attention, sometimes one-to-one. Depending on the software being used, an online setting does not always provide the help that students with these needs require.
The term ‘homework gap’ was coined in Virginia, USA, in 2012, to refer to the gap in levels of digital connectivity between students, which led to certain students being at a disadvantage when trying to do homework online. At the time, nobody could envisage either the change in nature – and the significance – these differences would take on during a pandemic.
The gap became about much more than merely whether or not students had internet access, or whether they could do their ‘homework’ in the traditional sense. Because of these changes, the homework gap has become a much bigger issue in the wider context of learning, and in the context of the futures – in terms of employment, for example – of the children who are affected by it.