Why smartphones can’t fill the access gap in online learning

Expert offers four things to know about the shift to online learning
By: | April 1, 2020
Students who don't have broadband access to participate in online learning can fall three years behind their classmates in the development of digital skills.Students who don't have broadband access to participate in online learning can fall three years behind their classmates in the development of digital skills.

A smartphone will not provide sufficient internet access to online learning for students whose homes don’t have a stable broadband connection, says one expert.

Some recent reports have claimed smartphones can serve as a reasonable substitute for wired internet access and instructional technology such as a laptop, but that does not seem to be the case, says Keith Hampton, director of Michigan State University’s Quello Center for the study of public policy.

“Our research shows a big gap between students who depend on a smartphone and those who have broadband access,” Hampton says. “Students who depend on a cellphone look like those who have no connectivity at all, and in some cases, they look even worse.”

The Quello Center is offering guidance to K-12 leaders in its “4 things to know” about online learning—including the fact that students who don’t have broadband access at home can fall three years behind their classmates in the development of digital skills, Hampton says.


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And this gap aligns with a wide disparity in standardized test scores, Hampton adds.

Keith Hampton

Keith Hampton

“Almost every district is now struggling with what’s going to happen with the rest of this school year and next school year,” Hampton says. “To prepare, districts need to do a few things to shrink those divides in access devices and skills.”

Administrators should look to conducting their own surveys rather than to FCC neighborhood connectivity data, which, Hampton says, can be unreliable because it relies on the self-reporting of service providers.

Family surveys can provide more granular data, such as:

  • Households that have broadband but where siblings have to share a computer.
  • Homes where students don’t have a suitable place to do school work.
  • Students who move between multiple homes with varying degrees of connectivity.
  • Parents may even have deliberately not connected because they are concerned about exposing children to the internet.

Most students who are succeeding in school are likely to continue to do well, because they are self-motivated, have more than adequate technology at home, and have parental support. That will likely require district leaders to shift resources to more vulnerable students, Hampton says.


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“The kids who are already hard to keep on track are going to be so much more difficult to communicate with and keep engage with online content,” Hampton says. “Those kids who are more likely to live in poverty, or who have parents who are struggling or parents who are disinterested, they struggle even in best-case scenario.”

Rural equity hampered by access gaps

Additionally, the Quello Center’s new report on broadband access shows:

  • 47% of students in rural areas have high-speed internet access
  • Students without internet—and those who depend on a smartphone for their only access—are half a grade point below those with fast access.

This gap’s ripple effects may last an entire life because these digitally disadvantaged students perform worse on SATs, PSATs and have lower college admissions rates.

“This may also true of students in some urban areas where they lack access not just because of socioeconic issues, but also because wires simply aren’t in the ground,” Hampton says. “So we have access problems due to connectivity and devices.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer. 


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