Ownership of mobile devices has grown swiftly since the introduction of the smartphone and has created more opportunities to connect to the Internet. Mobile devices have meant more Internet connectivity, but a closer look at how lower-income families use that access reveals the digital divide is still a problem.
A report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and Rutgers University found that until all families have reliable Internet access at home, learning environments will not be equitable.
Kids who don’t have reliable Internet access at home (which includes the use of a laptop of desktop for connecting to the Internet) are “less likely to go online to look up information about things that they are interested in,” according to the report. While mobile devices do provide Internet access, kids don't seem to use them for the deeper type of informal learning championed by tech advocates: 35 percent of children with mobile-only access look up information often, as compared with 52 percent of kids with Internet at home.
“These kids are less likely to be online in general and doing informal learning when they have mobile-only access,” said Victoria Rideout, a co-author of the report, "Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower-income Families," which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A strong Internet connection at home allows kids to work on homework assignments, look up information and communicate with teachers and classmates more readily.
“What’s it really like to do your homework on a smartphone you’re having to borrow from your mom, but she needs it for something else? Are you really able to do your research paper?” asked Rideout.
Schools have improved their connections on campus, but home has been a major hurdle for learning as assignments and communication go online. “Schools getting wired was the task of the previous decade,” said Rideout. “Getting wired at home is the task of the current decade.”
While low-income families may appear connected, they come across obstacles that undermine access to information. For the survey, 1,191 parents with children ages 6 to 13, considered lower-income or “low- and moderate-income families,” were asked questions about how they use technology.
The researchers found that only 6 percent of families with incomes that qualify for discounted Internet services had ever signed up for such programs. A combination of lack of services provided, hurdles in qualifying for discounts (such as having no missed payments), and a lack of awareness of discount programs often stood in the way. Schools can have a role in educating families about discounted Internet programs, said Vikki Katz, co-author of the report .
“We found some really interesting differences between what happens when the school focuses on the relationship and uses tech to expand the relationship, and some districts that put the technology first,” Katz said. School districts that had stronger relationships with families were able to better inform families about discount programs.
Of the parents surveyed, 33 percent of those living below poverty level and 23 percent of those living below median-income level rely on mobile-only Internet access. And keeping their mobile devices connected is a struggle, as 24 percent of that group had their service cut off because of payment issues. Of those surveyed who do have home Internet, 20 percent have had their Internet cut off due to lack of payment within the last year and 26 percent say too many people share the same computer.
“If they have a home computer and Internet access, their Internet access is slow,” said Rideout. “Their computer is slow and their service has been cut off in the last 12 months because they can’t pay their bill. If they have mobile-only plans, they run up against their data plan. Or there are too many people using a single device. These are all elements of people being under-connected.”
In some districts, schools have paid for families to have Internet at home so they wouldn’t have to rely on Wi-Fi at local businesses or stay on campus after hours to do homework. Having reliable Internet at home could mean more capacity to learn computer coding skills, stream video tutorials or take an online language course.
“It’s not just doing the homework, but learning the skills needed to compete -- the design, the coding skills, etc.," said Rideout. "You don’t do that as much on a smartphone as you would on a computer.”