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'Homework Gap' Hits Minority, Impoverished Students Hardest, Survey Finds

The lack of access to technology and internet connectivity at home is especially severe among poor, rural, and minority students, according to a new survey from ACT that sheds light on the vast disparities in digital access among K-12 populations.

Fourteen percent of students have access to only one device at home, and 85 percent of those students are classified as "underserved"—defined in the report as economically disadvantaged, first-generation college students, and/or people of color, according to the survey released this month.

The report sheds new insight on the "homework gap," the term used to describe the inequities between students who have devices and internet connectivity at home, and those who don't and struggle to complete tech-based assignments as a result.

"Taking a deeper dive into the data on students with access to only one device is important because these students may face challenges not faced by students with access to two or more devices," the report says.

The ACT's Center for Equity in Learning, a nonprofit organization committed to narrowing the achievement and equity gap, surveyed a random sample of high school students who were taking the ACT test in April 2017. The organization asked them about their access to and use of technology for educational activities, both at home and in school, Raeal Moore, coauthor of the report and a senior research scientist for the center, said in a phone interview. There were approximately 7,000 respondents, according to the report.

Among the findings:

  • 19 percent of students from "underserved" backgrounds report having access to only one device at home;
  • 56 percent of students who say they have access to only one device at home indicated that it was a smartphone;
  • 24 percent of students who self-report that their annual family income is below $36,000 also say they have access to only one device at home; compared to 5 percent of students from families with annual income about $100,000 who report having access to only one device;
  • 22 percent of students whose parents' highest education level is a high school education or less also report having access to only one device at home, compared to 7 percent of those whose parents' highest education level is a college degree;
  • 26 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Natives, 22 percent of African-Americans, 19 percent of Hispanic/Latinos, and 14 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders report having access to only one device at home, compared to 8 percent of Asians and 8 percent of whites; and
  • 24 percent of students who live in rural areas report having access to only one device, compared to 14 percent of those who live in urban areas.

Among the challenges faced by students who lack adequate technology at home is having to share one device with other family members in the house, like siblings who might also need it for homework or other school activities, Moore said.

"It's critical to know where there are gaps so we can determine ways to fix them," said Christina Gordon, senior director of the ACT Center for Equity in Learning.

Fixing these inequities in education is important because "we live in an age where technological innovation is becoming more synonymous with educational innovation," said Vikki Katz, an associate professor at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

But the focus shouldn't just be on access, it should also be on the quality of the electronic devices and the internet, said Katz, who is also a senior research scientist for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

A report cowritten by Katz for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in 2016 found that while 94 percent of lower-income families have some kind of Internet connection, one-quarter rely on mobile devices for that connectivity. It also found that more than half of parents surveyed said that internet access at home is too slow, or it gets cut off because they can't afford to pay for it.

Students with access to only one device are more likely to reside in a rural area than in an urban or suburban area, and 60 percent reported having "ok," "unpredictable," or "terrible" quality of internet, according to the ACT report.

To combat these problems, many school districts have tried a variety of unorthodox strategies. In Coachella Valley, Calif., the school district used school buses as a large mobile hotspot and parked the vehicles in trailer parks, to bring Internet access to kids who would not have it otherwise.

Some research suggests that access to devices is connected to positive outcomes for students. It appears to boost students' self-reliance as learners and their development of sustainable mindsets for learning, according to Project Tomorrow's Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning.

Sixty percent of school principals say that their school has adopted a 1-to-1 mobile device program for use in school, according to the Speak Up research project published this month. The Speak Up research project also reports that  high school students who were assigned a laptop in school are more likely to use those devices for personalized learning and for more enhanced learning experiences than their peers with no access or only sporadic access.

However, at home, the inequity persists.

The ACT survey found that students with access to only one device are less likely to use the device for school-related activities. Less than half of those who have access to only a smartphone use it for homework, compared to 68 percent of those with access to two or more devices who use it for homework.

The choices that school districts make about technology can alleviate inequities, or make them worse, said Sarah Thomas, who is on the leadership team at ISTE Digital Equity Professional Learning Network, in an interview.

"We want educators to embrace technology," Thomas said. "But we also have to be mindful that not all students have access to the same things. We have to be mindful not to exacerbate existing inequalities."


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