Data Insights: Ohio Students’ Internet Connectivity and Technology Access

Data Insights: Ohio Students’ Internet Connectivity and Technology Access

During times of change and pandemic-related uncertainties, data on students’ educational experiences is more important than ever for supporting student-centric decision making. Data also is key to unlocking many pieces of the equity puzzle. In February 2021, the Ohio Department of Education released How the Pandemic is Affecting the 2020-2021 School Year, sharing information on education delivery models, student enrollment and attendance and fall assessment results.
 
This Data Insights report includes more detailed state-level information on Ohio students’ access to internet connectivity and technology devices (for example, laptops, desktops, tablets). In January 2021, more than 500 traditional public districts (85%), representing 1.3 million of Ohio’s 1.7 million students, responded to an Opportunity to Learn survey gauging students’ access to internet connectivity and technology devices.
The survey of school districts revealed the following key themes:
 
  • Internet and Technology Availability: Survey respondents reported that, on average, a large majority of their students have internet connectivity (83%) and technology (92%) at home. Despite these overall high rates of access, there are important exceptions, particularly across district typologies and student subgroups.
 
  • The Importance and Challenge of Data Collection: Some schools continue to struggle to understand what access to internet connectivity and technology devices looks like among their student populations.
    • On average, districts are not able to speak to internet connectivity for 14% (182,000) of their students, nor can they speak to technology access for 5% (65,000) of their students.
 
  • Disparities Across District Typologies1: There has been progress on improving students’ internet connectivity and technology access, yet disparities remain.
    • Urban Districts: Ohio’s urban districts report the lowest rates of cases in which they do not know students’ internet connectivity (3% or 4,800 students). Ohio’s major urban districts report the highest rates of cases in which they do not know students’ internet connectivity (25% or 46,000 students).
    • Reliance on Cellular/Smartphones: Reliance on cellular connectivity (e.g., hotspots) is greater among rural districts (10%), urban districts (11%) and major urban districts (23%), compared to towns (6%) and suburban districts (3%). Additionally, reliance on using smartphones at home was higher among Ohio’s rural survey respondents than other district typologies. Rural survey respondents reported that for 4% of their students’ (approximately 8,000 students) smartphones served as their primary technology device at home. In one rural Ohio county, an average of only 45% of students had access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, while another 25% had access through a smartphone. This represents significantly greater disparity among students in this county compared to the 55 Ohio counties in which at least 90% of students had access to a laptop, desktop or tablet. 
 
  • Racial Equity Implications:
    • Districts serving large populations of white students2 report the highest percentages of students with internet connectivity at home (84%), while districts serving large populations of Hispanic students report the lowest rates of internet connectivity at home (78%).
    • Districts serving large populations of white students report that, on average, they cannot speak to internet connectivity for 12% of their students. By comparison, districts serving large populations of Hispanic students report that, on average, they cannot speak to connectivity access for 20% of their students.
 

Using this Information

The following information provides important context for understanding student experiences during the 2020-2021 school year. The information highlights state-level data points and can serve as a conversation starter for policymakers and educators alike.  
 
  • While reviewing the information below, policymakers might ask:
    • Where are there still gaps in student access to internet connectivity and technology?
    • Are there ways in which Ohio can continue to improve access in particular regions, among specific district typologies or for specific student subgroups?
    • How can the state support the systematic collection, reporting and use of data on internet connectivity and technology access at the district level?
 
  • Educators can work across district and building leadership teams, and in collaboration with families and community organizations to ask and address questions such as:
    • How are we collecting, using and communicating with our community about the degree to which our students have access to the internet and technology at home?
    • Across our buildings, among our educators and within our community, is there a shared understanding of the importance of internet connectivity and technology access at home – both during the pandemic and beyond?
    • In our district, are there particular subgroups of students who have less access than others? What are strategies for increasing equity across subgroups?
    • How can new federal funding and other resources serve to support efforts at increasing access?
 
As is best practice in continuous improvement science, the Department encourages schools and districts to constantly consider effective ways to collect, analyze and make sense of their data and use it to set goals and drive improvement.
 

