Students and technology access

K–12 education in America is making greater and greater use of digital resources. Schools are using them for ease (group collaboration via Google Docs), expense (electronic textbooks and curricular materials are cheap and easily distributed), and convenience (group chats and electronic grade reporting make necessary communication quick and uniform). Additionally, the workplaces into which graduates will emerge run on digital devices—even in more traditional fields such as medicine and manufacturing.

It is easy for those of us old enough to have memories of yesterday’s analogue world to minimize this evolution. We adapted to email easily enough and were quick to trade our pagers for flip phones, after all. But the more that non-electronic alternatives bow out and the more our world is run by digital natives, we ignore inequitable access to technology at the peril of our young people. A new brief from ACT, Inc. shines some interesting light on the status of technology access among today’s students.

A group of ACT researchers surveyed a random sample of 7,233 American students who took the ACT as part of its national administration in April 2017. Students were asked a series of questions about the availability and use of electronics at home, including the number and kinds of electronic devices they had access to, the type and reliability of the internet connections available to them, and how often they needed to use their home devices and internet access for various school-related activities. The good news is that 85 percent of respondents reported having access to between two and five devices. The bad news is that 14 percent of respondents reported having access to just one device.

That wouldn’t be such bad news if it was the right device—such as an internet-connected computer. Unfortunately, for the majority of these students, their sole device is a smartphone. Despite advances over the last ten years, smartphones are of course poorly adapted for writing papers, doing research, and completing typical homework assignments. Additionally, nearly half of these single-device students (47 percent) have access to the internet only via a monthly cellular data plan. While unlimited data plans are more readily available and cheaper than in the past, they are not universally available and often lack strong coverage even in urban areas. To say nothing of rural dead zones. These less-than-reliable connections can further limit the usefulness of any given device, especially in regard to unplanned work or long-form assignments. This may be foreign for those of us with unlimited broadband access, but anyone counting minutes of data (perhaps sharing them with other family members, including other students) or struggling with signal strength will at one time or another have to sacrifice today’s thorough work for the sake of tomorrow’s access. Although the most-reported school activity engaged in via electronic devices by all students was checking grades (kudos on the diligence!), the next five were variations of homework, research, writing papers, and student/teacher communication. Across the board, students with access to a single device reported engaging in all these activities less than students with access to two or more devices, with smartphone-only students engaging in them less than all other students in the survey.

Those of us with ready and automatic access to powerful technology and the breadth of the internet cannot dismiss the “digital divide.” Technology use in the work world, in college, and in the military is on an unrelenting advance. We cannot accept such a divide in K–12 education. Students trying to research and write papers on a phone with a monthly data plan is tantamount to malpractice. However, the complete solution to this problem does not rest on the education system. Universal broadband access, called for in ACT’s recommendations, is a civic responsibility. Those efforts can be aided by private enterprise, as can the expansion of access to fully functional digital devices—laptops with word and data processing software built in, educational apps, and search engines—for students. These devices, especially for high schoolers readying for the leap to college, should be required school supplies, and every effort should be made to ensure they have them.

SOURCE: Raeal Moore, PhD, Dan Vitale, and Nycole Stawinoga, “The Digital Divide and Educational Equity: A Look at Students with Very Limited Access to Electronic Devices at Home,” ACT, Inc. (August, 2018).

 
 
Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,