By Tracey Dowdy
How many ways can you get online at your house? Thanks to Verizon and Apple, my family connects via 4 smartphones, 7 laptops, a tablet and a gaming system, all with high speed Internet access. Three of those laptops and that iPad are dated but they still provide online access to everything from entertainment and social media to banking and homework resources.
My family may not be the norm, but we’re not the exception either. The problem is that as schools rely more and more on online resources to educate our kids, a gap is becoming increasingly obvious. Although nine out of ten low-income families have access to the Internet at home, most are “under-connected,” meaning their access is limited to smartphones or tablets. That figure represents one-quarter of those earning below the median income and one-third of those living below poverty level.
To add to this disparity, a recent report called Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in low income families reveals that one-third of those families with mobile-only access hit their data limit and one quarter had their service suspended for not paying their bills.
The obvious take-away from those statistics is that high income families have better Internet access than low-income families. That’s not a surprise to any of us. But dig deeper into the report and you’ll find that those same families often share devices, meaning that Internet access is even more limited as family members have to take turns.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the commission who has pushed to overhaul the federal low income phone subsidy program Lifeline, calls it the “homework gap” and says it’s the “cruelest part of the digital divide.”
This homework gap is making it increasingly difficult for lower income children to keep up with their higher income peers on an academic level. Many schools rely on online resources to complete homework assignments and to connect parents with educators and school staff. That online access translates to higher grades and better overall academic success for some, leaving others lagging behind regardless of individual academic ability.
It’s a Catch-22 situation for educators. “We try to accommodate those without access in every way we can but we can’t hold back on our use of technology in the classrooms because we have to prepare our children for the world that is waiting for them,” says Marla M. Guerra, superintendent of the South Texas Independent School District.
To compensate for the lack of access at home, some school districts like South Texas Independent have made Wi-Fi available on school buses, enabling students to do homework during their commute. This has led some students to choose a longer commute in order to complete their assignments. Others, like the McAllen Independent School District, run a wireless hotspot at schools 24 hours a day so students can take advantage of Wi-Fi late at night. This is particularly valuable when you consider students from low income families often have jobs outside school hours, making it more difficult to use community libraries which are closed by the time they get off work. For students in rural areas or where there’s limited access to public transportation it’s an even greater challenge, as students may be dependent upon parents or caregivers to drive them to the library or other venues that offer free Wi-Fi.
Don’t forget that students who otherwise feel marginalized or don’t fit in at school often connect with online communities of individuals with shared interests. These communities can help mitigate feelings of isolation or depression leading to a better quality of life and higher levels of overall happiness. That in itself can lead to greater academic success.
What can we do? Well, if you’ve got a laptop you don’t need, an old desk top, even a tablet or a phone, consider donating it. Talk to your child’s principal about donating to a needy family or consider donating to an organization like InterConnection that repurposes devices for nonprofits, schools, libraries, low-income families and disaster relief. If your laptop boots up, they’ll take it, and they promise to wipe any personal information before putting the device into circulation. InterConnection will even pay shipping costs for your phones, laptops and tablets.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.