Understanding Opportunity to Learn

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of Ohio’s K-12 students spent at least some portion of their 2020-2021 school year learning remotely. In early January 2021, for example, an estimated 72% of Ohio’s K-12 students in traditional public districts – approximately 1.1 million students - were learning in fully remote or hybrid settings.3 Though the winter of 2021 saw a marked shift towards more in-person learning, as of March 2021, an estimated 45% of the students in Ohio’s traditional public districts were learning in a hybrid setting. 
 
With so many students learning remotely, internet connectivity and technology devices (for example, laptops, desktops, tablets) stand as key factors in understanding a student’s Opportunity to Learn or a student’s ready access to regularly offered educational opportunities. These factors were important for students before the COVID-19 pandemic and will remain significant well after it has passed. The importance became significantly elevated when 1.7 million students shifted—almost overnight—to remote education in March 2020.
 
That shift exacerbated longstanding digital inequities, and those inequities quickly rose to the forefront as one of the most important challenges districts faced in delivering high-quality remote education.
 

Responding to the Need

A year after the spring 2020 ordered school-building closure, Ohio still has room to improve student access to internet connectivity and technology devices at home. Yet, there is encouraging evidence of the education community’s concerted effort to improve opportunities for students to engage in high-quality remote education experiences.
 
  • Local Efforts: A sample of Remote Learning Plans submitted by school districts in August 2020 revealed that 45% of districts were working to increase students’ internet connectivity at home and 85% of districts planned to provide technology (such as laptops or tablets) to students.
  • State Support: To help schools and districts address internet connectivity and technology device access issues, the Department, working in conjunction with a set of public-private partners, launched RemoteEDx. This suite of tools and activities, aimed at enhancing remote education opportunities, includes the Connectivity Champions, a partnership with Ohio’s Information Technology Centers to offer schools and districts boots-on-the-ground support to overcome barriers to internet connectivity and technology devices. The Connectivity Champions helped schools and districts link to and maximize use of a $50,000,000 BroadbandOhio Connectivity Grant aimed at immediately expanding broadband services across Ohio.
 

Internet and Technology Availability

In January 2021, the Department and the Management Council of Ohio Education Computer Network partnered to deploy an Opportunity to Learn survey designed to gather information on the degree to which students have internet connectivity and technology devices at home. Results from the survey reveal what percentage of students:
  • Do or do not have access to internet connectivity at home;
  • Do or do not have access to technology at home (e.g., laptops, tablets, smartphones); and
  • The percentage of students for whom internet connectivity and technology access is unknown. 

More than 500 traditional public districts (85%) responded to the survey, representing 1.3 million of Ohio’s 1.7 million students. Survey participation was high across district typologies (ranging from 77% among urban districts to 88% among town, suburban and major urban districts).
 
More information about the Opportunity to Learn survey, as well as complete results by grade level and district typology are available here.
 

Internet Connectivity from Home

Figure 1. Average rates of students’ internet connectivity vary significantly across Ohio’s counties.
Map that displays the significant variability across Ohio’s counties.
Districts participating in the January 2021 Opportunity to Learn survey reported that, on average4:
  • Eighty-three percent of their K-12 students had either broadband access or a cellular connection from home;
  • Three percent of their K-12 students (approximately 39,000 students) had no connection from home; and
  • For 14% of their K-12 students (approximately 182,000 students), districts did not know if the student had connectivity access.

 
County rates of student access to internet connectivity at home (calculated as the average of the districts within the county) are lowest in Fayette County (55%), while 33 of Ohio’s 88 counties have average rates greater than 90%. Figure 1 shows the significant variability across Ohio’s counties.  

 

Broadband vs. Cellular Access

One goal of the Opportunity to Learn survey was to understand the percentage of Ohio students relying on cellular connections to engage in remote learning. Cellular connections may be less reliable, work only with mobile devices and may require families to track data usage limits. For students learning remotely, cellular connections may not represent the ideal source of connectivity relative to broadband.

