George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Should We Be Concerned About an "App Gap"?

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics restated its long-standing recommendations that parents limits the access to television of children under age two. But it's fairly clear that few people are actually heeding the advice. According to a recent study by Common Sense Media, children of all ages are spending more and more time in front of screens of all sorts -- not just television screens, but computer screens, iPads, smart-phones, gaming consoles and the like.

Concern about children's access to and consumption of media -- even media that's labelled "educational" -- is nothing new. But there is a new warning flag in this latest report: a so-called "app gap."

An "app gap," Common Sense Media argues, is developing between children of high-income and low-income families, the latter having limited access to mobile devices and the applications on them. Some statistics from the report:

  • One in 10 lower-income children (that is, children from families earning less than $30,000) has a video iPod or similar device in the home, according to Common Sense Media, compared to one in 3 of upper-income children (those from families earning more than $75,000). Two percent of low- income children have an iPad or tablet in the home, versus 17 percent of higher income children.
  • 38 percent of lower-income parents say they don't know what an app is, compared to just 3 percent of higher income parents. Fourteen percent of lower-income parents have downloaded apps for their children to use, compared to 47 percent of higher income parents.

No surprise, the difference in access to devices and to the apps on them leads to different usage figures: 55 percent of children from higher-income families have used a cell phone, iPod, iPad or similar device to play games, watch videos or use apps, whereas just 22 percent of children from low-income families have done so.

But while the "app gap" might have a nice, rhyming ring to it, is this really a new phenomenon? How is this different from the digital divide? Are children without apps missing important educational opportunities? How is that different from children without access, more generally, to computers or to the Internet? What happens if we reframe discussions of the digital divide to focus on an "app gap"? Does this presume that access to software on an iPad or iPhone is superior to access on a PC?

According to the survey data, about 72 percent of children 8 and under do have computer access at home in this country, but there are disparities, again, based on income. About 48 percent of low- income families have a computer at home compared with 91 percent of higher-income families. The survey didn't specify whether or not these computers also had Internet access, another crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to providing children with equitable and affordable digital education opportunities.

So should we be concerned about an "app gap"? Or does doing so just deflect from other inequalities?

Was this useful?

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

James Quinn's picture
James Quinn
Principal, New Jersey

I agree with your point from a home standpoint. Lower income students often lack the technology in the home that higher income students have access to. However, (at least in New Jersey) budget cuts have led to the scaling back of access to these tools within schools in districts that are mostly middle income population. The lower income districts (called Abbott districts in NJ due to a court ruling) have money dumped into them by the state in an effort to "level the playing field" for lower income students. The technology available in these lower income schools (and the facilities themselves) is incredible when compared to the technology that can be afforded within the budgets of middle income districts. Higher income districts receive little in state aid, but receive great support from their local taxpayers. They are also well equipped. From the standpoint of educational technology (including iPads and available apps) within schools, it is apparent to me that the middle income districts are the ones paying the price for the state of the economy and the reduction of aid to schools. This can only serve to increase the divide between the haves and have nots, and continue to push our society into a 2 class system of the rich and poor.

jackiegerstein's picture

This is a very important discussion to have. I was actually thinking about this the same day this post was published. I teach an undergraduate course on Interpersonal Relationships and have been creating-doing Bring Your Own Device BYOD classroom activities. I noted that none of my 16 students; most in the 18-20 age range, all with mobile devices, and most in the lower income bracket, have devices that permit the use of apps. I blogged about this observation in Using Mobile Devices and Technology to Enhance Emotional Intelligence

Alexis Dobbins's picture

Interesting feedback on the BYOD classroom activity. Clearly, students are group-identifying according to iPhone/Android access as more and more apps are generated solely for one or both of these devices. iPad access versus "other" tablets will be an even greater delineation (and it remains to be seen whether the Kindle Fire will even the playing field, though it seems not). At the end of the day, however, access to and application of these devices is firmly linked to the cycle of education and income and the resultant gaps in both.

