No device should ever be hailed as the silver bullet in “saving” education — nor should it be completely shunned — but when it comes to the possibility of bridging the digital divide between low-income and high-income students, devices may play a pivotal role.

Access to the Internet connects kids to all kinds of information — and for low-income students especially, that access has the power to change their social structure by allowing them to become empowered and engaged, said Michael Mills, a professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas during a SXSWEdu session last week.

“For minorities and for low-income students who have these devices, it might be their only way to access the Internet, to get information about their own health, access to social media,” he said. “And they’re using that as the agent to change their social structure.”

Yet it’s those very students who are deprived of the right to use their own devices in schools, according to a recent Pew report showing that access to devices is noticeably different between higher and lower income schools: 52% of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students say their students use cell phones to look up information in class, compared with 35% of teachers of the lowest income students. And when it comes to blocking sites, 49% of teachers of students living in low-income households say their school’s use of Internet filters has a major impact on their teaching, compared with 24% of those who teach better off students who say that. In the same vein, 33% of teachers of lower income students say their school’s rules about classroom cell phone use by students have a major impact on their teaching, compared with 15% of those who teach students from the highest income households.

Why is this the case? It all comes down to expectations, Mills said, that could also be related to blatant racism.

“We have some significant issues with race relations, and the core of what it comes down to is that we have to redefine what we expect,” Mills said. “Just because a student is Tweeting or using another back-channel, or whatever doesn’t mean he’s not being productive. And it takes away from trusting that student to do what’s right for himself in his community. We need to be more trusting, more open and flexible.”

Schools don’t allow students of color to use their mobile devices because they think those students will not use them in what they consider appropriate ways, he said. “But the very fact that we’re saying they’re not being productive is to say that our values are more valuable than their values.”

And therein lies the divide.

“Access is a basic right. It’s the same as roads or clean water or electricity,” Mills said. “Those are [accessible] here in this country because we expect it. The same thing should apply to the Internet. The Internet is about empowerment. If we take away this access because we think certain people aren’t going to use it right, we’re no better than governments who take away voting rights from minorities.”

[RELATED: Students Demand to Use Technology in Schools]

The numbers line up: A recent study by QualComm showed that low-income students’ test scores increased by 30 percent after they were given smartphones to access more information and instruction and to collaborate with their peers.

And discipline issues actually diminished in some schools that have Bring Your Own Device programs. For example, in the Katy Independent School District in Texas, one of the pioneers of the BYOD effort that participated in a pilot program with Cisco, director of technology Lonnie Owens said their results were surprising. “Discipline issues went down and test scores went up, so we viewed it as a success,” Owens said.

Mills believes that the simple act of students using their coveted devices for study purposes makes learning more acceptable to them and to their peers. In neighborhoods where caring about school is most certainly not cool, Mills said “it’s becoming more socially acceptable to talk about school stuff outside school because of that device. When they text or tweet about it, somehow it crosses the boundary of becoming okay. It’s not exactly cool yet, but all of a sudden it’s becoming okay.”


For educators who want to start chipping away at the divide, Mills listed a number of ways.

Many Title 1 schools — those in low-income communities — receive funds and grants, but don’t always buy what they need. If they have enough funds, Mills said schools should invest in a 1-1 program — a device for every student.


Whether it’s the school that provides the device, or whether students are allowed to use their own, it’s important to give them guidance on how to use those devices for learning. “Students do not generally use their personal technology for learning activities unprompted,” he said. “We have to provide them with prompts.”

Educators should also be instrumental in guiding student etiquette with devices. For students who use text-speak and shorthand when handing in assignments, teachers can ask them to proofread and resend until the assignments are up to par. “We can teach them to use mobile literacy to help themselves,” he said.

“We need to think about what we are teaching,” Mills said. “This is not technology — this is Pedagogy 101.” Educators must understand the dotted line between an assigned activity and the instructional objective, which should be tied to learning skills.

Just giving kids a number where they can reach you has “exponential impact,” Mills said. “Just that small gesture tells kids you’re available.” For those who don’t feel comfortable giving students their phone numbers, Mills suggests using a Google voice account, which students can call and leave messages.

