In an excitement-filled classroom at Glen Dale Elementary School earlier this month, I had a chance to witness the power of digital learning tools in action.
As students eagerly shouted the answers to an interactive educational game being projected at the front of classroom, they were learning in a new and dynamic way.
Technology has transformed the classroom since my days as a student at Glen Dale Elementary School. As digital learning resources continue to evolve, so too must the ability for students to access these tools outside of the classroom.
Unfortunately, our state has a lot of catching up to do in this area. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 56 percent of West Virginia residents lack broadband services that meet its standards. In rural areas of the state this number is even higher, hitting low-income households with school-age children in rural areas the hardest.
Nationally, nearly one-third of low-income households with school-age children lack a high-speed Internet connection. Meanwhile, teachers in 96 percent of school districts provide homework that requires Internet use.
This lack of connectivity limits the ability for students to access fundamental digital learning tools outside the classroom and can stand in the way of completing homework assignments, watching instructional videos and staying in touch with teachers. This is referred to as the homework gap, and it’s an issue we must work to resolve.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and I recently teamed up to introduce the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015, which seeks to close the homework gap for rural and low-income students by promoting innovative solutions for bridging this digital divide.
This bill authorizes a demonstration program that would support states and school districts in piloting creative methods to increase student access to digital learning resources after school.
It also directs the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to conduct a national study on the barriers to students having Internet access at home, how educators are adjusting classroom instruction to cope with this challenge and how a lack of home Internet access impacts student performance.
One innovative solution for closing the homework gap is already underway in Senator King’s state of Maine, and it serves as the inspiration for the federal pilot program authorized under our bill.
The “Check-out the Internet” initiative allows students who lack Internet access at home to check out mobile Wi-Fi devices from the Cherryfield Public Library in Cherryfield, Maine. This initiative is the result of a public-private partnership and will soon be expanding to additional sites in rural Maine.
This is exactly the type of collaboration I encourage in my Capito Connect Plan for bringing affordable, high-speed Internet access to every home, business and classroom in West Virginia. I believe we can take a page from Maine’s playbook and identify similar opportunities for collaboration.
Sen. King and I will continue working to level the playing field outside of the classroom, and to equip all students with the tools needed to excel.
Our bill has received widespread support from the Alliance for Excellent Education, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Library Association, Common Sense Media, the Consortium for School Networking, the Competitive Carriers Association, Engine Advocacy, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the National Education Association, the State Educational Technology Directors Association and U.S. Cellular as an important step toward narrowing the homework gap.
Digital learning is a cornerstone of the education model of today. If we are going to equip all West Virginia’s students — our state’s future leaders — with the tools necessary to learn, thrive and grow, we must ensure they have access to the Internet and digital education tools both in and outside of the classroom.
Shelley Moore Capito is a Republican U.S. Senator representing West Virginia.