Journal Issue: Children and Computer Technology Volume 10 Number 2 Fall/Winter 2000
The Equity of Access
The rapid growth of children's access to computers and the Internet in the United States is impressive. Statistics suggest that as of 2000, over two-thirds of U.S. children have access to computers at home, and virtually all have access at school. Yet underneath the statistics are disparities that reflect and exacerbate socioeconomic differences in U.S. society. A closer look at the data reveals that, both at home and at school, more advantaged children are much more likely than less advantaged children to be provided opportunities to learn to use computers effectively as tools in their lives and experience enriched learning in the classroom.Family Income Is Key to Home Access
Children's access to home computers varies widely, based largely on family income. According to an analysis of census data conducted by Becker for this journal issue, some 57% of children overall had access to a home computer in 1998, but only about 22% of children living in families with annual incomes under $20,000 had a home computer, compared with 91% of children living in families with incomes over $75,000.59 Even when low-income families had a home computer, it was far less likely to be broadly functional—that is, to have a hard disk drive, a CD-ROM drive, a printer, a mouse, and connection to the Internet. Perhaps reflecting such limits, a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education indicated that while 21% of students from low-income families had access to a home computer in 1998, only 5% reported using the Internet at home.60 The 1998 census data also revealed differences in access linked to ethnicity, apart from income. More recent data suggest that differences based on ethnicity alone are narrowing, however, and that any remaining gaps can be explained almost entirely by differences in income.61 Nevertheless, as long as income remains a significant barrier to access, and household incomes differ markedly across ethnic groups, disparities in access among ethnic groups are likely to continue.
The history of dispersion of new technologies suggests that initial disparities between the "haves" and "have-nots" widen until dispersion reaches a point of saturation or ubiquity. At that point, as Dede points out in his commentary, the new technology tends to create a more egalitarian society. For example, the world of universal telephone service is a more equitable environment than was the world of messenger boys and telegraph offices. Similarly, universal computer access would provide more equitable access to information and power to create content, unfettered by intermediaries, than do mass communication tools that are controlled by a select few, such as with radio and television. Yet, even if computers contribute to greater egalitarianism, there are still costs for those who are the slowest to gain access, especially if significant disparities in access persist for some time.
In addition, some groups may remain permanently without access if dispersion is left to market forces alone. Experts disagree about the eventual size and significance of any such "disconnected" segments of society, however. On the one hand, despite steadily falling prices over the past 15 years, the percentage of families acquiring home computers appears to be leveling off across every income group. Among families with incomes under $30,000, the percentage owning computers actually declined slightly, from 41% to 40% between 1999 and 2000.61 Some analysts believe this trend indicates that an income gap in ownership of home computers may not be overcome by market forces alone.11,61 The market has no interest in extending access to those not able or interested in participating in the new digital economy. Thus, market forces will not necessarily serve the needs of those interested in gaining access to the Web for social, educational, or political reasons, nor serve the needs of the very poor.54
On the other hand, other analysts believe that significant further market penetration, even among low-income families, is likely. Internet-ready computers can now be purchased for as little as $300 to $400, and alternative devices can make online access even more affordable.62 New hybrid systems, or "Internet appliances," provide connection to the Internet without a hard drive for as little as $99, plus monthly connection fees. Handheld devices and other wireless technologies promise additional inexpensive ways to go online. Also on the horizon are the next-generation television and digital "set-top" boxes that can connect a television to the Web. If penetration rates for "Web TV" are similar to those for cable TV, access to the Internet among low-income families could increase dramatically. Even among families with incomes under $25,000, over 70% have cable access in their homes.63 Whether such devices will help equalize access to computer technology and the Internet, or lead to a two-tiered system of access—one with premium functionality for the wealthy, and another with minimal functionality for the poor—remains to be seen.
