A lot of time, study, and money has been spent making sure lower-income kids receive a good education.
But a new barrier threatens to divide the haves from the have-nots at school — and later on in their careers.
It’s a lack of access to home computers and affordable, fast connections to the Internet. In 2012, almost 98 per cent of the top income households were connected to the Internet, compared to only 58 per cent of those earning less than $30,000.
A home computer and Internet connection may sound like a luxury, but study after study shows it’s a necessity to help kids from lower-income families keep up at school.
Pew Research, a leading U.S. think-tank, found that 56 per cent of teachers face a “major challenge” incorporating more digital tools into their teaching, because of low-income kids’ lack of access. And 84 per cent of teachers agree digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts.
A London School of Economics study found providing home Internet access to low income households closes the gap in use, “potentially reducing disadvantage.” It also found kids who have Internet access at home spend more time online, providing them with “higher levels of online skills and self-efficacy.”
Interestingly, home computers may also keep kids out of trouble. A PCs for People study found kids who can connect to the Internet at home were 6 to 8 per cent more likely to graduate from high school than those who couldn’t. Why? Simply by giving them something constructive to do that engages their interest. It’s a source of entertainment, as well as an educational opportunity.
All of this is why ACORN Canada (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which represents low- and moderate-income families, is holding back-to-school “actions” across the country this coming week.
Plans include setting up fake Internet cafés outside Bell Canada offices in Toronto and forming a line-up from the Ottawa Public Library to Parliament Hill with three goals in mind. The first is to highlight the problem. The second is to ask the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to invest in breaking down the digital divide for low income kids (as they recently did for rural Canadians). The pressure broadband providers to create $10-a-month Internet connection packages for all low-income families. It’s not a pipedream.
Rogers Communications, to its credit, rolled out a $10 connection program in 2013 for 58,000 low-income families living in Toronto Community Housing.
Educators are stepping in, too. Peel District School Board, for example, partnered with computer companies to provide low-cost tablets and refurbished computers to low-income families and now is reaching out to Internet providers “to level the playing field,” says Carla Pereira, acting manager of communications.
That’s because teachers recognize libraries can’t fill the gap.
Ashley Morris, a single mum of a 7-year-old Owen and 2-year-old Charlotte, proves the point. When Owen has homework to do, she lugs both kids to the library through a “not great neighbourhood” at night. Even then, Owen may have to line up to use the computer and it doesn’t give him time for other creative activities.
Using computers is not just about doing homework, but about “a growing experience with using technology and supporting learning in other ways,” says Heather Mathis, the acting director of Toronto’s branch libraries.
ACORN’s protests should prompt Canada’s major Internet connectors — companies such as Rogers, Bell, Telus, and TekSavvy — to work out programs for low-income families to narrow the digital divide.
It’s not just an investment in young people, but one in Canada’s future economic competitiveness. Let’s get our kids connected. All of them.
Editorial for the Toronto Star