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Getting Students Wired to Cross the Digital Divide

Back to Skills

As more education reform efforts lean on technology to try to improve schools and lift student achievement, policy makers are grappling with a tricky reality: a digital divide in the era of digital natives.

A number of recent studies suggest the effectiveness of new techniques like flipped classrooms or supplemental videos to boost a student’s learning can be compromised by the number of low-income students without access to high-speed Internet at home.

Using 2011 figures, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project estimates that in households where the top education certificate is a high school diploma or less, just 65 percent of the nation’s youth own a computer. That figure jumps to 80 percent in homes where parents or guardians have more than a high school diploma. The number is higher among teenagers. In March, a Pew survey found that 91 percent of those teenagers polled have a computer at home.

Leichtman Research Group, a digital technology research firm, released a report in 2012 that found only 47 percent of households with incomes of $30,000 or less have broadband access. For households with incomes of $50,000 or more, 91 percent have high-speed Internet connections. While exact figures on how many students lack broadband at home are tough to come by, many children come from households where incomes are low. In 2009-10, the most recent data available, nearly 48 percent of students in the nation’s public schools qualified for free and reduced lunch. The cutoff income this year for a family of four receiving free lunch—and far more households qualify for this subsidy than the reduced-price one—is $29,695, suggesting—according to the Leichtman report— they stand a good chance of not having adequate Internet or a computer.

Already, 80 percent of teachers assign Internet-based homework according to the Federal Communication Commission, meaning financially strapped students risk falling further behind because they lack the technology to keep up with their peers.

Several nonprofit groups and government programs are attempting to improve access for families isolated by lack of funds or rural settings characterized by inadequate digital infrastructure. CFY, a national organization that promotes digital learning tools, distributes computers and helps connect families with discounted high-speed Internet. It also metes out free software that allows teachers to tailor instruction around a student’s skill level, arguably expanding the time of instruction as kids take the laptops home and keep at it. (Last year, a New York Times contributing writer explored the organization’s efforts at a largely low-income middle school where the majority of students are Hispanic.)

In partnership with schools, CFY has hosted weekend workshops for 50,000 students and their parents or guardians, offering tutorials on how to use the organization’s learning software. At the end of the workshop, students are then given computers permanently. Their schools also adopt the software, helping to equal the learning playing field for low-income kids. CFY says while 50 percent of its New York City participants didn’t have broadband at home coming into the workshops, 92 percent did afterward, buoyed by the discounted broadband subscriptions the organization arranged through partnerships with Time Warner Cable and CableVision. For their participants in Los Angeles, where no such broadband subsidy exists, high-speed Internet access jumped from 39 to 76 percent among families who completed the computer tutorials.

“Among families who previously didn’t have high-speed Internet,” says  CFY’s CEO and co-founder Elisabeth Stock, “it’s the educational relevance of broadband that is driving them to adopt in large numbers.”

Testing company ETS tracked 175 CFY students in 2006 to see if the in-home computer program made a difference in their learning outcomes. The researchers found students actively used their new devices for academic purposes, and the computer use helped explain why their math test scores increased from the previous year. Two-thirds of the students said the computers made them care more about their school work. (Meanwhile, a longitudinal study spanning six years at Michigan State University found regular Internet usage boosted student GPAs and standardized test scores.)

The federal government has a long history of helping schools and households defray the cost of mass communication technology. E-rate, a $2.25 billion project that metes out funds to school districts purchasing broadband service, is one such effort. A few smaller programs also have emerged to bring the Internet to more homes.

The Federal Communications Commission helped launched a similar computer and broadband distribution program for households with students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, called Connect2Compete. Founded in 2011 through a public-private partnership and an independent non-profit since summer of 2012, Connect2Compete links low-income families with $150 refurbished desktops or laptops. The organization also arranges high-speed Internet for less than $10 for families who are financially eligible and live in one the 14,000 zip codes with Internet providers that are partnering with Connect2Complete. Best Buy, Microsoft, LULAC, the National Urban League, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America are some of the roughly forty participating companies and organizations partnering with Connect2Compete. The FCC calculates that students with broadband at home are six to eight percent more likely to graduate from high school than students who don’t. Lifeline, a federal service that since the mid-1980s has helped needy households shoulder the cost of telephone—and later cellular—access, is experimenting with $25 million in bringing broadband to more homes.

Keeping up with innovations in hardware is another challenge. Though tablets and smartphones present a cheaper alternative to most traditional home computers, divisions remain between low-income and middle-class households. According to the Pew Research Center, 31 percent of homes with incomes under $30,000 have a smartphone compared to 56 percent of those with incomes ranging between $50,000 and $75,000.  Even fewer families own tablets, but earlier in March an education subsidiary of media company News Corp.—Amplify—introduced a fully-loaded tablet sold exclusively to schools with prices that start at $299.

New education initiatives are spurring a greater reliance on technology at home and in the classroom. And just as the summer learning slide affects more low-income students than their wealthier peers, the digital divide is one more signifier denoting a gap in resources between students along socio-economic lines. With expanded technology increasingly becoming a goalpost for education achievement, expect to see more initiatives attempt to bring gigahertz and megabytes to students’ homes.