In the midst of COVID-19, schools across the country have closed their doors, and a majority of the 50 million K-12 students are now learning from home. For many, that means logging on to laptops to teleconference teachers who take digital attendance, then accessing lessons and homework to do on their own.
The crisis will be the great stress test of digital learning, but one failure is already known: Roughly one in five teens reported having difficulty doing their homework because of a lack of access to computers and the internet. Chicago Public School principals are begging for hardware for students, while hundreds of thousands of children in NYC are still without laptops as teaching goes virtual. Ten million students need computers and internet access now. So who should provide it? Three of the most valuable companies in the world, each with more than $100 billion in cash for a combined pile of over $400 billion to weather the storm.
Apple, Google (Alphabet), and Microsoft.
Together, they could buy every vulnerable student in America a $1,000 laptop. Actually, they could buy every vulnerable student 40 laptops, or every K-12 student eight laptops, or every single American a laptop and then some. (If you want to nitpick about Apple’s $100 billion floating debt, feel free to round down these figures by a quarter, but you could have just as much fun with this fuzzy math by pricing out $250 Chromebooks instead of $1,000 Macbook Airs.)
At the bare minimum, each company could chip in $3.3 billion dollars to outfit the 10 million low-income students with a laptop or a tablet with a keyboard. Better still, these devices would be bundled with free LTE internet access.
The point is that the big three have enough cash on hand to outfit every student in America with respectable technology to learn remotely, without depleting their generous cash reserves. And let me be clear: They should. Each of these companies is individually wealthy enough to tackle this challenge entirely on their own, or they could team up. As we face this pandemic, the three greatest American technology companies should be paying back their profits, not to stockholders on dividends, but to the consumers who stacked their profits in the first place. Think of it as an educational stimulus package, but instead of being funded by taxpayer dollars, it’s funded by the unmitigated, unprecedented corporate profits of the last decade—oh, and the $100+ billion in tax breaks the tech sector has relished over the last decade.
Together, this trio isn’t just cash-rich, their platforms literally comprise 100% of the educational platform market. Google owns 60% of the market with its Chrome and Android platforms, which mostly equate to Chromebooks and Android tablets. Microsoft takes 22% with Windows computers. And Apple claims 17% with iOS and MacOS, or iPads and Macbooks. (Note that these numbers, provided to Fast Company by Futuresource Consulting, represent platform market share not profit share.)
In any case, these giants have wiped every other platform provider out in order to form the digital foundation of learning in our schools. Now, the most concrete way they could help is to provide students a direct, no-nonsense assist: The hardware and connectivity to attend class when class is closed.
Smartphones are not tablets or laptops, and public Wi-Fi isn’t home internet
The nonpartisan research group Pew Research Center has been monitoring technology and internet adoption since the early aughts. And it’s worth noting that it’s not a completely dire story. “A lot of the differences we see around income, race, and community have narrowed over time,” says Monica Anderson, associate director of research at the center. “But there are still these persistent gaps and that has been true for the last five years or so. The digital divide has closed in some ways, and in some, it’s evolved.”
On the wealthy end of the spectrum, in households making more than $100,000 a year, 94% of people have PCs and laptops, smartphones, and home broadband. Seventy percent have a tablet. These families are ready for just about any possible form of connectivity.
For households that make under $30,000, the story is very different. Only half of these families have access to a computer at home. A majority rely on their smartphones—and the number of low-income households that use their smartphones to connect to the internet has doubled since 2013. Forty-four percent of low-income Americans still don’t have home broadband today. Having spoken to several educators when researching this piece, individual circumstances vary, but it’s clear that resources are piecemeal not just state to state or district to district, but school by school. When schools can’t provide laptops or tablets, families often can’t afford to make up the difference.
“We’ve seen the growth of smartphone-only internet users,” says Anderson. “But the other side of that is being able to do homework on a cellphone, or . . . finding a job or cover letter can be difficult given the size of the device. Smartphones have helped bridge the digital divide . . . but [people tell us the] difficulties of doing tasks solely on their phone.”
What we’ve seen as a result is called a “homework gap,” which disproportionately affects black teens, 25% of whom cannot do their schoolwork on a regular basis simply because they have no means to access it. Black and Hispanic teens report “often” using smartphones to do their homework as a result. And despite the fact that it’s a smartphone with wireless connectivity, one in five black teens regularly needs to find free public Wi-Fi to do their homework on it—an inequitable practice that becomes impossible during a time we’re quarantining for public safety.
Indeed, having internet access is just as crucial as possessing a device to connect to the internet with, and any grand spending plan needs to address that fact. It was encouraging to see that Xfinity opened up its nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots to provide an estimated 56 million homes with internet access (although this coverage is particularly spotty in rural areas, and Xfinity declined to disclose if it cost the company anything). We need all of the cable and cell providers to help provide access to American students at this time. T-Mobile has expanded roaming range for Sprint customers, allowing better rural connections. Verizon plans are getting a free 15GB bump. These steps are helpful, but not nearly enough to close the education gap.
Another important point to note is that the core ergonomics of a smartphone offers a lousy way to learn. Even grade school children are being required to attend e-learning classes now. And the digital class time adds up. The state of California requires three hours of a school a day, for instance, and the state of Illinois requires five. Besides, touchscreen phones are inherently limiting. It’s why every Chromebook has a keyboard to type mass chunks of text, and why Apple released a 12.9-inch iPad long after debuting a 9.7-inch form. Sometimes you need easy ways to type a lot of information, and bigger screens to absorb rich multimedia.
“You can do a lot on a smartphone, no question,” says Naila Bolus, the CEO of Jumpstart, a nonprofit focused on helping vulnerable preschoolers learn. “But also, we’re doing read-alouds, which is the way we read a storybook that engages children, to let kids stop and make sense of the content, and dive deeper . . . it’s really hard to get that on a phone!” Put differently, children’s storybooks are printed on pages larger than four inches for a reason: Big pages allow media to be shared between a teacher and student.
So what have these companies done for education? Not much
With hundreds of billions of spendable dollars in the bank, neither Apple, nor Google, nor Microsoft has pledged a meaningful response to enable e-learning. After reaching out to all three companies, it appears that none have donated more than a mere $15 million (which was Apple) to the COVID-19 crisis itself, period.
Apple has offered educators free 1:1 coaching sessions with Apple Professional Learning specialists. It also produced a new video series educating educators about remote learning, and provided resources to school IT about configuring devices for it.
Google pledged $10 million to a Distance Learning Fund to “support organizations around the globe that help educators access the resources they need,” while providing some free Hangouts Meet features. The company confirmed it has not provided any hardware, only platform-level services.
Microsoft is “providing guidance and resources for educators, administrators, and caregivers whose children are shifting to online learning,” and it recently joined the UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition to contribute “resources and expertise around technology, connectivity, capacity building, and content.” The financial value of these contributions is unclear. Microsoft does invest in an initiative to provide LTE laptops to schools, but the program is not in response to COVID-19.
This is not enough. Our three big tech companies combined are wealthier than most nations. And while you could certainly make the case that these companies could spend their resources and incredible engineering capabilities differently to help out—whether that’s through producing ventilators or even just providing children with the government-subsidized meals they miss when they don’t attend school—there is no argument that absolves them from a greater duty.
Apple, Google, Microsoft—you claimed this world. Now do your damn part to save it.