Access, mobile devices, and edtech equity

Hunger can be overcome only when students obtain “access at all times to enough food.” 30 Similarly, in this “postindustrial” stage of capitalism, access to edtech is a “critical factor in generating and accessing wealth, power and knowledge.”31 As with food, the potential benefits of edtech require access – embodied within infrastructure and connectivity – the absence of which inhibits efforts “to derive the higher values from the more advanced application of information technology.”32 At the same time, “differential access […] can help further amplify the already too-large educational inequities in American society.”33

Trends in education spending indicate that 21st century K-12 technology infrastructure will be powered in large part by cloud computing, which relies on “network connectivity.”34 As a result of the Federal Communication Commission’s E-Rate program – launched in 1998 – nearly every U.S. school has some level of internet connectivity.35 As of 2015, 77 percent of school districts were meeting the program’s minimum goal of 100 kilobits per second per student – compared to 30 percent in 2013. Nonetheless, as many as 21 million students do not have sufficient internet access at school – due to factors including lack of affordability and insufficient school district budgets.36 In addition, many classrooms do not have access to adequate Wi-Fi networks,37 reducing the feasibility of mobile devices as tools for learning.

Another important component of access to edtech is “end user computing devices.”38 Mobile devices hold the potential to dramatically change education by enabling learning that is “on-demand” and available “anytime and anywhere”39 as well as more collaborative and authentic:

[M]obile devices can permit the traditional concept of the classroom to be expanded to include the environment and wider community; data can be realistic and activities genuinely problem-solving, and the potential for sharing data and the social construction of meaning across multiple contexts opens exciting possibilities for collaborative learning.40

In U.S. schools, many students have access to laptops, smartphones, or tablets.41 Because most of these devices are school-owned and shared among multiple students,42 technology access at school “will always require the hard work of negotiating among all members of a classroom community.”43

In addition to social considerations, there are also cultural barriers that prevent many low-income students from realizing potential benefits from edtech at school. With regard to mobile technology, many students are forced to navigate an inherent “mismatch” between their home and school cultures.44 While almost all children in the U.S. – including many from low-income households – have access to mobile devices at home,45 many students remain burdened with “unequal access to educational resources” at school.46 An increasing minority of schools are experimenting with “bring-your-own-device (BYOD)” policies to increase edtech access, yet these present their own privacy and security challenges.47

Implications for educators and technology developers

30. Coleman-Jensen et al, 2015, p. i
31. Castells, 1998, as cited in Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 180
32. Urwiler & Frolick, 2008, p. 85
33. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 180
34. Pierce & Cleary, 2016, p. 866
35. Ross, 2015
36. EducationSuperHighway, 2015
37. ibid
38. Pierce & Cleary, 2016, p. 866
39. Sheng et al, 2010, p. 28
40. Bray & Tangney, 2015, p. 175
41. Pearson, 2014
42. ibid
43. Kerschbaum, 2015, para. 33
44. Rosebery et al, 2001, p. 1
45. Kabali et al, 2015
46. USDOE, 2014, p. 2
47. Holeywell, 2013, para. 1