  • Districts that responded to this survey reported an average of 8% of their students using cellular connections from home, while an average of 75% have broadband access.
  • Reliance on cellular connectivity is greater among rural districts (10%), urban districts (11%) and major urban districts (23%), compared to towns (6%) and suburban districts (3%).
The lower rates of internet connectivity at home and greater reliance on cellular connections in Ohio’s rural districts may reflect a lack of broadband infrastructure in these areas.
 

Access to Technology Devices

Students have greater access to technology devices than access to internet connectivity.
 
Survey respondents reported that, on average:
  • Ninety-two percent of their K-12 students had access to a laptop, desktop, tablet or smartphone at home;
  • Three percent of their K-12 students (approximately 39,000 students) had no device available at home; and
  • For 5% of their K-12 students (approximately 65,000 students), districts did not know if the student had access to technology devices at home. 
There is considerable variation in the county-level average rates of students’ access to technology at home. Knox and Madison counties have the lowest average rates of technology access (16% and 64%, respectively) while 62 of Ohio’s 88 counties have average rates greater than 90%. Even more significant are county-level differences in types of technology access, as described in greater detail below.
 

Laptop/Desktop/Tablet Access vs. Smartphone Access

 One goal of the Opportunity to Learn survey was to understand the percentage of Ohio students using devices like laptops, desktops or tablets for remote learning, compared to the percentage using smartphones.
 
Students reliant on smartphone use may not have the same quality of access to remote learning materials as students using laptops, desktops or tablets.
Figure 2. Average percentage of students’ access to technology devices varies across county.
Map of Ohio that shows the average percentage of students’ access to technology devices across counties.
  • Districts responding to this survey reported that an average of 91% of their students had access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, compared to an average of 1% that had access to a smartphone as their only technology device at home.
  • That said, looking more closely at the data reveals important differences in technology access across regions and district typologies.
    • Reliance on smartphones at home was highest among Ohio’s rural districts, who reported that for 4% of their students (approximately 8,000 students) smartphones served as their technology device at home.
    • There are large differences across Ohio’s counties in terms of the type of technology that students can access at home (Figure 2). In Vinton county, for example, an average of only 45% of students had access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, while another 25% had access to a smartphone. This represents significantly greater disparity among students in this county compared to the 55 Ohio counties in which at least 90% of students had access to a laptop, desktop or tablet.

The generally higher rates of technology access compared to internet connectivity are likely a reflection of the relative ease of providing additional technology to students compared to the challenge of ensuring students have internet access at home.
 

The Importance and Challenge of Data Collection

On average, districts know that 83% of their students have internet connectivity and 92% of their students have access to technology devices. What does this mean for the rest of Ohio’s students?
  • Known Gaps: In some cases, districts know that a student does not have access. On average, survey respondents reported that 3% (or 39,000) of their students do not have access to internet connectivity at home and 3% of their students do not have access to technology devices at home.
 
  • Unknown Gaps: In some cases, districts do not know if a student has internet connectivity or technology access. On average, districts are not able to speak to internet connectivity for 14% (182,000) of their students, nor can they speak to technology access for 5% (65,000) of their students.
 
It is important to understand what it means to say that a district does not know if a student has access to internet connectivity or technology devices at home. This does not necessarily mean that no one in the district knows if a student has access. Teachers, for example, may understand which of their students have internet connectivity or technology devices.
 
What often is challenging is collecting and maintaining this information in a systematic way, thereby making knowledge about students’ access readily available and shareable with district and building administrators. The challenge is compounded in cases where a student does not have consistent internet connectivity or technology access (e.g., highly mobile students or economically disadvantaged students). Especially in these cases, it can require dedicated staff time and technology resources to gather and record individual data that accurately captures students’ access.
 
Having information on internet connectivity and technology access in this way – readily and widely available to district and building administrators – is a critical step toward meeting students’ needs. This is true during the pandemic and will remain true post-pandemic. Needs that go unidentified often go unmet. Where districts do not know if students have access, a key first step is developing a process for gathering and sharing that information in a systematic way. Once districts understand student access, they can then take next steps towards addressing unmet needs and tracking improvement over time.