Parents, other teachers, and administrators will learn a lot from watching how kids can plug into learning by using their devices. During their visits, talk about the upward trajectory of kids you’ve noticed who have benefited from the change.

Keep track of who owns what kind of device (especially after the holidays when kids receive new ones). This way, you can create flexible, shifting groups to make sure there’s a good variety of devices in every group. Don’t place all the iPhone 5 users in one group — mix them up to promote equity.

Be careful not to publicly call out kids who don’t have a device when organizing groups. Use common sense and compassion.

If the school has 10 Kindles, find ways to use them in your class. If it has six iPods or 30 computers, don’t let them collect dust. Even the oldest computers can be fired up for basic research.

Sitting quietly doesn’t exemplify productivity, Mills said. If you have flexible processes, you can give students different ways of understanding.

All educators, but especially those who teach low-income students, need to be open to students’ ideas of showing what they’ve learned. If they don’t want to write a blog, but want to create a video, be open to it.

Promote group work and project based learning.

You can find many more resources, ideas, and links on Mills’ website here.

For Low-Income Kids, Access to Devices Could Be the Equalizer 13 March,2013Tina Barseghian

  • Access to tech is now as basic as access to current textbooks was not too long ago. This superior article reminds us in a practical sense that students will achieve when given proper tools. Let’s expect the best–that there will not be a caste system based on those who have tech and those who don’t; as in the past some were restricted from literacy.

  • geri caruso

    I love the flip phone picture…. that says it all.

  • Mark_K

    The divide will continue until all students have access to the Internet.

    The assumption that Broadband is in every household is wrong.

    • So, what is your solution? We can either ignore the divide or narrow it. No, we will not close it. There are so many factors that contribute to the divide, but we should do everything we can to minimize the impact the divide has on minority and low-SES students. There is no assumption that broadband is in every house. In fact, the research shows that most minorities and low-SES populations rely on their mobile devices to access the Internet. I think we both agree that everyone deserves broadband access to the Internet. That’s one initiative I wish our policymakers would prioritize.

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  • There are so many opportunities students can have with mobile devices, even flip phones. A key consideration is not to act as if the technology, any technology, is a panacea.

  • Patrick Hopkins

    Growing up in a single parent low-income
    household, attending an inner city public school, and currently a high school
    teacher teaching in an affluent community, I can speak volumes about this
    topic. When I attended school grammar school latter part of the 1900’s
    resources were scarce. Our school had outdated textbooks that had to be shared
    which made learning extremely difficult. Attending school in a dilapidated
    building with poor heating, and non-existent cooling systems, coupled with
    broken windows that were replace with sheet metal instead of glass weighed
    heavy on a students psychic. Student learning and teacher morale take heavy
    tolls in these types of environments. Without adequate learning resources and
    safe and secure learning environment low income student cannot compete in
    today’s society.

    I can remember the day my mother
    purchased; financed a full set of World Book Encyclopedias. My entire world
    opened because I was privileged to so much information in one place. These
    books really made learning easy because I was able to study at home instead of
    taking special trips to the library to complete research. As I entered seventh
    grade, I was able to move to a better school district that made all the
    difference in the world. As a young child I could never have imagined attending
    a better school with an abundance of resources. Moving to a better school
    district made the difference in my life because it was to school that place me
    on that college bound track.

    The Internet is the modern day encyclopedia. Education is trending towards technology and if students do not
    have access to technology, they are going to be left behind. In this country
    everyone should have the access to quality education despite there
    socio-economic background. I teach school in an upper-middle class community.
    All of the schools have access to technology such as new computers, smart
    boards, Elmo’s, and Wi-Fi. Our students are encouraged to bring their mobile
    learning devices to school such as smart phones, kindles, I-pads, lap top computers
    and any other device that has internet access. Students are required to
    register their devices with the school before being issued pass codes for the
    Wi-Fi. This has made learning fun for the students and easy for the teachers.
    As a teacher I am able to set up chat rooms for my classes and students are now
    empower to take control of their own learning. Denying students access to the Internet
    base on their socio-economic background in my opinion is criminal and can be
    viewed, as a design to not educate low-income students.