To help expand access to home computers and the Internet among low-income families, various strategies have been initiated or proposed to augment free market forces. For example, some employers have sponsored programs to subsidize employees' home computer purchases and monthly connection fees.64 Some communication experts have suggested that the "universal access" policy that subsidizes low-income families' access to telephones in the home be expanded to include home access to computers and the Internet. A federal initiative to subsidize low-income households' purchase of computers and Internet access was proposed in the fiscal year 2001 budget, but failed to receive funding.65 To ensure that computer technology helps create a more egalitarian society rather than magnify socioeconomic disparities, additional ways to expand home access for low-income families must be explored.
- The U.S. Department of Commerce should work with industry to expand opportunities for low-income families to acquire home computers and Internet access.
Due to residential segregation by income level, community effects can exacerbate the already large family-level differences in children's access to computers. That is, children in low-income families without home computers also tend to live in low-income neighborhoods where they are less likely to have access through a neighbor or friend.66,67 To help increase computer access among low-income families, several programs, public and private, are providing access at the neighborhood level through libraries and community technology centers (CTCs).
For example, the federal Education-rate (or E-rate) program provides discounts on the cost of telecommunications services and equipment to all public and private schools and libraries, with the largest discounts provided to those in low-income neighborhoods.68 With the help of this program, thousands of libraries have acquired Internet access.69 Another federal program, the Community Technology Center program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, has provided funding to develop 450 centers in underserved communities across the country, and more are planned for the future. In addition, private foundations have played a major role in helping many libraries and CTCs get their programs up and running. For example, in collaboration with state library associations, the Gates Foundation pledged $200 million to equip public libraries in low-income communities across the United States and Canada with computer hardware, software, and Internet access.70
Library and community center technology programs can provide wonderful opportunities to introduce children to interactive and creative uses of technology. At the Computer Clubhouse in Boston, for example, inner-city children use computers to tell engaging stories and learn complex ideas. Mentors guide the children in using leading-edge software to create their own artwork, animations, simulations, multimedia presentations, virtual worlds, musical creations, Web sites, and robotic constructions.71 However, most CTC programs focus on community members generally and may not have a component geared specifically to children.72 Those that do may not be staffed with workers trained in more sophisticated uses of technology or age-appropriate skills for children. Steps should be taken to incorporate a focus on children into more library and CTC programs and to improve worker training.
- Public and private funders should support efforts by libraries and community centers to include components within their technology programs focused specifically on children and to provide staff with training in the skills and types of exposure appropriate for children of different ages.
It is questionable, however, whether community access points such as libraries and CTCs can reach a majority of low-income children. Although subsidies and funding to extend access in disadvantaged communities have since increased, in 1998 fewer than 3% of low-income children had access to computers at libraries and community centers.60 Thus, libraries and CTCs are still far from realizing their potential to provide enriching access to computer technology for low-income children. To reach more children, we must look to schools.Schools Must Play a Critical Role
In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration enthusiastically embraced the congressional mandate to provide all our nation's children with access to computers at school, launching the first national educational technology plan, Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century, in June 199673 and spending billions of dollars to connect children to computers and the Internet. The Education-rate (or E-rate) program mentioned earlier has been key to this effort. Since its creation in 1996, the E-rate program has provided over $6 billion to help connect schools and libraries to the Internet, with the major portion of funding going to public schools. As of 2000, about 70,000 public schools were participating in the program.69
Regardless of community income level, nearly all public elementary and secondary schools now have access to computers and the Internet. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as of 1999, 90% of public schools serving predominantly low-income students had access to the Internet, only slightly less than the 94% of schools serving predominantly high-income students.74 However, having a computer does not necessarily mean it is being used, or used well. In the U.S. Department of Education report The Condition of Education 2000, data from 1998 showed disparities between schools' reported access to computers and students' use of computers.60,74 Although over 90% of schools reported having computers connected to the Internet, only 68% of low-income students and 86% of high-income students reported using computers at school. These differences most likely reflect differences in the capabilities and location of the computers available to students.
