Vikki S. Katz
Michael H. Levine
Publication Date
February 18, 2015

Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

This brief combines original research and policy analysis to examine the potential for digital media investments to support a promising learning pathway for children in the United States (US)' increasingly diverse, low-income families. Noting that children growing up in US Hispanic families are disproportionately likely to be economically poor, the authors apply new research on how the surge of media technologies is affecting families. On this foundation, they offer an ecological perspective on digital media technologies and their influence on children's learning and development. Engaging this framework, the authors recommend solutions for building effective digital connections for all families - by leveraging low-income families' strengths to support their meaningful digital participation.

The brief raises 4 issues for further consideration by programme developers and policymakers:

  1. "How should fast, affordable access to digital learning assets be made available to every family in America? How can we best provide access to families with young children so that high quality content facilitates engagement with digital technologies right from the start?
  2. Which family, school, and community factors matter most for developing effective programs for digital equity and pathways to learning? Increasing population diversity requires new frames for learning and development, and new ways that professionals can help support them.
  3. How can we deploy new technologies in culturally sensitive ways that promote low-income families' capabilities to close gaps between themselves and peers, using their own assets and strengths to do so? How can school districts and community organizations provide effective parent engagement and educator training on digital opportunities to benefit low-income families?
  4. Which forms of public-private partnerships are most effective for scaling digital equity opportunities? Which key stakeholders are vital in formulating the next generation of program innovations in this field?"

The authors examine the "digital divide", exploring three levels of variation they deem important for developing digital equity programmes responsive to the needs of low-income Hispanic families: family-level differences in how parents and children utilise technology -or not -for their own purposes; school-level variations, including forms of outreach that are made to families about the opportunities that technology adoption can offer the whole family, as well as efforts to identify and address fears or misconceptions they may have about technology; and community-level variations, including local resources like Wi-Fi availability in public spaces, businesses, and libraries, well-trained professionals who understand cultural variation, and well-designed programmes to support skills building.

Next, they share key findings from a qualitative study of the national Connect2Compete (C2C) digital equity programme, implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and private industry partners. They examine how local factors have affected the rollout and adoption of broadband and related technologies intended to enhance linkages between school and home for low-income families. The research was conducted in 3 school districts in Southern California, Arizona, and Colorado, all of which serve high-poverty, predominantly Mexican-origin student populations and are working to encourage home-school connections through a variety of technology initiatives, including C2C. Interviews with 216 parents and children in California and Arizona underscore how important it is to address digital equity issues for families as a whole. "Parents had clearly internalized the message that digital literacy is crucial to success in school. Interviewed parents were willing to make considerable sacrifices to provide technology for their children..." Findings indicated that joint media engagement (when two or more people use media together in ways that support learning and shared sense-making) was limited with regard to parents and children using broadband and digital technology, as compared with how often they watch TV or movies as a family. "Our research indicates that digital equity initiatives have potential to unintentionally compartmentalize education-related activities in ways that constrain students' enjoyment and adults' capabilities to help guide school-related learning, rather than encourage it." It is noted that some well-intentioned district policies (e.g., those stressing schools' surveillance capabilities with regard to use of subsidised laptops at home) can, in an environment already made tense by the state's (Arizona's) immigration legislation, lead to reinforcement of distance between families and the schools, rather than the engagement of technology to reduce it. These district policies essentially also had the effect of reducing the potential of subsidised laptops to connect families to online resources.

The authors also summarise key findings from a national survey of 1,577 parents with children ages 2 to 10 (of whom 682 were Hispanic), which was conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center to examine educational media experiences among parents with young children. The importance of home-based media use as an educational opportunity for most families was clear. For example, 8 in 10 parents reported that their child engaged with educational media at least weekly, and nearly 6 in 10 said that their child had "learned a lot" from educational media - ranging from subject domain knowledge to general skills. Children reported taking action after connecting with educational media (e.g., engaged in imaginative play based on educational media), as depicted in figure 3. Survey findings reveal some trends for policy makers concerned about providing equitable opportunities for children to learn. Lower-income families owned less media platforms, as seen in figure 4. However, despite owning less devices, children in low-income families use educational media more frequently than higher income ones; figure 5 shows the proportion of parents who report their child uses educational media daily, by income. The subsample of 682 Hispanic families who were surveyed is explored in detail in the report Aprendiendo en casa (See Related Summaries, below). For instance, Hispanic families most commonly access educational content through television rather than the computer, video games, or mobile devices. "This points to the need to continue creating strong educational television content for this audience, while developing more mobile content (in Spanish and English) that serves their needs." Survey findings also indicate that most bilingual and Spanish-dominant families report that their children learn English from educational media, suggesting that many families can benefit from content that supports English language learning for both children and parents. Parents who often used digital technology for learning had children who used educational media more often, suggesting that an intergenerational approach can be especially useful for media design and deployment to Hispanic families. Finally, Hispanic parents - especially those who primarily speak Spanish at home - want more information about media for their young children. Community resources have a key role to play in providing families with such information in both digital and non-digital formats (such as video or print), which are still important channels for reaching lower-income and Spanish-dominant families.

The report concludes with 5 digital technology equity goals and recommendations for policymakers, state and school district leaders, philanthropists, and public media and programme designers to consider when it comes to leveraging the assets of under-served communities and families to address digital inequality:

  • Goal 1: Create new incentives for maximum digital participation - e.g., offer coupons that allow families and providers of educational services to choose the digital equity services that they feel best serve their needs; refocus public service media to include more robust outreach and aggressive programming goals to successfully engage low-income families, especially Hispanics; and make guidelines for selecting media content available to lower-income and non-English-speaking parents and their children's teachers.
  • Goal 2: Establish a digital learning place in every community based on a digital learning inventory to determine what is currently being done to advance digital learning in local after-school and summer programmes.
  • Goal 3: Build community capacity: Integrate media use into professional practice by modernising existing teacher training programmes and introducing new digital teaching techniques in preschools and the primary grades.
  • Goal 4: Catalyse new public-private, federal-state digital equity partnerships, beginning with a series of high-level convenings, organised as "innovation clusters" by governors, education chiefs, and economic development leaders to assess existing evidence of successful programmes and to map new investments in digital technologies for children's learning.
  • Goal 5: Empower families to achieve digital equity - e.g., by engaging parents in every stage of the process, working to develop parents' familiarity with the platforms, and increasing their confidence in using them alongside their children.

Joan Ganz Cooney Center website, accessed on March 16 2016. Image credit: ©