    In a neighboring county, the school
    system applied for grants to supply all of their students with apple lap top
    computers. They were awarded grants and all of the high school children
    received apple lap top computers. As a visiting basketball coach it’s amazing
    to attend sporting events because all of the student body is in the stands
    doing homework in their computers and not spectating the game. Since this
    school system have been awarded the grants for the computer, test scores
    increased substantially.


    Patrick Hopkins

    • Are you sure we’re not related, Patrick? I remember too when I was younger my mom bought individual encyclopedias at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store (with a $10 purchase). I loved them! I so appreciate your thoughts and hope to hear from you again in the future.

  • drbatie

    The major challenge for the underserved populations of the U.S. is mathematics. I have yet to see any data that shows that smartphones significantly closes that gap.

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  • Trevor Cline

    I agree with this article and I believe the title of the article, “For Low-Income Kids, Access to Devices Could Be the Equalizer” is perfectly stated for equalizing education. I grew up in a school where we did not use technology very much and this made me be behind somewhat once I got to college. Once I got to college almost everything was done through technology and I was learning as we went with a lot of the technology programs. I do not believe the statement that some of the low-income schools do not allow for their students to use technology because the minorities would get side tracked. It doesn’t matter what race you are and if technology is going to better your school system, you should make it part of your curriculum. There are so many resources available when using technology that you are only hurting your students and yourself when you are not taking advantage of them. I know once I become a teacher I will make sure technology is part of my teaching because students enjoy using technology since they were raised with technology as a big part of their lives. Mills’s eleven ways to start chipping away at the divide for low-income education are all good but the one that sticks out the most is number four- Making Yourself Available. Making Yourself Available is very important because students only have so long throughout the day to be with you and by giving your students your contact information will allow for you to help them outside of class if their struggling.

  • Olivia Richard

    This article has some great points about supporting BYOD and narrowing the divide. I have had some experience in inner city schools and understand why allowing students to bring their own devices to school would be beneficial.I was surprised to see racism come into play. I had never associated BYOD with this aspect before. I like how the point about trusting the students was brought up. I find this extremely important when talking about BYOD. Teachers must have an abundant amount of trust in their students that they are staying on task when using their own devices in the classroom. I do feel that students
    should be given the opportunity to use technology and the internet in the
    classroom. It has extreme benefits for both the teacher and students. I thought
    the 12 ways to narrow the divide were great ideas! I would love to see BYOD in use at a school! I do find the arguments in this article very convincing and would be interested in learning more about it!

  • Amanda Williams

    Growing up as the oldest child of five kids, any technology I did have was shared with my siblings. When my parents later divorced, my dad decided not to get cable, internet, or a land line to cut down on his costs. I quickly noticed that year as a junior how many assignments for homework involved research through the internet. My father would be upset when my sisters and I would go to my mom’s house five miles down the road to use her computer. Finally my mom gave him her old computer that was almost too slow to even use Microsoft word. As a graduation gift though, he made sure I had a top of the line laptop for college.

    As mentioned in the blog, it is very important to not push away technology. After all, it is not going away at this point and plays a significant role in the everyday work day. It is important though to consider those low income students such as myself.

    My mom was a high school teacher and knew what technology was use being used that year at school, but my dad had know idea what I did on a daily basis. If he came in such as tip #5, then he may have seen the importance in technology. Even if he would have seen the importance, he would not have been able to afford any of the tools. This is where #7 comes into play. Don’t let others know about students not having the technology. I never felt “embarrassed” about it because I had my mom’s house to resort to AND my teachers never forced us to simply use computers for assignments. Tip #6 is a great suggestion as the students would be working collaboratively (#11) to complete an assignment with different types of technology.

    Overall it is important to value all students – technology or no technology. It is a great resource but should never be required to use in the classroom unless the school is providing the tools.

    • tbarseghian

      Thank you for your thoughtful response, Amanda. It’s good to hear that these ideas are actually grounded in your reality as you experienced it.

