Faculty profile: Public affairs professor researches ways to get internet access to more parents, schoolchildren

By

Mark J. Scarp

While American schoolchildren were learning at their kitchen tables and bedroom desks in the spring, parents and K-12 educators grappled with the lack of home internet access for many of them.

But the “homework gap” between technology haves and have-nots is not a new phenomenon rising from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Karen Mossberger, a professor in ASU’s School of Public Affairs, but one that has affected millions of families for years.

Home internet is not just for remote learning during the pandemic, said Mossberger, director of the Center on Technology, Data and Society, part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

“It will still be important afterward to have the internet at home to do homework assignments, research and apply for colleges,” Mossberger said.  

Recalling a study she conducted several years ago on internet use in Chicago neighborhoods, Mossberger mentioned focus groups she led with English and Spanish-speakers who only had smartphones and no other home internet.

“One woman had a smartphone for the first time; she was a community college student with two boys in elementary school. She talked about how she was so happy to have the phone to do her homework, her boys did theirs on it and how they were going to the library to print out (material) based on it,” Mossberger said. “She was overjoyed to have the phone because it gave them some form of internet access” though it clearly was less than adequate for writing papers and doing math.

Many low-income parents today are similarly situated, trying to support remote learning with smart phones. With data caps on many phone plans, Mossberger said some parents during the pandemic must use hotspots or turn to driving their children to sit in parking lots for hours outside public buildings such as libraries that have wi-fi access.

Mossberger said her team is discussing ways to help the Isaac Elementary School district in Maryvale, working with the Watts College-based Design Studio for Community Solutions. According to an analysis by the Design Studio, 46% of households in the district have no internet access, even smartphones, Mossberger said.

“People need to get devices, get internet access. The school district is working to provide hotspots,” she said. “They’re trying to help get devices to some households, not just during a pandemic. We need to have a way to get affordable broadband for all.”

Read on to learn more about Mossberger and her Center on Technology, Data and Society:

Q. Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.

A.  I grew up in Detroit, the daughter of a factory worker who was constantly laid off.  We had four kids in the family and lost our house; I ended up dropping out of college after my first year to help my family after this and didn’t go back to finish my undergraduate degree until 15 years later, as a union activist with two kids and a clerical job with the city of Detroit. I went back to finish my degree and get a policy position in the city, because I wanted to contribute to building a city where all residents had economic opportunity in the changing economy. My last job in Detroit was in planning in the Employment and Training Department, and I worked on the citywide task force on the Empowerment Zone Program. After finishing my PhD, I taught at Kent State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and here at ASU. My time in Detroit has shaped my outlook on what’s important in my research and my teaching – what questions I address, that research should inform better solutions and that education can open doors for students who might not have imagined the possibilities.

Q.            Tell us about your most recent activity in research, what it’s about, what it’s designed to have you learn.

A.             Much of my research over the past two decades has been on digital equity – an issue that has not been sufficiently addressed in the United States, as the recent pandemic made abundantly clear. As life moved online, millions lacked the broadband connections and the devices they need for learning, remote work, telehealth, job search, safe access to food and more. This is a national shame in an affluent country, though it is related to the other inequalities exposed in the pandemic as well – racism, lack of a social safety net, lack of universal health care, to name a few.

The two things I am spending the most time on right now show how technology use matters not only for individuals but for economic opportunity for communities. One is a book based on a National Science Foundation project that shows that digital human capital – the percentage of the population with broadband subscriptions – matters for community prosperity. Past research has examined the effects of having broadband infrastructure in a community, but that doesn’t tell us the extent to which local residents can afford broadband and have the ability to use it. By measuring broadband subscriptions in counties and metros over nearly two decades with new data, we show that widespread use is a cause of local prosperity and growth and an inclusive path for economic development. This will be detailed in a forthcoming book published by Oxford University Press.

A related project is ongoing work examining domain name websites as a measure of technology use and economic outcomes for communities. GoDaddy, which is the world’s largest registrar of domain names, has shared their de-identified data on their 20 million U.S. “ventures” or active domain name websites. Our first white paper on this is available on the website for the Center on Technology, Data and Society and it was featured in the New York Times. We found that counties with a higher density of ventures (more ventures per 100 people) had greater prosperity, higher increases in median income and a fuller recovery from the past recession. For us, the density of these ventures is a specific measure of how technology is being used in the community, beyond broadband subscriptions. That was why it was so attractive to us to work with GoDaddy on this project when they approached us. And we know from surveys now that about 75% of their customers are commercial, and that by counting the number of ventures we are picking up many microbusinesses that fail to show up in official government data. Now we are tracking their monthly data and will be releasing some new research with nearly real-time information on how this has affected community resilience, including employment, during the pandemic.

Both of these projects are with colleagues from the University of Iowa, and I am working on several others right now, including some research on the Internet of Things, misinformation on COVID-19 on social media, and finishing an edited volume on evaluating broadband’s impact across policy areas. 

Q.            What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you are now in?

A.             It was when I was at the city of Detroit.  I had thought about studying journalism in my first time in college, but realized that I could make a difference for my city and for others through public policy and government.

Q.            What is it about ASU that made it where you wanted to take your career?

A.            I moved here in 2013 to become the director of the School of Public Affairs, because I was inspired by the emphasis on innovation and community impact here as well as the university’s commitment to equity. With an undergraduate program that had a majority of students of color and many first-generation students, I viewed this as a chance to encourage and support others to have the kind of opportunities I had discovered.

Q.            What’s something you learned — either as a student yourself or since becoming a faculty member — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A.             I started out wanting to build a career in the city of Detroit when I returned to complete my undergraduate degree. I eventually decided I could contribute more doing my own research and teaching other people about local government and public policy. That was lesson No. 1. Along the way I learned how little I knew about academia, but I persisted with lots of help. That was lesson No. 2 – that people like me didn’t know the ropes.

Q.            Which professor(s) – current colleagues or your own teachers – taught you the most important lessons? What were those lessons?

A.             Two people had a great impact on me. One was my PhD adviser, Hal Wolman, who is an emeritus professor now at George Washington University. He not only had faith in me and mentored me along the way, but also was a role model for someone who cared about rigorous research that has an impact on policy and governance. He had worked at the White House, the Urban Institute and in federal agencies. The other person was Gerry Stoker, who is a professor at the University of Southampton in England and the University of Canberra in Australia. He was on sabbatical at Wayne State University for a year (where I studied) and he invited me to work as a research assistant for him at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. I took a year off from my job at the city and went abroad with my husband and two kids and it was a formative experience. Gerry was a great mentor who has also had an influence in local and national government in the UK and this was an incredible chance to see things from a comparative perspective.

 Q.            What’s your proudest academic or professional accomplishment to date?

 A.             I felt truly honored to have been elected a fellow in the National Academy of Public Administration, joining five others in our school.

 Q.            If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A.              When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a journalist and foreign correspondent.  I love to write and travel for me is getting to understand something about other people and perspectives. When I was a kid I used to read about other countries and wonder how it felt to grow up in different places. I eventually got the chance to write and to travel and meet others around the world, anyway, but as an academic rather than a journalist.

Q.            If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A.             Based on my research, that would have to be addressing digital inequality and empowering people to use technology for full participation in society – for civic engagement, health, economic opportunity, innovation and social change. The problem is $40 million isn’t enough, but it’s a start. 

Q.            What is your life motto in one sentence? 

"We can find meaning through the difference we make for others and for society." That’s why I worked in the public sector and am in the School of Public Affairs.

ASU photo. Mark J. Scarp (mark.scarp@asu.edu) is media relations officer for the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.