As the pandemic forces more students online, the lack of affordable broadband internet could cause lower performance of rural Michigan schoolchildren.
“Students without internet access and low digital skills have substantially lower grade point averages,” said Keith Hampton, a Michigan State University professor of media and information who recently studied school performance and broadband access.
“Students, who have internet access only through cellphones do as bad or even worse than students who have no access at all,” he said.
The study by MSU’s Quello Center examined the relationship between the quality of home internet connectivity and school performance in grades 8 to 11 in 15 rural school districts in the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District, Mecosta Osceola Intermediate School District and St. Clair County Regional Education Service Agency.
Researchers found that 47% of students who live in small towns or rural areas lack high-speed internet access. Of the 3,300 students studied, 35% live in a home with no computer and 34% lack access to the internet when not at school.
”Students with no internet access have a half-letter grade lower on their grade point averages than students with high internet access,” Hampton said. “Students with lower digital skills did significantly worse in the Scholastic Assessment Test and Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test.”
And that study was published last March, before the pandemic forced many students online, Hampton said.
“Internet accessibility hasn’t changed much since, and academic performance of students might be affected even worse as many of them are studying virtually now,” he said.
Connected Nation Michigan, a nonprofit group trying to expand broadband access, reports that 300,000 Michigan households lack fixed, terrestrial broadband service at a minimal speed needed for school learning. Some of these households likely subscribe to mobile-only, satellite or dial-up service since a fixed broadband provider is not available.
In 2019 the U.S. Census estimated 271,000 Michigan households relied on nonfixed, nonterrestrial satellite or dial-up connections for home internet service, according to Connected Nation Michigan. An additional 107,000 households relied on a mobile or cellular-only data plan as these households with access challenges represent 9.5% of all Michigan households.
Earlier this year, Connected Nation Michigan and the Public Service Commission introduced a Wi-Fi hotspot map, a volunteer project to connect more schools, students and local businesses to the internet.
The WiFi Hotspot map shows where families can get access to the internet. Michigan residents can go to parking lots of these marked Wi-Fi places to use the internet and avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“Public Wi-Fi hotspots are definitely helping some portion of students who do not have internet access at their homes,” said Eric Frederick, the director of Connected Nation Michigan. “It’s not an ideal form of internet connection but it’s definitely a stopgap measure.”
Thousands of hot spots are available at schools, libraries, health care institutions and private businesses, he said.
“Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Lake, Oscoda and Osceola counties have significant home access issues as infrastructure hasn’t been developed in those areas yet,” Frederick said.
But internet affordability among Michiganders is a much more widespread issue, he said.
“Flint, Detroit and Lansing areas have good broadband internet, but connections are out of reach for many because of the cost,” Frederick said.
“The state has not determined how many students or their families use these public Wi-Fi hotspots, said William DiSessa, a Michigan Department of Education’s communications officer. “However, the map should allow Michigan families additional opportunities to access virtual learning.”
DiSessa said that one of the main internet access challenges is lack of competition among broadband providers.
Advertised connection speeds don’t meet actual speeds experienced by customers, DiSessa said in an email. “And the quality of actual internet and customer services is much more challenging in rural areas of Michigan.”
The Michigan Education Association supports more state funds to address student broadband access, said David Crim, a communication consultant for the union that represents teachers and school employees.
Hard copy homework packets are being delivered to rural and urban students who do not have internet access, he said.
Two-thirds of Michigan students have some kind of device at home to use for school. And 73% of them have internet access to support some form of learning at a distance, according to the state Department of Education.
The 15 school districts in the MSU study were Brimley Area Schools, Capac Community School District, DeTour Area Schools, East China School District, Les Cheneaux Community Schools, Mackinac Island Public Schools, Memphis Community Schools, Morley Stanwood Community Schools, Pickford Public Schools, Rudyard Area Schools, Sault Ste. Marie Area Schools, St. Ignace Area Schools, Tahquamenon Area Schools,Whitefish Township Schools and Yale Public Schools.