  • Jason Davis

    Students who have access to the internet or new technology, such as BYOD, is a great way for students to maximize their education. Not only does it give students the opportunity to use their devices as learning tools, it does give them that sense of empowerment. As educators or future teachers, we must make sure we don’t shy away from giving students every available opportunity to advance their learning. I was pleased to see in this article that “low-income students’ test scores increased by 30 % after they were given smartphones.” My concern is how do we make this technology available to every student who wants it? My fear is that funds and grants can only go so far.
    I did enjoy reading how to narrow the divide and some of the suggestions, such as: 1) Make Yourself Available, 2) Use Everything You Have, and 3) Teach Process Not Content. I loved the example of Mills suggesting using a Google voice account where students could communicate via messages. I do believe by giving kids a number shows them that the teacher is willing to open up the lines of communication and would instill a sense of trust with the students.
    Overall, I do hope schools realize the benefits of this technology and allows the students to access it.

  • connor Pease

    I grew up not with a low-income family but also we were not at the high-income end either we were in the middle somewhere. I went to a medium size high school but we were not aloud to use our cell phones in class, but when I graduated in 2011 we didn’t have to buy texts books or do anything online all our school work was in the classroom so I can see why there was no need for us to use our cell phones in class.
    But I feel like now students are starting to get more and more assignments online and they are having to buy text book and other things for classes. So I feel like if we are going to except them to do online assignments they should be bale to use interent from devices at school because that way they can work on work at home

  • Stephani Fuson

    I feel that accss is very important. I could not believe that there are schools that actually say “students of color” can not use their devices at school. They actually allow other students to use these devices and say that you can’t use them if you are of color? They can get away with doing this? That is unbelievable and unfair! I was shocked to read that such blatant racism occurs today. I realize racism is not extinct, unfortunately, but for it to occur so openly and intentionally is insane. ALL STUDENTS, regardless of color should be treated fairly and granted the same level of access. When people are treated differently, they will act differently in line with their treatment. We can improve behavioral problems and increase learning by being fair and treating every student with the respect and trust that they deserve. We should react to their actions, not our assumptions. Devices can improve learning by helping to build confidence and providing an extra resource when students feel lost and do not know where else to find information. If we encourage students to use these devices in the right way, and frown upon improper use during class, then students can be given the necessary tools to thrive. Devices should be treated as any other resource. A textbook could be used to cover the student actually reading a comic book, but we do not ban textbooks over this possibility. Devices should recieve the same respect and discipline as any other tool. We should encourage their proper use and train students on how to use them properly and show them how they can use the devices to improve.

  • Amanda Phillips

    Overall I believe this article was very interesting. One thing that really stood out to me was how race was brought into the equation. It stated that schools do not allow students of color to use their mobile devices because they think they will not use them in appropriate ways. I do not believe this is true at all. I think it is our job as teachers to set the ground rules and expectations of using these types of devices in class before they are even allowed to bring them. There should also be strict guidelines. Each students should get an equal chance to bring and use their device in class, race should have nothing to do with it. I would love to find ways to narrow the divide and find the eleven steps stated within the article very helpful. I think it is important to incorporate technology as well as these devices into the classroom because these types of situations are continuing to grow and become more common. Without giving it a chance, we will never know how it may benefit our students.

  • Brooke Jenkins

    I love the idea of having technology accessible to all students, regardless of socioeconomic status. Students need to be given the opportunity to research and explore the resources that technology provides. This is vital to preparing them for their future careers or post-secondary education. If all students have access to devices, it would make their educational experiences more equitable. Students would have less concern over how they will logistically get their homework done and more on the knowledge to be gained from the assignment.

  • Allie Kohl

    I would have to agree that students with lower incomes should not be restricted because of where they are sent to school, but I do not think it is a race issue. Teachers all around do not want kids to use their phones because ALL students would get on to tweet or use facebook. It doesn’t matter where a child comes from, there are issues beyond being able to have kids have access to devices. Teachers have to ensure that the students are using the devices in the proper way. Implementing devices into the school throws a lot of red flags and makes it hard for teachers to really ensure that students are being productive and honest with the stuff they are getting accomplished on the devices at hand.

