Satellite can help close the ‘homework gap’ for students in many rural areas

Distance learning enables students in many rural areas to pursue their education, but a good internet connection is essential.


For many rural schools and families, the ability to do schoolwork online is a very real benefit. Communities in sparsely populated parts of the country have a unique set of challenges in educating their students. Children often travel long distances before the sun comes to get to school on time. And any number of things, like weather or lack of transportation, can make getting to school almost impossible.

The migration from printed materials to online homework also makes schoolwork more manageable from home, provided the student has a good, fast internet connection. But while distance learning provides a meaningful solution for children in rural areas, many of those students lack access to the broadband service required to deliver media-rich lessons online.

While 94 percent of American schools have a broadband internet connection, it’s the rural districts that are often left behind. And in some areas, even where schools have internet, the families who live there either don’t have broadband service or find it too expensive.

Distance learning can be a valuable tool for those who do have broadband service. A recent report from the Babson Survey Research Group shows that 6.3 million college students, or 30 percent, take at least one online class for their curriculum. Half of those students study exclusively online. These numbers have been expanding every year since 2000, through good economic times and bad.

Small colleges can also benefit, as they are challenged in attracting enough faculty to fill out many programs. Nursing and culinary arts teaching positions are especially difficult to fill. Distance learning allows students from anywhere with high-speed internet to access programs and specialties not offered on their campus. They use distance learning to:

  • Finish college faster, saving time and money
  • Pursue more than one major at a time, but still graduate on time
  • Take specialty classes not offered at their campus, to become qualified for a specialized degree
  • Take special classes required for graduate school
  • Finish their degree in four years before a scholarship runs out
  • Manage class loads by taking classes in summer
  • Learn from home or a local hotspot where driving distances are long and public transportation isn’t available

Satellite access can help, today

For those students, parents and school districts on the wrong side of the digital divide, waiting for fiber or cable isn’t practical and may be futile. When tiny West Glacier Elementary School in Montana explored upgrading their slow, 7 Mbps service to fiber-delivered broadband, its costs would have increased tenfold. That’s out of reach for a small district.

Satellite broadband such as that provided by Viasat offers a viable solution. With download speeds of 25 Mbps up to 100 Mbps in some areas, Viasat internet coverage reaches almost anywhere in the U.S. and can be installed in days, not months or years. Viasat service could help the roughly 6.5 million students and the 9,400 schools across the country that don’t have the bandwidth they require to stay up to date. Most of those are in hard-to-access, rural areas with fewer students, just like West Glacier Elementary.

Satellite delivery can support students caught in the so-called “homework gap” -- students who may have broadband at school, but not at home. They can’t finish homework assignments or do research after school and fall further and further behind. This also leaves their parents in the dark, as schools increasingly connect with parents online. High-speed broadband to these areas can bridge that gap.

Distance learning around the world

Beyond the U.S., Viasat is connecting some very remote parts of Latin America with the rest of the global learning community. On the edge of the Amazon rainforest, students at a school in Pacaraima, Brazil are now connected to high-speed internet. And plans are in the works to connect thousands more schools there, opening up the world to students across a country larger than the contiguous United States. It’s a positive step for a country with a 49 percent high school graduation rate.

In isolated areas of Mexico, students who can’t connect at home can now make use of Viasat’s Community Wi-Fi hotspots in their villages. Viasat’s new plan to locate powerful Wi-Fi hotspots in small villages allows students to access broadband and keep up with students in more connected areas. This bridging of the digital divide and the homework gap is helping students and parents in rural, and previously inaccessible areas to gain an even footing with more connected communities, around the world.

With more satellites planned to provide global coverage in just a few years, Viasat is in position to help countries around the world get educational services to millions of students previously left underserved behind the digital divide.

Carley Brennan