March 1, 2013 -- Digital technology has become a critical component of the education of middle- and high-school students. They use internet databases to conduct research, read textbooks on iPads and use smartphone apps to learn math skills.
In many ways that's a good thing. The use of such devices in classrooms allows kids to learn tech skills that will be valuable, even essential, when they join the workforce. And technology encourages kids to explore and innovate.
But according to a new survey of teachers by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, a significant gap remains in access to the internet between richer and poorer students. Not only do poorer schools lack technology richer schools utilize, but poorer students are far less likely to have access to such technology at home.
The numbers are staggering. While half of all teachers of students in upper-income families said all or almost all of their students have access to the internet at home, that number drops to just 20 percent for middle-income kids and an incredible three percent for poor students.
More than half of the teachers surveyed said the difference in access to technology is leading to a gap in performance. They agree it's essential. More than 90 percent say internet has a major impact on their ability to access content, resources and materials for teaching, and nearly 60 percent say it has a major impact on their interactions with students. Still, getting technology into the hands of students is tricky.
While more than half of teachers of upper-income students use tablets to teach, only 37 percent of teachers of low-income students do the same. The numbers are similar for smartphones.
Teachers most often use digital tools to have students conduct research online, according to the survey. And more than half say that their students have access to the needed tools at school.
But more than three-quarters also ask students to access and submit assignments online. That's not a problem for kids who live in homes with internet, but only one-fifth of the teachers surveyed said their students have adequate access to digital tools at home.
Certainly those students may utilize internet at libraries or community centers, but not every library is equipped with up-to-date technology, and students can be saddled with obstacles like long bus rides and limited hours of availability.
The teachers surveyed did express some reservations about the proliferation of technology in classrooms. They said that search engines like Google have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information easily and quickly, and they say students are overwhelmed by the amount of information online and not always able to tell what comes from a credible source.
But they also acknowledged its importance and admitted that they rely on technology to do their jobs.
According to Liany Elba Arroyo associate director of the National Council of La Raza's Education and Children's Policy Project, teaching students how to use technology is a good thing so they're prepared to enter the workforce, but officials need to focus on making sure kids have access first.
"We know being able to access and use technology is a skill that's necessary for the workforce in all sectors," she said, "That being said, schools need to play a role in helping children gain that access."
"If they're going to use it," she continued, "it's more imperative that school districts look at how to bring it into the hands of the students that most need it."
Those are the kids who don't have access to such technology at home, Arroyo said. And schools shouldn't count on them obtaining that access on their own.
She said that if all students in a class have access to technology at home, take-home assignments that involved digital technology can be a good thing, but teachers need to be careful about creating additional obstacles for students that do not and implement digital learning in the classroom instead.
"Teachers need to assess what capabilities their students have and not create barriers," Arroyo said. "If everyone can get access, it's appropriate, but it's very clear from the survey they don't all have access. Schools have to bring it into the classroom so that students do learn how to use it."