    Just because their will be trust issues with any student and the way they use their devices in a classroom does not mean that teachers should avoid using the devices in the classroom. I think it is important that students have the right to use the up and coming technology because in the future after school they need to be able to know how these devices work. Our society is moving fast in using technology and if a young adult doesn’t know how to work the systems around them they will not be able to survive. Teachers need to learn how to incorporate the system and devices they have. School systems need to find a way to supply the demand of the devices for the ever growing demand of the devices.

  • Jacquelyn Smith

    I have noticed that there are limited resources available to the lower income students during my student teaching. Many of cooperating teachers encouraged the use of electronics in the classroom. The teachers allowed students to bring their electronics in from home but unfortunately about half of the class were able to bring in electronics. The other half did not have access to these electronic. The classroom itself had one ipad to share with the whole class. I think its important to use technology in the classroom because that is the world we are in now.

  • Nicole Lowery

    I do not think it is right to blame the inappropriate use of devices in the classroom on someone’s race. I believe that all students will use their devices at some point in an inappropriate way. Many students will become bored at some time or another during class and will most likely pull out their cell phone and keep them self interested in something if they are allowed. I do realize that many lower income students do not have as much technological resources as higher income students do, but I believe that it is the school’s job and the teacher’s job to make sure that they have as much experience and resources as the higher income students. The students should not need to pull out their device to be able to have access.

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  • Emily Watkins

    The fact they are bringing race into the picture on who to let use their phones is just not right. We live in a country of freedoms and it should not matter the race, especially something so little as who can use a phone. If you think the students are going to get on different sites than they should, don’t allow any of the students to do it. Students are being given more rights in the school than when I was in high school just four years ago, if we had our phones out, we got them taken and had to have detention, we had to ask to go to the library and use a computer if another class didn’t reserve all of them. The times have changed and it is clear, race is no longer a factor in most cases as well. Either everyone gets to have access to their devices or no one does.

  • Amanda Kessler

    They are many different blocks that schools have
    on internet sites, because they do not think these sites are helpful for
    students. Technology has helped me get though many years of school, and if technology
    is there then teachers could use it. Teachers can even help student with social
    skills to become more social if not enough computer are in their schools. I
    have grown up with computer in schools and they were used quite a lot, and if
    schools can get them this may be their only chance to get on them. Students now
    need to know how to use and operate many different programs if they want to be
    successful in their future. If having their own device in classes make sure not
    to single out student who do not have one. Then when using this make sure the schools
    know students are allowed to have them.

  • Tiffany Smith

    I believe that it is ridiculous to judge whether a student will use technology devices correctly depending on their race. This is a stereotype that needs to be overcome. No matter what race a student is some students will use the devices for inappropriate non-educational sites. There will also be the students that no matter the race will use the device in the appropriate way with educational sites. Technology is such a big part of our world today and we need to include this in a classroom. Majority of students use technology daily and that can be a great learning tool in a classroom. Student should not be judged on race in any circumstance and teachers need to make sure they are fair to all.

  • Andrea Zickafoose

    I never thought of it in this way! I think using devices can be very beneficial to students in low income schools because of the internet blocks they have at schools and also the lack of technology that these schools have. Technology is a huge factor in education now and if not used can hinder these student’s ability to thrive in the real world. I think it is interesting that race was put into the equation but can definitely understand where it comes from. I do believe that students should be given more trust that they are going to be doing the work they are given, even if they are checking social media sites. If you give the students a clear objective and state what you are expecting out of them you shouldn’t have to worry about other things they might do on their phones. If the objective is clearly not produced in a matter of time then you restrict them of the use until they understand you are wanting to trust them to do their work.

  • Jacquelyn Smith

    I have to agree that access is a basic right however access doesn’t come free. Student who come from low income families when it come down to choosing whether to pay bills and put food on the table versus paying high cost cell phone or internet bills, putting food on the table and paying essential bills are going to win. The problem with adopting a 1-1 policy is what happens when a student’s family member takes the device and sells it for money? I only ask this because I had discussion with my Uncle, who is a principle in a title 1 school system, about this recently. He said that their school system could never do a 1-1 device because there are to many students whose family member would take the device and sell it.