As discussed in the article by Becker in this journal issue, schools have often been saddled with outdated, stand-alone computers.75 Despite efforts to replace older machines, as of 1998, fewer than half of school computers were models introduced within the previous five years, and many schools, especially those in low-income areas, could not be described as well equipped, according to Becker. As of 1999, NCES data revealed significant differences in the nature of Internet access in poorer versus richer schools. For example, only 50% of the lowest-income schools had high-speed Internet access, compared with 72% of the highest-income schools.74
The location of computers in a school building also can have an important impact on how they are used. Whether a computer is located in a classroom, a computer lab, the library, or the principal's office makes a great deal of difference in terms of a student's opportunity for meaningful use. The 1999 NCES data again revealed significant differences in poorer versus richer schools. Only 39% of the instructional classrooms in lower-income schools had Internet access, with a ratio of 16 students per computer. In contrast, some 74% of instructional classrooms in higher-income classrooms were connected, with a ratio of 7 students per computer. 74 If the bulk of well-connected classrooms are also concentrated in advanced classes, as opposed to remedial classes, or in subjects taken predominantly by boys rather than girls, then equity issues may exist within a school as well.76
In addition, Becker's analysis of 1998 data from a nationwide survey of teachers indicates that higher-income schools more often used computers in more intellectually powerful ways to enhance learning compared with lower-income schools.67 More specifically, higher-income students were more likely to use computers for sophisticated applications such as written expression, making presentations to an audience, and information analysis; in contrast, lower-income students were more likely to use computers for remediation of skills or mastering skills just taught.
Finally, some schools remain disconnected entirely. A September 2000 report from the U.S. Department of Education about progress made under the E-rate program found that although most schools serving low-income students were taking advantage of the program, the very poorest schools were not applying for E-rate discounts as often as other schools.69 To receive the E-rate discounts, schools must complete an application and contribute 10% in matching funds, which may pose barriers for schools in especially poor areas. Because a major purpose of the E-rate program is to help provide access for schools and libraries in areas of greatest economic need, the Department is now looking for ways to assist the poorest schools to overcome these barriers.
Thus, although most lower-income schools are gaining access to computer technology in comparable numbers to higher-income schools, the disparities in students' access to enriched learning opportunities with technology may be increasing. In addition to acquiring computers and Internet access, lower-income schools must strive to obtain more advanced software and explore better strategies for integrating appropriate and effective computer use with classroom learning if they are to help bridge the gap in access to technology for their less advantaged students.
- The U.S. Department of Education should assist the poorest schools in applying for E-rate discounts and encourage all schools to offer a broad range of technology-related experiences to their students, preferably connected to the curriculum in ways that have been shown to be appropriate and effective.
Schools should also strive to play an instrumental role in equalizing access to technology and enhanced learning opportunities for children with disabilities. As discussed in the article by Hasselbring and Williams Glaser, advances in computer technology have opened up many new opportunities for children with disabilities to attend regular schools and learn alongside their nondisabled peers. But for children with disabilities, the type of computer hardware and software used can sometimes pose barriers. According to the World Institute on Disability, a number of relatively simple choices to adopt "universal design" features could enhance access to the Internet for all children, with and without disabilities.77 Suggested strategies include getting high-speed connections, using a "text-only" option, using larger monitors and font sizes, using headphones, and providing communication tools such as word prediction software. Other helpful devices include a trackball (to replace the mouse), touch screens, alternative keyboards, and voice input and output technology. (See the article by Hasselbring and Williams Glaser for more detailed descriptions of these devices.) A resource guide published by the National School Boards Association and the U.S. Department of Education provides insights into applications of technology in the classroom to assist students with disabilities. 78
- When acquiring new hardware and software, schools should consider options that incorporate universal design features to facilitate access to computers for all students, including those with special needs.
In sum, home access to computers and the Internet varies widely by income, but the gap appears to be narrowing. With market forces driving down costs, and with the support of a few public and private-sponsored initiatives, it is not unrealistic to expect computer technology to help us move toward a more egalitarian society in terms of access to information and power to create content. Meanwhile, libraries, community technology centers, and especially schools play an important role in providing low-income and special needs children with access to and experiences with computers that will help prepare them for life in the twenty-first century.