 

Education Delivery Models

Students’ internet connectivity and technology access were important factors in their opportunity to learn before the COVID-19 pandemic and will remain so well beyond the pandemic. During the pandemic, internet connectivity and technology access only increased in importance, especially among students learning in fully remote or hybrid settings.
 
Across education delivery models5, known access to internet connectivity and technology is consistent among survey respondents.
  • In-Person and Hybrid: Districts that were primarily five day, in person and hybrid reported, on average, 84% of their students had internet connectivity and just over 90% had technology access (91% and 93%, respectively).
  • Fully Remote: Districts that were primarily fully remote reported, on average, 82% of their students had internet connectivity and 95% had technology access.
 
There was a difference across education delivery models in the degree to which districts do not know if a student has internet connectivity. Fully remote districts reported greater percentages of cases in which they do not know if a student has internet connectivity, compared to districts using other education delivery models (Figure 3).


 


Disparities Across District Typology

Across all education delivery models, results from the survey show variations in internet connectivity and technology access across district typologies.
 
These differences were most pronounced among fully remote districts, largely driven by data reported by the major urban districts. Six of the seven major urban districts participating in the January 2021 Opportunity to Learn survey were primarily fully remote in the fall of the 2020-2021 school year. These six major urban districts reported that:
  • On average, 74% of their K-12 students had internet connectivity, compared to 95% among towns (Figure 3). This 21% gap in access to internet connectivity represents the largest disparity in known access across education delivery model and district typology.

    Additionally, fully remote major urban districts were not able to speak to internet connectivity for 25% (46,000) of their students. 

Figure 3. Districts that were primarily fully remote in fall 2020 reported the greatest disparities in known internet connectivity across district typology.
Graph with connectivity from home, no connectivity and unknown across rural, town, suburban, urban and major urban districts that were fully remote
 

Among the districts that were primarily five day, in person, the largest difference in known internet connectivity is between rural and urban districts (Figure 4)6. Rural districts report that, on average, 80% of their students have internet connectivity, compared to 90% among urban districts. At the same time, rural districts primarily using five day, in person models reported, on average, that 7% of their students do not have internet connectivity at home, compared to just over 1% among suburban districts. Suburban districts reported the highest percentages of cases in which they could not speak to whether a student had internet connectivity.
 
Figure 4. Among districts primarily using a 5-day in-person model in fall 2020, rural districts reported the lowest rates of known internet connectivity.
Graph with connectivity from home, no connectivity and unknown across rural, town, suburban, urban and major urban districts that were 5-day in-person in fall 2020.
 
 
In the case of five day, in person models, this data is particularly important to consider in light of the future of education in Ohio. Beyond the pandemic, understanding and supporting students’ internet connectivity and technology access will remain important factors in supporting all students’ opportunity to learn among all districts, regardless of education delivery model.
 

Racial Equity Implications

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all students in Ohio. At the same time, the pandemic’s impact has been different for different students, with some experiencing greater challenges in their opportunity to learn based on existing and exacerbated vulnerabilities.
 
To shed light on equity across student subgroups, this analysis looks at differences in average student internet connectivity and technology access reported by districts whose student populations differ by race/ethnicity composition7.
 
Results from the January 2021 Opportunity to Learn survey show: Districts serving large populations of white students report the highest percentages of students with internet connectivity at home (84%), while districts serving large populations of Hispanic students report the lowest rates (78%) (Figure 5). Data for all racial/ethnic student subgroups is available here.
Figure 5. Districts serving large percentages of white students had the highest average rates of internet connectivity at home.
 Home internet connectivity by race/ethnicity
 
  • As noted above, survey respondents reported that, on average, they cannot speak to connectivity access for 14% of their students, nor can they speak to technology access for 5% of their students.  

    This knowledge gap is greater in districts serving large percentages of historically underserved students than it is for districts serving large percentages of white students (Figure 6).


