Smartphones can help students close homework gap

The digital divide is preventing nearly one-in-five teens from completing their homework, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the digital divide refers to gap between those with and without access to computers and internet access.

“Roughly one-third of households with children ages 6 to 17 and whose annual income falls below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, compared with just 6 percent of such households earning $75,000 or more a year,” said Pew researchers Monica Anderson and Andrew Perrin.

Wait. I thought all teens had access to smartphones. We’ll get back to that in a second.

The digital divide has resulted into what’s now referred to as the “homework gap.” This gap was a serious problem for teens in some urban and rural districts in the early years of the internet, when high-speed access and technology hadn’t quite reached low-income homes.

Indeed, the gap can be an academic obstacle for teens without access to the fast, reliable technology at home. Students without access to computers can’t to do simple searches, have a harder time finding help with math problems, and have difficulties staying up-to-date with current research and definitions.

“Black teens, as well as those from lower-income households, are especially likely to face these school-related challenges as a result,” Anderson and Perrin said.

It’s surprising that there’s still a digital divide thanks to the abundant and near-constant access teens have to smartphones.

Consider this: A previous Pew study, also co-authored by Anderson, noted that 95 percent of teens have (or have access to) a smartphone.

While some teens report having trouble completing homework due to limited broadband and internet access, most of them are also carry around what amounts to a super computer in their hands. It’s not unreasonable then to assume that these same devices would be available to students in their homes.

Smartphones are mostly outlawed in schools, and for good reason. They’re a distraction. But so is worrying about having the right tools for completing assignments.

Perceptions of what smartphones can do for students at home and school must be changed, but for this we need teachers to step in.

Teachers who want to bridge the divide should encourage students to bring their phones to school, to use in class, and to complete homework.

Let’s start letting them use their devices to solve problems, not just to take and share selfies.

Learning how to download and use homework help apps, and strategies for doing mobile research, are essential next steps to closing the gap.

After all, learning how to solve homework problems on their smartphones now will set them up for solving real problems later in life.

To read the full report, go to and search “digital divide.”

Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his blog at

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