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.

Cooney Center digital ownership

“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.”

What’s Lost When Kids Are ‘Under-connected’ to the Internet? 3 February,2016Ki Sung

  • Michael Flood

    The so-called “Homework Gap” and the lack of access to Broadband for educational use is our entire focus at Kajeet. We developed our Education Broadband solutions to help schools and districts provide the access needed for all students to compete in the new digital learning landscape. There is more information about the problem at our resources page: http://www.kajeet.net/resources and some very heart-warming stories about district programs at http://www.kajeet.net/customer-stories. We also launched a recognition program focused on educators and administrators that are actually ACTING to bridge the divide: http://www.homeworkgap.com

    • No Name

      I have been truly blessed to have found this site. I am a 54 yr.old mom, my husband is 56. We desperately tried to have children earlier in life but had a lot of issues with infertility..But finally at the age of 42 we were extremely blessed with our son, who is now 12yo. When I was in college (I have 2 BS degrees and graduated with a 4.0); computers were just starting to become popular and the Intro to computers class I took was basically DOS. Back then, in my junior year, my now husband bought me a Word Processor. I could have made a small fortune from everyone borrowing it to complete assignments. The 20-30 year old age gap between the parents of my sons friends is one problem in itself; but, trying to keep up with all this technology that is forever changing is another issue. To keep it short, we have been blessed again by having the ability to purchase most of the devices necessary for our son be educated, not just from a book and handwriting notes from the blackboard (as my age group did). It is unfortunate that a lot of schools fail to realize that many children are being raised by their grandparents, or the grandparents have them most of the day and/or evening while the parents are at work. Although the parents income exceeds the limit for assistance, the grandparents, many on a fixed income can barely pay their bills and purchase their medication. So what will happen to the children in this situation. Grandparents watching their grandchildren 5 days a week (putting them on and taking them off the bus, providing dinner, helping with homework-if it’s on paper, until the parent arrives to them up) is a national norm now. This is going to have to be addressed also. At 54 I try my best to keep up with all this high tech mumbo jumbo-lol. Two years ago I thought that meant Lots of Love-Ha Ha and 2 weeks ago I just figured out how to sync the PC to my phone ( for school purposes only). I am still trying to figure out how to use much of this new technology. I can’t imagine what it would be like for those less fortunate to start now and although going green is definitely a top priority for the entire universe, I still depend on my paper trail. Its just not as big.

  • Megan Weed

    I graduated high school in 2006, and by then the internet was pretty much standard for most people. However, my family was poor, and I felt a little behind. My friends would brag how easy it was to complete their projects thanks to Google. That was 10 years ago. Now, I’m working toward my degree in education. I see students everywhere using iPads and laptops in classrooms. Teachers are connecting in neat ways with their students on social media and classroom websites. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for today’s students with limited internet access at home. It was difficult for me ten years ago!

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Ki Sung

Ki Sung is the senior editor of MindShift. Prior to joining MindShift in 2014, she was a digital news trainer at NPR.

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