National and local efforts to get low-income families online have emphasized that without consistent, quality connections to the Internet, families are missing out on important opportunities. Children’s learning, both in and out of school, increasingly requires developing digital skills. For parents, the Internet can help with finding information on everything from advice about raising healthy children, to finding a job. As more and more resources migrate online, broadband connectivity and meaningful engagement with digital technologies are being recognized as key to addressing the broader social inequalities that low-income families often face.
President Obama emphasized this perspective in his last State of the Union address when he argued that expanding E-rate—which can provide high-speed broadband to under-resourced schools at a subsidized rate—is critical to closing achievement gaps between lower- and higher-income students. Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently went further by arguing that it is not enough to wire the schools; home-based broadband is at least as crucial for students’ success in low-income Latino families.
While the benefits of going online are widely accepted, we still need to know more about how parents and children make the decision to do so. In partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Families and Media Project, which is supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the Heising-Simons Simons Foundation, and a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I have been working to understand how low-income, Mexican-origin families make decisions about adopting broadband and related technologies—and how these technologies get integrated into families’ daily routines and learning activities. Our goal is to provide a robust dataset capable of informing and advancing national policy debates in this critical and rapidly changing arena.
The research will have three stages, and we are hard at work on the first one at the moment. So far, my team and I have conducted 221 in-depth interviews with parents and their school age children in 111 families. We want to know what family priorities motivate decisions about adopting home-based broadband and related technologies; how family members’ perceptions of what these technologies can do affects how they engage with them, together and alone; and how these family activities relate to learning activities for children, both in and out of school.
We have interviewed families in two communities so far—one in Southern California and another in Arizona—that both have high poverty, predominantly Mexican-origin student populations. By working across multiple geographic locations, we are working to uncover the reasons for differences in broadband adoption and usage among demographically similar families, but also, how variations in school- and community-level supports can influence what families do at home.
In both districts, schools have been supporting the roll-out of Connect2Compete, a national program that works with local telecommunications providers to offer families deeply discounted broadband—at a rate of $9.95 per month—to families with a child who qualifies for free lunch. These are the families we are focusing on, and each family we have interviewed has at least one child on free lunch in grades K through 8.
We are still analyzing the data and will conduct interviews in a third site this summer to complete this first stage of the research. But, we are finding some really interesting things so far.
For example, these are the families that people generally think are on the wrong side of the digital divide. To the contrary, we found that the majority of families have rich media environments that often include multiple computers or laptops, one or more tablets, and smartphones. For low-income families, owning these pricey technologies reflects the high priority they put on devices that connect them to the internet. Parents in both study sites spoke about sacrifices they make to afford these technologies, seeing them as crucial to their children’s academic success. While these parents generally see the internet as providing important opportunities for their children, they also worry about risks their children can encounter online and their capabilities to protect them—just as parents do in higher-income families.
In both communities, schools worked to ensure that families had a computer at home to encourage families to adopt broadband. In California, the district offered refurbished desktop computers for purchase at a low price. In Arizona, a one-to-one laptop program meant that children fourth grade and older had a computer to bring home each day. The goal in both sites was that these computers be used for schoolwork, but also that they be used by the family more broadly.
We found that families seldom did so, in either community. Many of the parents we interviewed had limited formal education (in the California community, 51% of parents did not have a high school diploma; in Arizona, 32% of parents did not). The majority of parents were immigrants (77% in California and 71% in Arizona) and most were more comfortable being interviewed in Spanish (75% in California and 60% in Arizona). For all of these reasons, many parents did not feel qualified to use computers they viewed as being “for school.” These computers were often set up in children’s bedrooms, and children generally used them alone.
We know that joint media engagement between parents and children provides rich opportunities for learning. While parents and children reported joint media engagement with other media in the home—television, tablets, and with other laptops or computers—the school computer was treated differently. This finding suggests an important point of intervention, because these technologies can be a pathway for encouraging parents to engage with their children’s school-related learning more fully, which can have positive outcomes for parents as well as for their children.
These are just a few sneak previews of what we are seeing—watch this space for reports that we will be making public when the analyses are completed. In the meantime, contact me through my website if you have any questions!
Vikki Katz is an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and a Senior Research Associate at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. You can learn more about her work at vikkikatz.com