How Smart Devices at Home Help Bridge Gaps in Classroom Technology

Many low-income families lack access to a computer with internet at home, but most do own smart devices, where apps can be used to learn, study, and connect with teachers.

May 27, 2016 · 5 min read

We hear a lot about technology in the classroom: how important it is, how much it’s needed, and how much it’s changing education.

But what does technology in the classroom actually look like?

We know this: public schools now provide at least one computer for every five students, spending more than $3 billion each year on digital content. And this is the first school year (2015–16) that more state standardized tests will be administered online than by paper and pencil in elementary and middle schools.

It’s been over two decades since Steve Jobs proclaimed: “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” Now, kids as young as four and five years old are learning to code, and nine in ten parents say they want their kids to learn computer science.

It’s no wonder we’re all for our kids getting access to technology: not only is technology becoming a bigger and bigger part of our everyday lives, but it’s where future job opportunities lie. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer-science-related jobs available, but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to do them. And these are well-paying positions. IT workers earn an estimated 74 percent more than the average worker.

One of the huge benefits of providing technology in the classroom, reports Education Week, is its ability to offer education that’s tailored to meet the needs of all students, each with different learning styles, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Some districts, in an effort to get technology in the hands of more kids, have been able to loan out district-owned devices that students can take home with them, giving students flexibility to choose when and where they learn. The hope is that this “1-on-1 computing” approach empowers students and allows them to learn at their own pace. It also allows teachers to better track students’ progress, so they can deliver more personalized lesson content.

But who, exactly, has access to this technology?

Tech in the classroom doesn’t look the same for everyone. It varies, sometimes significantly, between states, districts, schools, classrooms, teachers, and students. Implementation is a challenge. Underserved schools face huge barriers, like budget cuts and a total lack of computer labs and Internet-access. Often, African American and Latino students in these struggling districts pay the price. One study from the Level Playing Field Institute found that nearly two-thirds of California’s mostly minority public schools have no computer science courses.

Even for students with technology available in the classroom, learning at home — a huge factor in keeping pace — may not be an option. Many families earning below median income or living in poverty have no home Internet access via a desktop or laptop computer. A recent report, “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in low income families,” finds that fewer than 50 percent of families living in poverty have high-speed home Internet access via a computer. For immigrant Hispanic families, that number drops to just 35 percent.

Although these numbers are dismal, there is hope.

While low-income families are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to accessing technology, both in school and at home, one universal tool for connection remains: smart devices. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, many families who don’t own a personal computer with Internet access can still get online. In fact, nine in ten (94%) families have some kind of Internet access. That means almost everyone can get online at home, regardless of income level.

Although Internet access through smart devices isn’t a perfect solution for all learning — data plans aren’t free, multiple family members may all share the same device, and a small screen isn’t ideal for all types of lessons, among other potential issues — it can still be a crucial point of access for students.

EdTech apps help bridge the learning gap

We believe smartphones can be a powerful tool in helping to level the education playing field. Through learning apps like the one we built, Sights, students can access technology at home to learn, study, and stay connected with their teachers.

The Sights App for Parents is the first classroom-connected, digital sight word learning tool that kids and parents use together at home to study in conjunction with the child’s teacher. The app helps pre-K through 4th grade students learn sight words without the use of traditional flashcards.

And it works. In preliminary testing, we found that when parents use the Sights App for Parents, students learn and retain 3X more sight words than before, and teachers get an average of 10 percent more time to teach per week when they use the Sights Dashboard for Teachers. On the Dashboard, teachers can manage their classroom sight words, keep track of each student’s sight word progress (allowing teachers to catch learning disabilities), and move students up to the next level of sight words when they’re ready. When a student is moved up a level, the Parents App gets an email notification and the App is preloaded with the new level’s words.

Technology in the classroom still has a long way to go. But parents have a huge opportunity to use the technology already available through smart devices. The “Opportunity for all?” report found that the vast majority of parents — 89 percent — agree that computers and mobile devices help children learn important skills.

We believe that, too. With the Sights platform, we are improving early childhood education for teachers, parents, and students. In our efforts to provide affordable, accessible, and elegant technology solutions, we hope to close the education gap and help all children reach their full potential.

Do you teach sight words in your classroom? Check out

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