Can a kid succeed in school with only a mobile device for Internet access at home?
Lorena Uribe doesn't have to think about that one:
"Absolutely not," she says.
When her old computer broke down several years ago, she and her teenage daughter found themselves in a bind for about five months: homework to do and no computer or broadband access at home.
"I would take her to the mall and have her sit in Panera so she could use the Wi-Fi on her iPad from school," Uribe says.
Now, the Internet connection at their home near San Diego is a cord in the wall, attached to a desktop that they bought through a discount program at school. Uribe says sometimes Web pages take a while to load and it can get annoying — but it works.
"You have Internet, you have a computer. What more do you really, really need," she says.
Researchers from Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop collected dozens of stories like Uribe's for a new study focused specifically on lower-income families with school-age children.
They surveyed nearly 1,200 parents with kids between 6 and 13 years old, whose income is below the national median for families with children. They found that even among the poorest households, nine in 10 families do have some access to the Internet, but in many cases that means dial-up or a mobile data plan.
"Our data is one of the first, if not the first time that we can really comprehensively look at whether or not having mobile-only access — meaning that you don't have it through a computer or a desktop — whether or not it's equivalent. And what our findings show is that it is not," says co-author Vikki Katz.
The study puts in a new light the important progress that smartphones brought to many disconnected households.
As early as in 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that phones were reducing historic Internet use disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. Similarly, smartphones became the gateway to the Internet for many less wealthy Americans, and surveys like Pew still find people with lower incomes to be more heavily dependent on their smartphones for Web access.
What that has produced, however, is a quarter of lower-income families with kids in school having only a mobile device for Internet access. Among families living below the poverty level, the proportion rises to a third. And it's highest at 41 percent among immigrant Hispanic families in particular.
Can You Do Homework On A Phone?
For children, that means they're less likely to use the Internet on a daily basis, according to the study. And that charts a far harder road for a kid to become a digitally savvy student and worker.
Katz says that also makes it hard for children to explore topics and ideas that interest them personally — what educators sometimes call interest-driven learning — which can prevent them from cementing, say, an interest in a musical instrument or developing another expertise.
"These are important factors in thinking about how the homework gap is much broader than just homework," she says.
And even for regular homework, limited technology at home can be a setback.
"It could be, in a general term, a question of what is the homework that's being asked of the child," says Ernesto Villanueva, an executive director and former teacher and principal at Chula Vista Elementary School District in San Diego county.
"And now we find is we are in a place where we want students to be creative, to be artistic, to demonstrate the skill sets that aren't only about reading something or watching a video but also doing something with that."
In that sense, it can be a matter of a small screen and lack of keyboard, making even a tablet an upgrade as a device. (And it's important to note that a "mobile device" in the Rutgers/Cooney study did account for tablets as well.) But if there's no Wi-Fi at home, a tablet would have to rely on a mobile data plan, posing its own challenges like data caps, weak connections or shared access with multiple family members.
"If we're asking kids to go home and watch a video and mom and dad are on a measured plan, well that's going to pose a problem," Villanueva says, "because mom can't have you watch three of those high-intensity video and then she no longer has access for the rest of the month."
Discount Internet Programs Don't Reach
As expected, the main reason why lower-income families reported a lack of high-quality Internet access at home was cost.
"It's not that they don't understand the importance of this for their kids' education," says Katz's co-author Victoria Rideout. "It's not that they don't desire it. It's not that they don't feel confident using the Internet. It's that they don't have the financial resources to be as connected as they want to be."
Various Internet service providers do have discount programs targeted at low-income Americans, like Comcast's "Internet Essentials", but the study found they weren't reaching many of the families surveyed. Of the families who would generally be eligible by income level, only 6 percent said they've ever signed up for such discount programs, according to the report.
Why aren't more families using the programs?
"There's a few problems, but one of them is that they presume that these families are still on the 'wrong' side of a digital divide, meaning that they have little to no technology in their homes," says Katz. "And we can see from (the survey) and from the interviews, that that's not true."
For instance, some of the programs only offer wired Ethernet connections, which are restricting for a household with several children; or only accept homes that have not had any Internet service for several months, which means eligible families who previously signed up for a higher-cost service have to go without Internet to qualify for the discounted service.
Some shifts are starting to happen. The Obama administration has been working to reshuffle some of its funding to focus on connectivity. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote this year to begin restructuring its old telephone subsidy called Lifeline to also cover broadband.
And digital equity experts say, the most important thing will be changing the way we think about the issue: no longer the question of if there's access, but what's the quality.
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