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"Striking" income disparity cited in access to classroom technology

Teachers are increasingly relying on laptops and mobile technology in middle and high school classrooms nationwide but there is a "striking" disparity in access to the latest technology between lower and higher income students and school districts, according to a new study.

The new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 92 percent of middle and high school teachers say the Internet has a "major impact" on their ability to access resources in the classroom. Nearly three out of four teachers say cell phones are used for class work and more than 40 percent of teachers reported using tablet computers and e-readers.

However, while tablets and e-readers have become key tools for teachers, their classroom prevalence is apparently driven by economics. The survey found that only 37 percent of teachers of low income students use tablet computers compared to 56 percent of teachers of the highest income students.

Similarly, 52 percent of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students say their students use cell phones as a learning device in class, compared with 35 percent of teachers of the lowest income students. Furthermore, teachers of the lowest income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students to cite lack of access to digital technologies as a "major challenge" to their teaching.

Kristen Purcell, associate director for research at Pew Research Center, said "it seems unrealistic to think these differences can be addressed overnight."

"They reflect not only disparities in access to digital tools in schools themselves, but also disparities at student access at home," Purcell told "Both would need to be addressed to close the gaps we see."

Purcell added that the generational differences among teachers in their tech use was smaller than one might expect.

"As is the case among the full adult population, younger teachers are slightly more likely to use some digital tools personally (smartphones and iPods for example), and they are also more likely to use collaborative online tools like Wikis and GoogleDocs in their teaching," Purcell said. "However, when you compare the older teachers in this sample to other adults their age in the general population, they are very advanced tech users."

Pew's findings come from an online survey of more than 2,400 middle and high school teachers in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The survey was bolstered by a series of focus groups with teachers and high school students conducted between November 2011 and February 2012.