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Income disparity limits access to technology at school

Published: Monday, March 4 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Students at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. work on laptop computers as part of an assignment for English. Access to computers at home and school is limited by socioeconomic status, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

Elizabeth Stuart

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Teachers across the nation say they are increasingly relying on digital technologies like laptops, tablets and cellphones in middle and high school classrooms, but they note a "striking" disparity in access to the latest technology between affluent and disadvantaged schools, according to a new survey conducted by Kristen Purcell from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

Ninety two percent of the 2,462 teachers surveyed say the internet has a major impact on their ability to access content, resources and material for their teaching. Laptops, tablets and cellphones are used by students and teachers to look up information, take pictures for assignments and for text messaging in class as part of an assignment.

"Digital technologies have become essentail instructional tools for the vast majority of teachers in this study," notes Purcell, associate director of research at the Pew Internet Project. "Yet, not all teachers feel they and their students have the access they need to these tools or the resources to use them effectively."

In fact, Purcell found that 84 percent of teachers believe that digital technology leads to greater disparity between have and have-not schools and districts. To illustrate the divide, consider Purcell's finding that 56 percent of teachers at low income schools say they do not have sufficient resources to effectively incorporate digital technology into their classrooms. Only 21 percent of teachers at upper middle income schools have this issue. Not surprisingly, Purcell found great disparity in access to technology at home as well.

Computers at school

This disparity is illustrated in a comparison of two public middle schools in the greater Salt Lake City area. Ecker Hill Middle School, a school in the Park City School District, recently implemented a one device per child policy. Each of the 726 students receives an Apple laptop at the beginning of the school year. “It’s their computer,” for the school year, said Park City School District Technology Instructional Coach Sam Thompson. “They can take it home at night and on the weekends.”

Students use the devices to do math homework on a program called Digits, an online research database for history and can communicate with their teachers about assignments and expectations via another program called Canvas, which operates like a digital blackboard. While the students don’t have administrative access, and their internet is filtered, the school doesn’t actively track what they do online and encourages them to use the devices for recreational activities as well.

Now consider the situation down the mountain and across the valley at West Lake Junior High School, part of the Granite School District. Principal Isiah “Ike” Spencer estimates there are about 340 computers for the school’s 1,200 students. That’s nearly four students for each computer. Spencer says if he includes tablets and e-readers in the calculation, the ratio is closer to two or three children per device.

The device disparity between the two schools is explained by the tax base on which they draw. Ecker Hill serves students in Summit County, where the average household income in 2011 was $72,643, one of the wealthiest in the nation according to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis. West Lake Junior, by contrast, serves students from the Salt Lake School District where the average household income in 2011 was just $39,081.

Computers at home

Access to devices at home is also a problem. While 52 percent of teachers at affluent schools say their students have access to technology at home, only 3 percent of teachers at low income schools said their students had access to devices at home, according to Pew Research Center data.

Ecker Hill Middle School’s solution for inequality is to provide all the children with the same device, a device they can use at school and take home. The district even arranged low cost internet access for families with financial difficulty. As the one student per device strategy was launched, the school made the conscious decision to give every student, regardless of their family situation, the same access to technology. “We wanted something equitable,” said Thompson, and the best way to ensure this at home and at school was to give everyone a computer.

Spencer, the principal at West Lake, says most of his students don’t have access to technology at home. “Maybe their parents have a smartphone,” he said, but the student probably isn’t using it to do their homework at night.

The school compensates for lack of access to devices at home by opening up the school computer labs every day at 6:30 in the morning. They close the last lab at seven o’clock at night. “The labs are always full in the morning, and full after school,” Spencer said. "The students need the computers to do their [math] homework on Digits, and to do research for projects and to write up book reports."

Spencer arranges to have teachers and parent volunteers come in early to open the computer labs. He made this decision after going to check access to computers at the local public library. “You put your name down because there's always a waiting list,” he said. “You might wait all night and never get on.” Hardly a tenable situation when students must have access to computers to complete their homework assignments.

Spencer is circumspect about the situation. “It would be nice to have a one to one ratio, espcially because my students really respond well to the differentiated instruction they can get from computers, but we’ve got a lot of other areas where resources need to be allocated.” For now, they make do with 340 computers and parents and teachers willing to give of their time so students can learn.

Judy Buchanan, deputy director of the National Writing Project and a collaborator on the study, suggests there needs to be a greater emphais on equality. "The key moving forward is to ensure that all educators and students have equal access to the vast resources available online, and the encouragement and training to use them in groundbreaking ways," she said.

In an earlier version of this story, we said West Lake Jr. High school is part of Salt Lake School District. West Lake is actually in the Granite School District.

Email: mwhite@deseretnews.com

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