  • Mike Smith

    All the points for narrow the divide.

    Maxell lto-1

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  • Mark Ambrous

    The phone picture is excellent

    that says it all


  • Vickie Peters-Wills

    Teaching in a lower income school, I have seen first hand the experience of low-income students. My own kids go to a more influential school; so, I see first hand that experience. In both situations, the students were not allowed to use their own devices in their classrooms. I have seen the lack of computers in the lower income schools. The higher income schools, basically, just expect that the kids have the technology, if they do or don’t. The lower income schools just expect that the lower income students don’t have access. However, I see the most different in what the teachers expect from the different students. Some teachers “water down” the instruction with the lower income students. The higher income students are given more and teachers expect more out of them. I do think using all sorts of different technology in the classroom would decrease behavior issues.

  • Leyna Bogart

    I could not agree more. It is not fair to only grant certain children or students access to the internet or use of devices. What sense does this make? Is it fair to say that one person of one color is more likely to hop on social media when they are supposed to be researching than the next kid is. This is not a matter of what the children will do. It is a matter of the structure, rules, and expectations that are put in place and enforced by teachers and school administrations. Do not blame children or students. If they know what they are supposed to do and not do, there will likely not be a problem of misuse of technology.

  • Amanda Imwalle

    I agree that every student should have the opportunity to use these devices. If there are statistics showing that grades are improving then why aren’t they using this information as a way to get technology to every student and school. There are so many uses that the internet offers and since technology is increasing and becoming more popular to use then we should be introducing it to our students and showing them different ways to use it. I think that once students have set rules, structure, guidance, and prompts than they will use the technology in school properly.

  • Ashley Ambos

    I think this article had a lot of great points thoughout. I really like the idea of BYOD to school however it makes me nervous because it could just be another social aspect of children who can afford a device vs the children who can’t afford the devices. I do however think that learning with technology is a lot more fun with students and they would get a lot more out of what they are being taught. With technology their learning is not limited, like it would be with just a text book. Their learning is endless! I agree that in some way the school or teacher needs to give a prompt to the students as to what is to be expected of them, basically give them rules and guidelines they have to follow. At the beginning of this article it talks about how some schools don’t want to give students the ability to use thier own devices in school because some could abuse the privilege. However, you can’t just take away the privilege from everyone just because a handfull of students wont follow the rules. I think students would be more productive and more willing to learn more if they are able to use technology more throughout the classroom. To me using technology opens the door to endless opportunitites.

  • Brittany Ford

    This was a great article to read! I’m excited to hear the progress of students when being able to use a device in the classroom. This gives every student the opportunity to further research into certain topics and interests of theirs. BYOD is a great thing to incorporate into the classroom because the students will be more familiar with their device rather than a new one from school. I understand that some students may not have the luxury of owning a smartphone, etc. but us as teachers need to be open and cooperative. In the article it talked about using an old computer or ipods, this way everyone can have their “own” device. Technology is very important in everyday life so I feel that children need to be able to have this so they can be independent learners.

  • Madde Beck

    I agree, there is potential out there – we
    just have to wheel it in. Technology has a way of grabbing people’s interest, however
    usually concerning other areas than academics. On the other hand I do have some
    questions or concerns if you will, in regards to how reliable the data actually
    is? How long has this “relation” been studied, the relation between
    mobile devices and increased academic achievement? Playing the devil’s
    advocate, what makes people so sure that technology and academic achievement will
    surpass the honeymoon period?

    Nevertheless, bringing technology into every
    school and to all students is vital in today’s society. Making it available to
    those students who do not have the means to have one of their own. It is very
    important to expose and train the students in the ways of technology, because
    it’s such a big part of every walk of life in today’s world

  • Lindsey Homan

    I think technology is very important in today’s society with students. They should be knowledgeable about using technology for learning. Though – I think there is a time and place for using electronic devices. Often times, teachers are encouraged to use activities and technology in their classrooms, and I think this sometimes happens too often. Research suggests that students need more direct instruction to be successful. I think there needs to be a balance.

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