Is Internet access the new leveler of society?

economic_divide copyMost schools would love to have the complications of e-learning in a classroom that happen when the dream of an iPad for every student actually occurs.  But due to lack of funding they are scrambling to figure out how to use the internet enabled phones, e-readers and tablets that students are already bringing to school as a basis for electronic classrooms. 

So often I’ve heard “the overwhelming majority of students walk into school with an internet enabled device.” This is a nice optimistic sentiment, but not a working solution. If a school implements “BYOD” (Bring your own device) as a costing cutting strategy there are still expenses that sneak in the back door. Multiply the number of tablets, such as iPad, or e-readers, such as Kindle, that access a local wireless network and  suddenly the teachers are trying to show streaming videos that just don’t seem to stream. The increased internet demand necessitates new networking hardware to update the wi-fi infrastructure. BYOD may mean the school needs to purchase an expensive new server.    

Of course, if smart phones and androids are the major source of internet connection the parents will be footing a hefty bill for increased mobile internet usage. Research on children’s use of media shows that parents of low income families are less likely to use a mobile media device for apps or internet access.[1] Therefore, schools that can least afford an iPad for every student, serve populations in which many students do not have access to internet through smart phone or home computer. 

Unfortunately, this problem also occurs for a minority of students in schools serving predominantly middle class populations. I have seen bright, eager students from poor families failing to succeed in higher level classes when the teacher erroneously assumed that everybody had internet at home. The very student whom education would help the most is shut out by this kind of blindness. Existence of a parent e-mail address is no guarantee of a home computer. Every time I visit the local library I see the new computer room packed with adults – their only private internet access. New teachers from the middle class often have a hard time comprehending that in some districts 10 to 20 % of students do not have internet at home. Any attempts at instituting a flipped classroom dooms certain students to failure because they cannot watch recorded lectures or complete on-line activities outside of school.

As students move up the education ladder to high school and (hopefully) on to college or a technical institution owning technology becomes more essential. According to a study on student adoption of technology owning both a mobile device and a computer (netbook, laptop or desktop) is not only considered essential, but the computers are expected to be current models that are two years old of less.[2]  The difference in achievement based on the economic level of the student’s family is only magnified by this “digital divide.”

There is also a divide in how the wealthy and poor use the internet access that they do have. A Pew research study found that not only do higher income Americans own more different devices to be able to access the internet, anytime, anywhere, they are more likely to use the internet to research information and conduct business/commercial transactions. Those in the lower incomes brackets mostly use the internet for gaming, listening to music, or watching  videos.[3] This difference in applying technology – for entertainment or for performing a task – will continue to increase the divide. All the wealth of information on the internet is not exactly divided equally. 

[1] http://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/zero-eight-childrens-media-use-america/key-finding-2%3A-substantial-digital-divide
[2] http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ers1006/rs/ers10064.pdf
[3] http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Better-off-households.aspx

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