When Home Internet Means A Mobile Device, Can A Kid Succeed At School? : All Tech Considered Smartphones are often credited with helping bridge the "digital divide" between people who do and don't have Internet access at home. But is mobile Internet enough for a family with a kid in school?

How Limited Internet Access Can Subtract From Kids' Education

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Smartphones have been credited with helping bridge what's often called the digital divide between people who do and do not have Internet access at home. But is a phone enough for a family with children in school? NPR's Alina Selyukh reports on this challenge which is faced by many job low-income families.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Can 14-year-old kids succeed in school if all they have for Internet access is a mobile device?

LORENA URIBE: Absolutely not.

SELYUKH: That's Lorena Uribe speaking about her own teenage daughter. Several years ago for about five months, they found themselves in a bind with no computer or broadband access at home and homework to do.

URIBE: In the meantime, I would take her to mall and have her sit in Panera so she could use the Wi-Fi on her iPad from school.

SELYUKH: Now the Internet connection at their home near San Diego is a cord in the wall attached to a desktop, which they bought through a discount program at school. Uribe says, sometimes web pages take a while to load and it's annoying, but it works.

URIBE: You have Internet, you have the computer - what more do you really, really need?

SELYUKH: Researchers at Rutgers University and the Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop collected dozens of stories like Uribe's. They did a study focused specifically on low-income families with school-age children. They found more than 90 percent do have some Internet access but many are under-connected. Co-author Vikki Katz.

VIKKI KATZ: Their equipment is too slow or out-of-date or they're sharing a device between too many people or they can't afford to maintain consistent connection without cutoffs or the broadband that they have is too slow.

SELYUKH: And about a quarter of lower-income families rely on a mobile device for Internet access at home. And Katz says that makes it hard for kids to do more than a bare minimum.

KATZ: They are significantly less likely to use the Internet every day. They're significantly less likely to go online to find out more about things that interest them. And that's a key element in what educators and researchers refer to as interest-driven learning.

SELYUKH: And so the families adapt. They send kids to do homework at a friend's house, borrow neighbor's Wi-Fi password or skip a celebration to pay for a laptop. Co-author Victoria Rideout.

VICTORIA RIDEOUT: We find that the most important reason that families aren't connected is financial. It's not that they don't understand the importance of this for their kids' education.

ERNESTO VILLANUEVA: And I think teachers are cognizant of that.

SELYUKH: Ernesto Villanueva is an executive director and former teacher and principal in the Chula Vista Elementary School District in southern California. He says a mobile phone can be sufficient for some types of homework, like reading something short or watching a video. But that's often not enough.

VILLANUEVA: We are in a place where we want students to be creative, to be artistic, to be - you know, to demonstrate the skill sets that aren't only about reading something or watching a video but also doing something with that.

SELYUKH: And in many cases, teachers do to try to make sure that everybody can do their homework.

VILLANUEVA: We're going to figure out a way, whether that's recess time, lunchtime, after-school, before school.

SELYUKH: And the government, too, is trying to reshuffle some subsidies. The Federal Communications Commission has one that covers telephone access. They're considering changing it to also cover broadband. But digital equity experts say the most important thing will be changing the way we think about the issue, no longer the question of if there's access but what's the quality. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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