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Digital equity: Don't leave mobile-only families behind

By Matthew Hiefield
November 6, 2018
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A few years back, I was chatting with a dedicated and passionate third grade teacher who was showing me her fully developed website and her beautifully designed weekly newsletters. As the discussion progressed, she mentioned that not all of her parents volunteered or seemed engaged despite her efforts to reach out.

We both started wondering if parental access to types of technology was a factor.

Upon further investigation, the teacher discovered that most of those who weren’t responding were from “mobile-only” households. These were families who realized that if they could use their phones for most of their daily needs, then paying up to $1,000 more a year for a home connection might not make sense.

The shift to mobile only has been backed up by the Pew Research Center, which found that the proportion of American adults with high-speed broadband service at home began a steep decline in 2016, when 73 percent of all U.S. households had access. In January 2018, the rate had decreased to 65 percent.

Readability, connectivity are issues for mobile-only families

mobile only

What that means is that as schools move from paper to digital, many parents find themselves in an information void. Many mobile-only families find viewing websites and newsletters on their phones to be cumbersome and some face connectivity challenges.

In a national survey of low- and moderate-income families conducted by Digital Equity for Learning, 29 percent of respondents reported hitting their data limits in the past year, and 24 percent said their service had been cut off due to nonpayment.

Whether a classroom has a majority of mobile-only families or just a few, this trend has serious implications for how teachers inform parents, build community and assign homework.

Serving mobile-only families


So what are some basic strategies to increase inclusiveness for mobile only families? Here are some starting points:

  1. Use a text-message notification program to alert parents to events. Apps like Remind or BAND are an easy way to lets students know about homework assignments and parents know about school events and announcements. They are easy to use and navigate for both teachers and parents. Demonstrating how these apps work might be a good back-to-school night or school conference demonstration.  

  2. Choose sites that are optimized for mobile. Many websites have mobile viewing options that make communication more readable. Google Sites has a setting you can select to format sites for mobile devices. And many newsletter-creation programs like Smore are created with mobile devices in mind.

  3. Select programs with language translators. When evaluating webpage or newsletter programs, make sure they have built-in language translators to ensure inclusivity. Then make sure you show students and parents how to choose the language in the app.

  4. Make parents aware of mobile version of popular sites. Many classroom programs, such as Canvas, Seesaw and Google Classroom, have mobile apps. Again, make parents and students aware they can install the apps instead of going to the website.

  5. Find out what type of connections students have. When students say that they have internet access at home, it doesn’t mean they have broadband and can complete all assigned homework. Survey students to find out what devices and connectivity they have at home to ensure they all have a fair shot at success.

In building learning communities, educators need to embrace both the learning that goes on at home between students and parents and implement strategies that consider different connectivity levels. Building relationships and strengthening the school-to-home communications is the foundation of a vibrant learning community and ensures greater digital equity.

Matt Hiefield is a digital curriculum specialist for Beaverton School District with a passion for investigating digital equity issues. He is part of the BSDFutureReady Team. Follow him on Twitter @MattHiefield.