Diane Darrow's picture
Diane Darrow
Artist and Educator

There was once a time when having a home computer was a financial impossibility for the general-public. Then the home computer hit the market and the computing circle expanded. Unfortunately, this desktop network has yet to reach many families, schools, and nations. This does reflect a deep injustice and reveal gross inequities. Schools in particular need to provide equal access to learning and technology. Having computers in all of our schools is not luxury, but an educational right. I like to think we may be on the brink of changing this.

The idealist in me is hoping that the mobile device market will offer a low cost option for schools to put a computer into the hands of all students. Possibly these new mobile inventions (tablets) will widen the technology circle even further? It has only been 17 months since the iPad was unleashed. So far it is the fastest selling consumer electronics device and iPad/Tablet adoptions do not seem to be slowing. The fact that mobile devices can also serve as textbooks might unleash funding options not available before.

I tend to believe that mobile devices will be assimilated into our daily lives just as indoor plumbing, heating, electricity, and television have been. I realize that I may be seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that a low-cost change will come and help us close the digital divide.

Jill Haglund's picture
Jill Haglund
Library Media Specialist and Technology Coordinator

We are feeling the middle class crunch greatly in our area. As a suburban, middle class school in the greater Birmingham area, we get almost no technology funds other than what we raise locally. Our county was finally able to give us 14 new desktop computers for our 25 classrooms for the first time in 3 years just this year. And our county is known as one of the best in the state for education. The Title 1 schools in the district have acceptable technology thanks to federal and state assistance. While they do desperately need these funds, we do as well now! We used to receive a few thousand each year for technology from the state government, yet for the past several years that has been $0. Library funds used to help supply technology for our LMC (which the student body uses daily as an alternate lab), but this funding was dropped years ago as well. We now find ourselves with computers so old in most classrooms that they can't run the new smart slates/boards and many other applications even if we could afford them. Just keeping the bulbs in the projectors is a conscious struggle for most teachers as they use donated funds from parents/PTO to buy these. We have a great faculty and fantastic parents. Our students do well on standardized tests, yet the goal of becoming a "21st Century School" seems out of reach unless we can locate grants that don't require free-lunch, high ELL populations, etc. It is a growing concern as no change in funding seems likely in the forseeable future. I wish more attention was being paid to this growing gap as these economic conditions continue. I don't want to be doom and gloom, but I do wonder... will there be another educational divide worthy of concern if this trend continues?

kynardina's picture
grantswriter, Oakland, CA

Yes, even small children become mesmerized by the bells and whistles, the fast movement, the action-packed, attention- grabbing qualities of TV. However, there is much scientific evidence that making sense of the world (aka "learning") happens when young children (ages 2-8 years and beyond)
can manipulate real objects and materials, and use these in their own ways to get real life feedback. The discussion of the DEVELOPMENTAL APPROPRIATENESS of TV, or IPADs, or SMART PHONES, etc. is not about the potential benefits of well-designed TV or applications for children, but AT WHAT AGE THESE "VENUES" provide what the child needs to learn--and, yes, this is a very important question for us as a society--not that there needs to be one response--the one that I would prefer and support.

I have also seen firsthand how mesmerized ADULTS can become with their wonderful tools. I see it everyday when I enter the staff lunchroom, and 2/3 of those in the room are rapt with attention to. . . their phones--talking about their phones, texting, and NOT engaging in any meaningful way with those around them. One does not need to be anti-technology in order to ask, "How will human beings become more caring, sensitive to differences, and skillfully empathic without practice?"
Do we need three year olds who are "comfortable with I Pads" in order for our society to advance?

I pose an entirely different question, "When will we as a society provide the same developmentally appropriate technology for all students, in all school districts of all economic classes? It doesn't take the latest application to help students become empowered, it takes a mentor, mother/father/friend, or teacher to say, "You could use ______________ to do that project that you're excited about!" Even with all the bells and whistles,TECHNOLOGY IS SIMPLY A TOOL.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.