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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Monday, May 22, 2017

Digital Divide Strategy #4: Hotspots for student checkout

Digital Divide Strategy #4:  Hotspots for Student Checkout

As education continues to integrate technology and online collaboration and instruction, devices in schools are becoming more ubiquitous.  Many school districts around the country have gone to a one to one model in which students are checked out a laptop for the school year.   Of course, issuing every student a device can definitely help level the playing field, but that is only half of the equation.  A group of researchers from the Cooney Center, funded by the Gates Foundation, reported that "access to the Internet and digital devices is no longer a simple yes/no question.  Whether families have consistent quality connections and the capabilities to make the most of being connected is becoming just as important." (digitalequityforlearning.org)

The vast majority of school districts across the nation do not have a plan for home connectivity, but there are some that do.  Most notable among these are schools in Detroit, Michigan, Forsyth County, Georgia, Tuscon, Arizona, Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Tuscon, Arizona.  These districts are using programs that integrate Kajeet hotspots.  These are built for schools and integrate filtering that make them CIPA compliant.

These initiatives are definitely not meant for Parent Teacher Organization Fundraisers and need to be a dedicated budget item.   Hotspots start around $150.00 for the device and data plans vary often run between $15.00-$25.00 per month.   Of course, the cost of hotspots often depends on the needs of an individual school and/or district.  In theory, a school could buy fewer hotspots and have them checked out through the library on a first come, first serve basis.   This checkout method is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't provide the access needed on a day to day basis.

Some school districts have also experimented with going to national carriers to purchase hotspots at a government/institutional rate, and of course the prices vary based on company and amount of data purchased.  

Here are four guiding questions for those considering a hotspot checkout program to bridge the digital divide:

1.  Budget:  the biggest expense is not the hotspots themselves but rather the monthly access charges.  Doing the math and finding the funding in advance is critical.  Keep in mind that some programs require a set time contract.

2.  Audience:  who is the target audience for the hotspots?  What will the criteria be?  

3.  Duration:  how long will these devices be checkout out to students?  Days? Weeks? The whole year?

4.  Filtering:  Some companies provide both monitoring and filtering, while others focus on just a monitoring dashboard.  Consulting the IT dept. in the district should be one of the first things that is accomplished.   Of course, any access point needs to be CIPA Compliant.  

5.  Device Monitoring:  Someone has to be in charge of the dashboard that monitors the devices.  This can be done at the school and/or district level.   Evaluating usage periodically and surveying students and families is best practice and can help decision makers in evaluating the effectiveness of the program.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Digital Divide Strategy #3: Extending Library Hours

Digital Divide Strategy #3:  Extending Library Hours

When students in high schools throughout my district were issued chromebooks this year, I could immediately see some of the positive effects with respect to equity.   For many students, this was the first computer to enter their home.  In the library, I saw students proudly set up their chromebooks as they did research and worked on assignments.  As far as technology went, the playing field was leveled.   Now all students could access class documents, turn in assignments, type work, and collaborate on creative digital projects.
Of course, this first glance at technology integration held many truths but it also hid some inequities beneath the surface.  Keith Kreuger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, laments that "technology will be one more way to expand inequities rather than bridge the narrow."

Providing technology for all students was indeed a game changer that is still changing and evolving teaching and learning.  However, after a few months into the process it became apparent that not all students had equal opportunities to succeed as not all had home internet access.   Teachers worked hard to integrate digital curriculum and redesigning support structures for students.  Some teachers keep a great selection of help videos on their website and a few have moved to flipped classroom models.  This evolution of teaching and technology, though, plays back into Kreuger's quote about expanding inequities.  Although 75% of school districts don't have a comprehensive plan for internet access outside of school, many are working on ways to diminish the impact of this challenge.

In my district and in other districts across the country , it is not that  uncommon to see students hanging around just outside the school in order to get wifi access.   Providing devices is a visible and often tangible event, while figuring out access after hours is not.

One easy way to help address this problem in a small way is to simply open school libraries earlier and keep them open later in the afternoon.   In larger high schools where the library staff consists of more than one person, it is fairly easy to have overlapping shifts where one worker takes the early shift while the other arrives later and stays later.   Some schools even figure out transportation for those students who live farther away and need a way to get home if they stay a few extra hours.

Extending library hours is certainly not a solution for everyone as students often have other family and work obligations and can't stay after school.  However, providing more access through school libraries can be a small part of a bigger systemic solution when it comes to bridging the access digital divide.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Digital Divide Strategy #2: Hotspots on Buses

Digital Divide Strategy #2:  Hotspots on Buses

Many efforts around providing access revolve around sending students to access points in the community.  Some school districts have found that providing individual hotspots to families is just too costly to do on a large scale.  The Coachella Valley Unified School District in Southern California is just one of several districts nationwide that is experimenting with providing wifi hotspots on school buses.

Image result for coachella school bus wifi

Of course, having access on the way to school (especially for district's that provide devices to students) is a great way for students to get homework completed.  This is especially relevant for routes in rural areas where rides are often over 30 minutes.  But does this really help?  Can students really focus on homework while riding the bus?  

Coachella and other districts have taken the wifi bus idea one step further:  they park buses overnight in highly impacted areas so that students can access the internet from home.   Hotspot range at this point in time is about 100 yards round the vehicle.  Parking in or near a trailer home park, for instance, can provide access to multiple students and their families.

