The Access and Connectivity Divide in Education, the Digital Equity Series

Over the last several decades, access to computing devices and internet connectivity in schools has greatly accelerated. However, the permeation of technology into so much of the learning experience exacerbates the access and connectivity divide outside the classroom, which especially impacts already marginalized groups of students.


A Brief History of Technology in Schools

To better understand this divide, it’s necessary to first grasp the rate at which access and connectivity in schools has swelled. Specifically, over the last two decades, there has been a pronounced drive to outfit schools with broadband internet and adequate computing devices.

Access: In 1997, reports found that the ratio of students to computers was 24:1. Now, over fifty percent of educators report that their school is 1:1; and according to a 2018 study by COSN, 43 percent of Technology Directors said they would be 1:1 within three years.

Connectivity: Only 14 percent of US classrooms had internet access in 1997; but in 2019, EdWeek research confirmed that 99 percent of all K-12 districts in the United States have high-speed internet with 100kpbs for students.

History of Technology in Schools

While this is truly an incredible feat, digital inequity persists with ensuring connectivity in family homes, public libraries, and other after school gathering areas so students can take full advantage of technology-rich learning environments.


Access and Connectivity Beyond the School Walls

Transitioning from schools to homes, the following census research offers a perspective on access and connectivity in households along a similar timeline as above. The data illustrates significant growth in the rate of households with a computer from 1984 to 2010 and internet access from 1997 to 2010. However, rates have largely plateaued since. According to the most recent survey in 2015:

  • 78 percent of households had a desktop or laptop.
  • 75 percent had a handheld computer.
  • 77 percent had a broadband subscription.

Computer ownership and broadband subscription rates

To dive deeper into the data and more fully comprehend the nature of this divide, the following four charts visualize the data by specific respondent characteristics.


Example 1. Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by Race

Survey data identifies that race is a factor in understanding the access and connectivity divide. Compared to black and Hispanic respondents, white and Asian respondents are significantly more likely to have access to internet-connected devices.

Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by Race

Example 2. Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates Income

When the data is associated with the incomes of respondents, there is also a clear correlation between access and connectivity and income level.

Between the lowest (less than $25000) and highest bracket ($150000 and more), there is a 30 percent and 40 percent gap in terms of device ownership and broadband subscription rates, respectively. Compared to all other brackets, the lowest income bracket (less than $25000) and the second lowest bracket ($25000 to $50000) exhibit significant lags in both computer ownership and broadband subscription rates.

Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates Income


Example 3. Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by English Speakers and Non-English Speakers

The discrepancy between device ownership and broadband subscription rates is also apparent when it comes to English speakers and non-English speakers, with close to 20 percent gaps in access and connectivity.

Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by English Proficiency


Example 4. Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by Location

Finally, the rural-urban divide also reaps inequity when it comes to access and connectivity, with those residing in metropolitan areas being close to 10 percent more likely to have a computer and a broadband subscription.

Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by Location

Despite the density of the data, the takeaway is fairly simple: access and connectivity rates are impeded by longstanding inequities in society that affect minorities, low-income families, non-English speaking households, and those residing in rural areas.

What Four Divides Teach About Digital Equity, an Analysis
This whitepaper analyzes digital equity through the lens of four specific digital divides, explores potential solutions to each, and offers examples of how educators are already addressing these in their classroom.
Get the Whitepaper


Overcoming the Access and Connectivity Divide

In an effort to continue closing the divide and uplift those marginalized from it, there are a number of local and national programs taking root.

For example, the Digital Equity Act was introduced in the Senate in 2019 and would initiate two new grant programs for access and connectivity as well as the skills, supports, and technologies to benefit from internet access.

There are also city-driven initiatives seeking to implement similar programs through local legislation—including Chicago, San José, and my home city, Portland.

How the Access and Connectivity Divide Impacts Equity in Schools

The persistence of the access and connectivity divide, which runs in parallel with learning that depends upon access to devices and connectivity to the internet, further alienates students who are already underserved and disadvantaged.

At the same time, new digital divides, stemming from a growing prominence of technology in education, are being uncovered. While different in nature, the lessons in the data shared in this section will be a valuable roadmap to analyze the divides that follow and contextualize them within the already present inequities in our society.


Promoting Access and Connectivity: Matt Hiefield and Beaverton School District


Educator: Matthew Hiefield
Position: Social Studies Teacher, Digital Curator, and Digital Equity Team Member
Beaverton School District
Location: Beaverton, Oregon

As a member of Beaverton School District’s Digital Equity Team, Matt seeks to address the digital divides facing students as well as their families and communities. Believing that digital equity is nuanced and evolving, Matt and his team have implemented hotspot projects, educational parent nights, and community surveys to continually change how they perceive and address digital equity and the divides inhibiting it.

“When several family members are competing for connectivity time that perhaps includes limited data, a student’s ability to fulfill school assignments can be challenging at best. Finding out the extent of the digital divide in an individual school district is a starting point, and it means being intentional and transparent in asking questions to students and families.”

Matt Hiefield

Read more about Matt and his team’s work >>

Insights By

Anna McVeigh-Murphy

Anna is equip’s managing editor, though she also likes to dabble in writing from time to time. Anna is passionate about helping educators leverage technology to connect with and learn from each other. In pursuing digital learning communities, she has worked with several hundred educators to tell their stories and share their insights via online publications. Outside of this, she has also led professional development for teachers in both English and Arabic and served as the primary editor for several university professors writing both book chapters and journal articles. Anna is also an avid baker and self-described gluten enthusiast, a staunch defender of the oxford comma, and a proud dog mom to two adorable rescue pups.

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