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New Report Sheds Light on the Need for Digital Equity at Home for Education

Fourth grade homework isn’t what it used to be. As teachers have increasingly integrated new technologies into their classroom instruction, take-home assignments have similarly morphed from pencil and paper worksheets to interactive online activities. Once they get home from school, students might be expected to watch a math lesson on Khan Academy as part of a flipped lesson plan; participate in an online discussion about a book, or respond to peer edits and teacher feedback on a writing assignment using Google Docs.

Classrooms across the country are undergoing ambitious upgrades to meet the demand for digital instruction, but it’s not clear how students and families are keeping up at home. While scholars and federal officials have studied the digital divide since the 1990s, there is a lot that we still do not know about the level of broadband access for low-income families, especially those with young children. A new report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and Rutgers University — with findings presented today at a digital equity event hosted at New America in Washington DC — provides insight into the continuing barriers for low- and moderate-income families trying to get connected, and the consequences of the persisting digital divide on children’s educations.

This new survey exposes persistent barriers and trade-offs to Internet access that hinder the ability of families to provide critical technological resources at home which too often leave them “under-connected.

The report, Opportunity for All: Technology and Learning in Lower-income Familiespresents findings from the first-ever nationally representative survey examining the digital connectivity of low- to moderate-income families with school-age children. The study authors surveyed 1,191 families with children between the ages of 6-13, with household incomes below $65,000 per year. The survey asked about issues ranging from the types of technological devices and Internet connections they use, to the factors that limit their digital connectivity, and even the ways that parents and children use technology together and for educational purposes. Of the families surveyed, the most cited reason for technological purchases was to support their children’s education. The survey, however, exposes persistent barriers and trade-offs to Internet access that hinder their ability to provide critical technological resources at home and which too often leave them “under-connected.”

First, two-thirds of parents surveyed reported having high-speed Internet access at home, but those whose incomes are below the poverty level and who are immigrants reported facing larger challenges accessing the Internet. For example, more low-income families depend on a mobile device as opposed to a computer; for a quarter of these families, mobile-only access via smartphones and tablets are their only connection to the Internet. Those numbers are even higher for families living below the poverty line (33 percent) and for Hispanic immigrants (41 percent). Five percent of all families report having no Internet access at all — nearly one in ten, when looking only at those with the lowest incomes. Additionally, more than half of surveyed parents indicated that their Internet service was too slow. Further, twenty percent of all parents reported having their home Internet service cut off in the past year due to lack of payment.

Not surprisingly, cost was most reported by families as the reason for not having home Internet access (42 percent) or a computer in the home (40 percent). During in-person interviews conducted with families, parents discussed the kinds of tradeoffs they face in providing Internet access in their homes. A parent in Arizona noted, “We often don’t purchase things in order to pay the bills. My son’s birthday is on Sunday, and since we have to pay the bills, we won’t be able to do anything for him.” Another parent explained, “We have to keep paying those 40 dollars per month (for Internet service) … And it’s an expense we can’t avoid because our daughter needs it.”

Clearly, low-to-moderate income families are under-connected to digital resources: while families may have some access to the Internet, their reliance on slow connections, outdated technology, and mobile devices impacts their usage and ability to access the Internet to connect them with valuable resources and information. Rideout and Katz note that “access is no longer just a yes/no question. The quality of families Internet connections, and the kinds and capabilities of devices they can access, have considerable consequences for parents and children alike.”

"Access is no longer just a yes/no question. The quality of families Internet connections, and the kinds and capabilities of devices they can access, have considerable consequences for parents and children alike.”

Throughout the report, the connectivity barriers faced by families relying on mobile-only access at home are some of the most troubling findings identified. In regard to cost, 29 percent of all families surveyed (39 percent of families below poverty) report hitting the data limit on their smartphone in the past year. Nearly one in four of all families surveyed report that their cell service was cut off because of an inability to pay. Further, parents with mobile-only access report using the Internet slightly less than parents with wired home connections for basic tasks like mapping directions, social networking, and looking up basic information. They are significantly less likely than parents with a wired connection to use the Internet for complex tasks like online banking (25 percent less likely) and applying for jobs (13 percent less likely). These differences in use suggest that mobile-only access limits the types of activities that can be completed online, whether due to the data-intensiveness of activities or limited functionality of mobile devices.

While addressing the digital divide has been at the forefront of technology-use research for years, this survey highlights the shifting nature of the target. As the authors emphasize, connectivity today is not only a matter of access, but clearly also about the kinds of connections and devices available. Though the cost of connectivity remains a clear barrier, families are making due with the options they can afford. But ensuring digital equity for all families, rather than maintaining a two-tiered system for access, will require targeted programs and clear policies that target under-connected families to address gaps in both connectivity and devices."