Smart Phones Decrease the Digital Divide

It should be no surprise that after Qualcomm, a digital wireless telecommunications company, distributed smart phones to low-income students in North Carolina as a part of their Wireless Reach Initiative, student test scores improved within a year.

The Wireless Reach Initiative is aimed at helping conquer the digital divide between students who can and can’t access Internet at home. Qualcomm’s *Project K-Nect, an education project part of their Wireless Reach Initiative that launched in 2007, provided smart phones and services free of charge to approximately 250 ninth grade students in North Carolina who had limited home access to Internet and qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The students saw a 30% increase on their test scores after the first year.

Although smart phones can be a distraction in the classroom – because of the access to texting and games, in particular – the project found that the use of mobile technology helped students stay on top of what was going on at school. Peggy Johnson, Qualcomm’s president of global market development, believes the improvement was a result of the students having easier access to information at all hours of the day, as well as easier contact with other students and their teachers. With important classroom experiments such as flipped classrooms and expanding digital education tools, students without Internet access can easily be left behind.

With, on average, only 40 percent of low-income families having access to Internet at home, and an approximate total of 100 million Americans without home Internet access according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the fear that low-income students are being left behind in the digital age is a valid concern. Being disconnected nowadays, moreover, is not only a function of being poor, but can be the chasm that keeps people in poverty.

The Internet is becoming an essential tool in schools, for job hunting, and for furthering education. According to the Huffington Post, about 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, such as Target and Walmart, only accept job applications online. Consumers can save almost $7,200 a year using online resources to find discounts on expenses such as housing, clothes, gasoline, over-the-counter medicine, and food, according to a 2011 study “The Real Cost of the Digital Divide,” conducted by the Internet Innovation Alliance.

Internet access and use also directly correlates with education. According to the Federal Reserve, high school students who have broadband Internet at home have graduation rates that are 6 to 8 percent higher than students who don’t. Furthermore, a study by the PewResearch Center found that while only 4% of college graduates do not use the Internet, 48% of those without a high school diploma do not use the Internet.

“The cost of being offline is greater now than it was 10 years ago,” said John Horrigan, vice president of policy reach at TechNet, a trade association representing high-tech companies.

Accessing the Internet from a mobile device is the easiest and least expensive way for low-income students to connect online. In the US, 25% of mobile web users are dependent solely on their mobile device for Internet access. In 2011, 85% of all handsets globally were able to access the web in some form.

Johnson believes in web access as the ultimate, opened classroom door for impoverished communities. “In a village that might not have a classroom and a teacher, you can send in a single tablet and with some instructions you can leave behind a classroom,” she said.

However, a study published by the American Sociological Association found evidence that it is not just access to the Internet or a computer that is important, but the quality of that Internet access as well, along with the freedom to use it without time and equipment constraints. and the opportunities to develop information-seeking skills. For students, they found that lacking access to Internet or to quality Internet as well as constraints such as limited time of use caused students more emotional stress than those without these limits. Furthermore, group differences in the time they spent online led to disparities in their development of information-seeking skills, placing the lower-income students at a disadvantage in school and in the labor market.

And, while 19 million people living in poverty use public library computers to access the Internet, state and local cuts to library funding have led libraries to cut hours, staff, and spending on computers.

The Internet is said to be responsible for 21% of the economic growth in developed nations. The digital divide only continues to deepen for those without access – they are cut off from one of the most powerful existing learning and teaching tools. The internet is a major source of knowledge that can greatly empower students as well as adults, and broader access is necessary for education equality to permeate.

*Since Project K-Nect’s launch, the program has expanded to eight through 12th grade students in North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio. The Wireless Reach Initiative began in 2006 and to date, has 73 programs in 31 cities nationally and internationally.

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