14 Tips For Helping Students With Limited Internet Have Distance Learning

Schoolboy sitting outdoors. Back view (vejaa/iStock)

Schools across the nation are closing in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 and in the scramble to provide at-home learning, a major problem has risen to the forefront: millions of American students don’t have reliable access to the internet. 

According to recent federal data, approximately 14 percent of U.S. families with school-age children lack high-speed internet. Most of those families are low-income or live in rural areas. While there are plenty of best practice guides available for online learning, strategies for bridging the digital divide are scarce. 

We asked the MindShift community to share how they’re addressing the issue and what strategies, tips or activities might they have to do distance learning with students who only have access to cellphones and limited data or internet. 

Here’s what they shared, plus a few more tips we’ve found that can even be implemented today. Comments have been edited for brevity, clarity and comprehension. 

Call Regularly 

During this time of distance learning, students may feel isolated or lonely. Contacting them as often as you can — by email, comments on their work or phone — can make a huge difference, especially for those students without internet access. When in doubt over-communicate, but also maintain boundaries to avoid burnout. 

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Suggest Free Internet Offers But Be Mindful of Limitations

Major internet providers like Spectrum and Comcast are giving students free WiFi for the next couple of months.
-Jen Clayton

Many providers are also waiving late fees for existing customers and increasing data caps for mobile hotspots. But to gain access restrictions may apply. For example, to qualify for Comcast Internet Essentials program, which provides affordable Internet ($9.95/month) families must meet these criteria:

  • Eligibility for public assistance programs such as the National School Lunch Program
  • No outstanding debt to Comcast that is less than a year old
  • Live in an area where Comcast Internet service is available
  • Be a new customer

Families will need flexibility and understanding as they research and discover what options will work for them. Offers of free internet is no guarantee that families will be able to use them.  

Seek Out Hotspots But Don’t Rely On Them

Although local libraries may be closed, their routers are likely still on. We regularly use our library’s wifi from outside when it’s closed.
-Lisa Vreman

Additionally, more and more states are developing public Wi-Fi hotspots in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A school district in southern Illinois has developed a creative approach by equipping several school buses with WiFi to serve as hotspots throughout the community. Drivers park the bus near local parks between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Monday through Friday.

Hotspots can be particularly effective for downloading large files that students can work on at home, but may not be reliable or feasible for long periods. 

Check-in via Google Forms 

You can also use a Google Form to ask students how they’re feeling and what support they need to succeed. 

WhatsApp 

WhatsApp is used around the globe and it doesn’t require as many GB as Facebook or Google. It’s cheaper and in some countries it comes for free with the Internet plan for cell phones. Teachers can copy and paste long texts and have their students read them and answer questions. 

I teach English Lessons through WhatsApp. I send vocabulary and audios and ask them to send back audios of readings and questions.

-Davina Belisa Marcon

Tune In to Your Local Broadcast Station

Some districts are partnering with local PBS stations to create remote-learning opportunities through T.V. programs. For example, KQED will begin broadcasting a California state standards-aligned educational television schedule, created by PBS SoCal/KCET and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Other states using broadcast stations include Maryland, Louisiana, New York, Arizona and more. 

Use Plain Text Instead of Attachments When Emailing

Helena Castillo suggests using plain texts. Plain text is easier to access and requires less data (therefore, less money), so consolidating lesson content into the email body using plain text rather than attaching a .pdf is preferable. Whenever possible, email lesson content two to three days in advance  to give students and families as much time as possible to gain access before the lesson. 

Host Accessible Video Sessions But Don’t Require Attendance

Video conference calls can be an effective tool, but they require a lot of data. Encourage kids who don’t have the internet to call in for audio and be sure to describe what’s happening on the screen so that students calling in can still feel included. 

Avoid requiring attendance as well. Instead, find alternative ways to check in and email summaries or transcripts after video sessions if possible. 

Make Transcripts Using Speech-to-Text Features

Google Docs has a feature called Voice Typing that will dictate your voice using your computer’s microphone. To activate Voice typing, open a google document and click Tools > Voice Typing or press Ctrl + Shift + S in Windows or Command + Shift + S in macOs.

There are also other platforms and services like Zoom that transcribe video sessions. Whichever you choose, just make sure to review content before sharing for typos and grammatical errors. 

Provide Hard Copies 

Before high-speed internet, there were workbooks and handouts. 

Add QR Codes to Paper Copies

Providing students with handouts doesn’t have to entirely eliminate a personalized touch.

Share The Burden

Not every teacher will be able to mail hardcopies of their materials. Ways to work around this may be electing designated individuals.  

Schools can create a Google Drive. Teachers can submit lessons there and elect a person to print and mail activities to those with connectivity issues. We haven’t implemented this, just an idea I plan to share with my district. 

-Lindsey Conway


Try USBs or DVDs 

In my flipped classroom, I would provide DVD discs for DVD players, PS4, XBox or provide USBs with my video lectures to students who identified specific IT needs. It worked for chronically absent students, student athletes, etc or to just save a family’s data plan. Everyone forgets a TV is a great projector! 

-Krystalynn Nasisaq Scott 

Avoid Harsh Punishments

In the upcoming months and years, students will need a lot of support. Even with major internet providers offering assistance to low-income families, some families still face hurdles to getting online. Some students may struggle to keep up and get the work done. Assignments may take twice as long to complete. But this doesn’t mean school isn’t a priority for those students. As much as possible, try to avoid harsh grades or punishments, offer several options for completing an assignment and be adaptable. 

There’s a lot more work to be done to achieve true equity, but we’re hopeful. We’ll continue to update this list in the upcoming weeks and months. 

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*Editor's note: The original call for suggestions that you see on the MindShift tweets had a typo in the graphic. We are always learning from our mistakes.