Education

With technology, South Florida schools try to level the economic playing field

In the media center at Liberty City Elementary School, Christian Fussell, 11, a rising fifth-grader, and his grandmother Phyllis Richburg talk about how Christian benefited from having the school-issued laptop at home last school year.
In the media center at Liberty City Elementary School, Christian Fussell, 11, a rising fifth-grader, and his grandmother Phyllis Richburg talk about how Christian benefited from having the school-issued laptop at home last school year. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In the middle of one of Miami’s poorest and toughest neighborhoods, there is a computer lab with free wireless internet for Liberty City residents who would otherwise go without the technology.

But when Cecilia Gutierrez looks at how residents are using the web connection her nonprofit provides, she’s disheartened.

“They’re going to social media sites. They’re not using it to get ahead, unless they’re being guided by us,” said Gutierrez, CEO of the Miami Children’s Initiative.

Gutierrez has zeroed-in on a problem researchers are only now beginning to understand: access to computers and the web is not enough to solve the problem of the digital divide.

Researchers are learning that not all access to technology is equal. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that more technology may contribute to opportunity gaps between the rich and the poor. For example, a 2014 University of Connecticut study found that lower-income students were worse at locating and evaluating online information than their higher-income peers.

“The digital divide still exists. It just exists differently than it ever has before,” said Susan Neuman, a professor of early literacy at New York University who has studied the issue.

The findings have dramatic impacts on schools as technology becomes ubiquitous in classrooms. Florida students are required to take at least one online class to graduate, and students are expected to take computerized tests that can mean the difference between a diploma or repeating a grade.

“Technology is a necessary part of a modern education. I don’t see how kids can learn in this world without the use of technology,” said Miami-Dade Assistant Superintendent Sylvia Diaz, who is in charge of instructional technology.

Worries about the digital haves and have-nots have grown right alongside the popularity of the internet. The response has largely been to make technology more available — in libraries, schools and community centers — and now almost half of the world has access to the web.

In Miami-Dade, the school district has given out almost 3,000 laptops to students at its poorest schools and even companies like Microsoft have pitched in free devices. The county also has among the most sign-ups for Internet Essentials, a program through Comcast that provides low-income families with web connections for $10 a month.

Still, estimates for the number of Miami-Dade children without internet range from 45 percent to 25 percent, according to the library system and the school district, respectively. Meanwhile, 80 percent of teachers say they assign online homework, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

In a school district the size of Delaware, that means thousands of students must find another way to get online. Many resort to using their cell phones — studies show that low-income families are actually more connected when it comes to smart phones. Others head to Miami-Dade libraries, where the wait for a computer can stretch beyond an hour and the time allotted to each user is limited.

And therein lies the problem. Completing homework on the tiny screen of a cell phone, or only having 30 minutes to write an annotated English paper, isn’t the same as having unlimited access to a laptop and internet at home.

Even among those low-income families who have digital devices and internet at home, studies show students are more likely to have to share the technology among family members, and connectivity tends to be slower.

“Not all access is equal and not all access is the same,” said Vikki Katz, an associate professor in the school of communication and information at Rutgers who has studied technology use among low-income Hispanics extensively.

These differences in access may explain why low-income families use the internet in vastly different ways, according to long-term observations by Neuman, the NYU professor.

Neuman and a colleague spent hundreds of hours observing families at Philadelphia libraries in a low-income neighborhood and a high-income neighborhood. They found that children in poor areas tended to play games and change tasks often when using computers.

Neuman looks to a parent’s own familiarity with technology to explain the differences.

“They themselves feel very uncomfortable in front of the computer or device so they step back and the children are in charge,” she said. “The parent becomes very passive and that passivity leads to the children making the choices rather than the parent taking the lead.”

Miami-Dade recognizes this, and has provided training for parents when giving away laptops. Comcast also provides training through its Internet Essentials program.

At Liberty City Elementary, where the district distributed laptops and free wireless internet cards last school year, the school hosts “Second Cup of Coffee.” The once-a-month event teaches parents how to use district tools to keep up with their kids’ academics.

“The parents who do come out, they are receptive to it and are willing to learn. But we do have a lot of parents who are grandparents, and that generation, they’re not where technology is, so they’re kind of afraid of it,” said principal Forna Campbell.

That is not the case in the Richburg household.

Phyllis Richburg, 50, is raising her three grandsons and often cares for her other grandchildren after school. She and her husband, a long-distance truck driver, brought the kids iPads this Christmas, adding to the desktop computers and internet-connected phones already in the house. Richburg, a maintenance worker for the county, is comfortable on a computer and pays her bills online.

Still, when Liberty City Elementary offered her 11-year old Christian Fussell his own laptop, the family took advantage. That way, he would have his own device to use for school work and educational games.

“If you don’t know technology, you’re going to be lost in this world,” Richburg said. “If you don’t learn about the computer and how to use it, you’re going to be lost.”

Even though the school is trying to get technology into every student’s hands, there are challenges. Some parents never responded to the school’s offer for the free laptops. Others declined for worry over replacement costs if the laptops are lost or stolen.

Katz said the problem can lie with the contracts school districts often require to participate in the program -- they can be confusing or frightening, she said. Diaz, the district superintendent, added that immigrant communities may be scared to provide the personal information required to participate.

In those cases, Katz said building relationships with families is key.

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