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Mobile-Only Internet Access Presents Hurdles for Families, Survey Finds

Dig-Boy-iPad.jpgLower-income families in the United States have near-universal access to the Internet and some kind of digital device, but they are often at a disadvantage when it comes to the quality and consistency of their connections, especially when they are limited to mobile devices such as smartphones.

That's among the key takeaways from "Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower-Income Families," a research report released today by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit research organization focused on children and digital media.

"Not all connectivity is created equal, and not all devices provide the same kinds of online experiences," the report reads. "Many families face limitations in the form of service cutoffs, slow service, older technology, or difficulty using equipment because too many people are sharing devices."

The study, based primarily on a nationally representative phone survey of 1,191 families living below the national median household income for families with children, also found that parents are generally quite positive about the role of technology and the Internet in their children's lives and schooling.

But nearly three-fourths of those polled still worry about exposure to inappropriate content online, and 63 percent believe the time their children spend with technology detracts from their involvement with other activities.

The report's focus on digital inequities among school-aged children comes at a crucial policy juncture: Over the past 18 months, the federal government has embarked on an ambitious effort to improve schools' and communities' access to affordable high-speed Internet service through the E-rate program. In December, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted in its new National Education Technology Plan the ongoing problem of a "digital-use divide" between active and passive uses of digital and online content and tools.

And there is growing concern that the rise of online high-stakes testing may be disadvantaging students—often those from lower-income families—with relatively limited prior exposure to technology.

"Many families are making the most of whatever forms of connectivity they can afford," the new Joan Ganz Cooney Center report reads, but "the quality of families' Internet connections, and the kinds and capabilities of the devices they can access, have considerable consequences for parents and children alike."

Money a barrier to reliable Internet access

Among the new report's key findings on lower-income families' access to technology and the Internet:

  • 94 percent of lower-incomes families have some kind of access to the Internet, but 23 percent of those families (and a full one-third of families living below the poverty line) rely on mobile-only access.
  • Not surprisingly, money is a huge issue: Among lower-income families with mobile-only access, 24 percent have had their phone service cut off, 29 percent have hit the limits of their mobile data plans, and 21 percent report challenges associated with too many people in the family sharing the same phone.
  • Discounted Internet-service programs such as Comcast's Internet Essentials have barely made a dent in the problem: Among the families surveyed, only 5 percent said they had ever signed up for such a program.
  • Families headed by lower-income Hispanic immigrants are less connected than similar families from other ethnic and racial groups.
  • Lower-income parents were also unlikely to take advantage of community resources such as libraries in order to get connected: Just 29 percent of those without home computer access said they used computers at public libraries "sometimes" or "often." Mobile-only parents were more likely to make regular use of free Wi-fi at places such as coffee shops and restaurants.

Still, the survey found, parents were motivated to get the best connections they can, primarily in order to support their children's academic development and to connect with family and friends.

The survey also asked about Internet usage habits. Not surprisingly, nearly three-fourths of the parents surveyed reported accessing the Internet daily (although that plunged to 60 percent for parents living below the poverty line.)  Among the main reasons parents said they went online:

  • Looking up information: 95 percent (who said they did this "sometimes" or "often")
  • Finding places to go/mapping directions: 86 percent
  • Staying in touch with families/friends:  83 percent
  • Keeping up with news/local events: 78 percent
  • Online banking/bill paying: 67 percent
  • Shopping: 58 percent
  • Applying for jobs/services: 52 percent

It's that last point that caused the researchers some concern, especially because lower-income parents with mobile-only access reported being significantly less likely than their counterparts with home computers to use the Internet to seek employment and sign up for benefits and services.

"A primary digital-equity concern is whether having mobile-only Internet access limits families' ability to engage in certain types of online activities," the report reads. "Our findings indicate those concerns may be well-founded." 

Focusing on the "digital-use divide"

With its recent overhaul of the federal E-rate program, the Federal Communications Commission has set the stage for expanded access to affordable high-speed Internet inside schools. The commission is also currently looking at strategies to help close the so-called "homework gap," including possible updating of the federal Lifeline program to allow for federal subsidies for home broadband service to low-income households.

But access isn't enough; policymakers are increasingly focused on how students actually use technology and the Internet at home and in the classroom. The federal education department's new National Education Technology Plan, for example, calls for giving more students wider opportunities to code, create media, design, and collaborate with experts and with each other, rather than passively receiving digital content.

And with new evidence that students who lack prior exposure to educational technology might suffer on the high-stakes standardized assessments that have largely moved online, that focus will likely grow even sharper.

It's a reality that parents are already keenly aware of, if the Joan Ganz Cooney Center report is any indication: Among the surveyed parents whose children use computers or tablets at school, 84 percent said they consider that technology helpful during preparation for important tests. The lowest-income parents, as well as non-white parents and those with lower levels of educational attainment, all were more likely to "strongly agree" that technology is helpful in preparing for those assessments.

"The parents who are least likely to be connected to the technology themselves...have the most positive views about the benefits of technology in preparing students for important tests," the report said. "This may reflect parents' hope that technology will even an unequal playing field for their children."

Strong majorities of the parents surveyed also said that computers and mobile devices help their children learn important skills, that the Internet exposes children to important new ideas and information, and that computers and tablets in the classroom improve the overall quality of their children's education.

Among parents' concerns about ed tech: Just over one-third of those surveyed worried that classroom technology use may result in teachers knowing less about their children's individual needs (a figure that was far higher among foreign-born Hispanic parents.)

The study also looked at how lower-income parents and their children use technology together, concluding that "family members are resources for each other when it comes to learning with, and about, technology."


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