Care About Educational Equity? Then You Should Care About Mobile
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Care About Educational Equity? Then You Should Care About Mobile

Consider the following information. Mobile devices now outnumber the 7 billion human beings on earth, and there are nearly 2 billion smartphones in use.

Today, 1 in 5 Americans are “smartphone dependent” for internet access because they either do not have broadband access at home or they have limited options other than their mobile plan, according to Pew Research Center’s latest study on US Smartphone Use. The majority of U.S. public school students and their families live in poverty (as of 2013) and, as venture capitalist Benedict Evans points out, the value of a phone actually increases as income falls

For all the talk about educational equity and access, K12 has been slow to adopt mobile communication--the one technology that is indispensable to low-income families. The image shows how families see the New York City Schools website on their mobile phones. The country’s largest school district serves 875k low-income students and has a $25 billion budget. 

If the image seems hard to read, it’s because the NYC Schools website isn’t designed for mobile internet browsers. 

I don’t mean to pick on NYC Schools. Of the 10 largest school districts in the country, which serve over 2.5 million students in poverty, only Chicago Public Schools’ website renders properly in a mobile browser. (I’m not counting Houston Independent School District, which has a mobile-friendly landing page, but clicking on any button leads to pages that are not mobile-friendly.)

For school districts, making their webpages legible on phones is only the first step. How about making it insanely easy for families to use their phones to enroll their children in school, sign up for meals, check grades or talk to their teachers?

Room for improvement

Much of the conversation about technology in K12 centers on lack of access. But what get’s lost in these well-meaning debates is how critical technology access, especially mobile access, is for low-income adults.

Low-income, smartphone owners are using their mobile devices for important life tasks like applying for jobs, learning about health conditions and doing online banking. We need to make it easier for them to engage in their children’s education.

Harvard’s Todd Rogers cites emerging research showing that weekly, one-line text messages from teacher to parents, many of whom are low-income, can reduce dropout rates for students in credit recovery programs. Rogers reports, “when you empower families with this kind information, they act on it, it improves student success, and [families] want more of it.”

Julie Cook, an assistant principal at KIPP Endeavor Academy which serves a low-income community in Kansas City, reports texting parents regularly as a way to recognize their children for their positive accomplishments without interfering with their work days.

William Olsen of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago notes that, Chicago families go to the web first for basic information like school closings due to weather, but they also go there for more complex information like school performance.

Where startups can help

Fortunately, public school systems, both district and charter, do not have to solve these problems alone. Many edtech companies who are family-facing have mobile strategies and every web design firm these days offers mobile options.

San Francisco-based SchoolMint helps schools manage the student recruitment and enrollment process. Their app works on both Android and Apple iOS, and roughly two-thirds of families take advantage of the mobile interface. SchoolMint’s mobile usage is higher in low-income neighborhoods by 7-8%.

Tales2Go partners with schools in high-need districts like Broward County (FL) and Los Angeles Unified School District to stream audiobooks to students. The hope is greater access to books will help children fall in love with reading and boost literacy skills. Ninety percent of listening occurs on mobile devices and families are accessing these books at home. In some schools, more than 60% of listening occurs during non-school hours.

Like many other sectors, new organizations are using technology to reshape the way people experience schools and education, while existing institutions struggle to keep up. This is not to say every family has access to mobile (they don’t). Low-income families experience higher rates of service interruptions and changing phone numbers, making continuous school-to-home communication challenging. And mobile connections do not solve language gaps.

But if you truly believe in equity and access in public education, it's time to meet families on their terms.

Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation's best public charter schools. Charter School Growth Fund does not currently have a mobile-friendly website, but the organization is furiously working on one with their friends at Advocate Creative. Alex is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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