  • For example, districts serving large populations of white students8 report that, on average, they cannot speak to internet connectivity for 12% of their students. By comparison, districts serving large populations of Hispanic students report that, on average, they cannot speak to connectivity access for 20% of their students. Data for all racial/ethnic subgroups is available in supplemental data tables available here.
Figure 6. Districts that serve relatively high percentages of historically underserved students report the largest percentages of unknown internet connectivity.Unknown internet connectivity by race/ethnicity
 


 


Conclusion

Since spring 2020, Ohio’s education community has been faced with the tremendous challenge of educating students remotely. Educators, districts, community organizations and policymakers have and will continue to work together to improve education opportunities for Ohio’s 1.7 million students—whether in person, remote, hybrid or blended.
 
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has transformed education. Educators are learning how to use high-quality instructional practices and materials in remote settings. Districts, families and students are engaging together in new ways. Much of what educators are learning will carry on beyond the pandemic, as remote or blended learning becomes, potentially, a more common feature of students’ personalized, competency-based learning options.
 
The results of collaborative efforts thus far are visible in the data on student access to internet connectivity and technology. Overall, the majority of students have access to internet connectivity and technology devices at home.
 
That said, much more work remains to eliminate digital inequities. Historically underserved students continue to be at a disadvantage when it comes to access to internet connectivity and technology devices at home. Disparities remain between district typologies as well, especially among major urban and rural districts. Continuing to address these inequities at the state and local level will ensure that Ohio is well-positioned to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic ready to capitalize upon new strategies for delivering high-quality education to every student in Ohio.


 
1 More information about Ohio’s district typologies is available on the Department’s webpage here. Ohio’s eight major urban districts include Akron City, Canton City, Cincinnati City, Cleveland Municipal, Columbus City, Dayton City, Toledo City and Youngstown City. Together, these major urban districts represent 12% (184,000 students) of Ohio’s K-12 student enrollment in traditional public districts. This report includes data submitted from seven of Ohio’s eight major urban districts.
 
2 The January 2021 Opportunity to Learn survey collected district level information for all students; this design does not allow for disaggregation of results by student subgroup. To shed light on equity, the Department looked at differences across districts serving relatively large percentages of specific racial/ethnic student subgroups. For this analysis, “serving relatively large percentages” means that the racial/ethnic subgroup’s enrollment, as a percentage of the district’s overall enrollment, is in the 75th-100th percentile statewide.
 
3 During the 2020-2021 school year, Ohio’s high-level categorization of education delivery models has included (1) Five-Day In-Person (all students have option of in-person learning); (2) Hybrid (mix of in-person and remote learning); and (3) Fully Remote (all students receive only remote education). In February 2021, Ohio began distinguishing between Full Access to Hybrid (Hybrid model in which every student has access to at least some in-person learning) and Partial Access to Hybrid (Hybrid model in which some students have access to some in-person learning). School district educational delivery model snapshots are updated weekly and can be found on the Department’s Reset and Restart Education webpage.)
 
4 Additional information about differences in connectivity and technology access across grade levels is included in Appendix B. Additional information about differences in connectivity and technology access by district typology is included in Appendix C.
 
5 Districts’ education delivery models changed throughout the course of 2020-2021. For the purpose of this analysis, primary education delivery model is defined as the education delivery most frequently used between September 2020 and December 2020.
 
6 No major urban districts were primarily using a 5-day in-person education delivery model during fall 2020.
 
7 The January 2021 Opportunity to Learn survey collected district level information for all students; this design does not allow for disaggregation of results by student subgroup. To shed light on equity, the Department looked at differences across districts serving relatively large percentages of specific racial/ethnic student subgroups. For this analysis, “serving a relatively large percentage” means that the racial/ethnic subgroup’s enrollment, as a percentage of the district’s overall enrollment, is in the 75th-100th percentile statewide.
 
8 Because of the overall racial/ethnic make-up of Ohio’s student population, as well as the concentration of some racial/ethnic subgroups among a limited number of districts, what constitutes “serving a large population” of a racial/ethnic subgroup will vary by subgroup. For example, among districts serving a relatively large population of white students, 90% or more of the district’s student body is white. In contrast, among districts serving a large population of Asian/Pacific Islander students, the largest percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students served by a district is 20%.

Last Modified: 5/21/2021 7:45:57 AM