Every time 15-year-old Eduardo Perez is assigned an online project at school, he and his mother scramble to a family member’s home, library, or Wi-Fi hot spot because they can’t afford internet access at home.
The Lee Middle School eighth-grader in Orlando, Fla., often depends on his 4G smart phone to do research, but the 4-inch screen is a strain on his eyes. Computer labs at public libraries fill quickly, and finding a nearby Wi-Fi enabled cafe in the low-income area of west Orlando’s Lake Mann Estates is a challenge.
“It can be difficult for me. Sometimes I go to the school library before classes or try to do my homework and projects at school before coming home, because it’s easier,” Eduardo said.
His mother, Nasta Echevarria, who is single and unemployed, said the cost of having internet access at home was too much for her.
The obstacles encountered by low-income students and their families without internet access likely will worsen as schools start to provide their students with Wi-Fi enabled devices for online assignments, homework, and to connect with teachers and other students.
A 2011 Scarborough Research analysis shows 11 percent of Florida households with school-age children still lack internet access.
“The digital divide is not because students lack devices,” said Ocoee Middle School Principal Sharyn Gabriel, who in October equipped each of her students still learning English with take-home iPod touches to help them master the language. “The digital divide stems from the lack of Wi-Fi.”
School districts across are the state are racing to meet a mandate requiring schools to provide students with digital textbooks that connect to the internet by 2015.
None of Central Florida’s school districts has surveyed students’ home internet access, but the Scarborough Research report shows that 9 percent of households in the metro Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne area with K-12 students don’t have it.
“Students in households with unlimited broadband access have time and range to create and share content at a higher rate than those without access,” said University of Texas professor and social-media researcher Dr. S. Craig Watkins. “The policy of providing digital textbooks is the direction schools should take, but it is flawed if it assumes all students have equal access to the internet.”
George Perreault, director of instructional technology for Orange County Public Schools, said the district accommodates students without access by providing them with computers and other tools at the individual schools’ media centers.