Image result for school bus wifi  The Coachella project faced some initial challenges.  Initially, the hotspots drained the bus batteries and the buses wouldn't start in the morning.  This issue was solved by putting solar panels on the tops of the buses.
To read about the Coachella bus project, click this link.   A few other districts who have gone down this road are 

Bus hotspot projects seem particularly effective in rural America.  They can be a cost effective way to provide outside the school day access to a large number of families.  With that said, though, one limitation is that it is still difficult to provide access for all students.   This is a creative solution for certain types of districts who are willing to innovate in order to strive for digital equity.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Digital Divide School Strategy #1: Wifi Community Collaboration

Digital Divide School Strategy #1:  

Wifi Community Collaboration

Sometimes, the needs of students and our families seem overwhelming.   At times, it seems like schools are called upon to solve deeply rooted problems that are systemic in nature.  Districts have been finding success in upgrading connectivity in schools and many have made significant progress in providing more machines/access points throughout their schools.  However, when it coat mes to students getting connected outside of school, the problem seems greater than most districts can handle (or even consider).   The vast majority of districts do not have plans for how students get connected outside of school, and this has led to great inequities in education.  As teachers move to digitalize curriculum, provide class websites and/or school management sites, and assign group electronic projects, those students that are not connected at home suffer from a notable disadvantage.  Sometimes, students will say that they are "connected" when asked, but this might simply mean that they can access the internet via a parent's smartphone if need be.   For many innovative and collaborative projects, this type of connectivity just doesn't fill the need.

One creative solution that Mountain View Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon implemented was creating a collaborative Community WiFi map.  The school approached local businesses and mentioned the need for student access after school and on weekends.   As Oregon is notable for it's rainy weather, the businesses were asked to let students sit and work inside and use the wifi.  In this proactive manner, many businesses were more than happy to help.

One a list of wifi community points was collected, Mt. View created a flyer (in both English and Spanish) that is given to students, families, and businesses.  It has turned out to be a win win and an example of a healthy school/community partnership.

Although this is a significant step in the right direction, it is still important to note that access to community wifi is not the same as having internet access at home.  Many students have obligations after school and can't get to their homework until later in the evening.  Parents are often reluctant to send their children out to a local wifi access point when it is dark and/or raining -- especially in the younger grades.  Still, providing information to students and giving options is an important way for schools to note that they are considering the challenges of access for students and families.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Latino Immigrants and the Digital Divide

Reframing How Educators Approach
Latino Immigrants and Technology Use

A recent discussion from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center focused on the challenges of technology integration and use in Latino immigrant families.   It is not surprising that lower income families have less access to technology and home broadband.  When families have to choose between a cell phone and a broadband bill, it seems logical that the cell phone would almost always win out.  With that said, though, it is notable that Latino immigrant families are especially vulnerable when it comes to having access.  This lack of access has serious implications as schools across the country move to digital curriculum and learning management systems that require home access for a student's success.

Additionally, many Latino immigrant parents lack experience with technology and don't necessarily have a "culture of technology" in the household.  Immigrant Latino parents have less technology experience than other groups.  Only 40% feel confident in using the internet and 45% have been online for five years or less.  Amidst these statistics, though, there is emerging a positive trend:  Latino parents are making technology purchases for their children's education at an increasing rate.

Latino immigrant families are prioritizing the purchase of technology as it relates to their children.  Great income disparities hinder the drive for digital equity for students, and some subgroups like Latino immigrants tend to have less experience with technology.  With that said, the trend to try to purchase technology to aid in their children's education is definitely of note.  It has implications for programs and districts who are increasing technology purchases and implementation.  Harnessing the desire of Latino immigrant parents to integrate technology is a key to ensuring student growth and success.  When schools and parents work together to address nuanced issues relating to the digital divide, the chance for student success increases greatly.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Complexity of Problems and Solutions

Nuanced Issues and Approaches

Millions of students cannot do their homework as they don't have access to home broadband internet.  A few years back, it seemed that devices were a primary issue.  Devices are still an issue in many districts, but the a shift to 1 to 1 devices in school district is gaining momentum.   Some students might have a computer issued to them but still lack home access.  Some students (especially in rural areas) don't have any possibility of access.  Here is an interesting two interesting statistics that speak to the problem of the homework gap:

  • As many as 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband, but one in three households do not subscribe to broadband service

  • More than half of principals nationwide now cite digital equity as a major challenge in their schools.
The video below is a panel discussion that features Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the FCC.  The discussion helps outline both the complexity of the problem and the complexity of the solution.  In reality, there are several problems operating all at once which require different solutions.  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Continuing Challenges and Nuances

Devices, Access, and Training

School districts across the United States are integrating more devices into classrooms, although this integration certainly varies from district to district.  The visibility of devices and the expansion of school network capacity is an ongoing process.  Many people, though, are hopeful for the progress that is being made.

The more difficult problem, though, is figuring out how to provide access for students at home.  Currently, 67% of U.S. households have broadband access at home.  More families, might have access via phones, but this isn't the same type of access that is needed to complete collaborative and complex classroom assignments.    Unfortunately, the vast majority of districts do not have any plans to address home access.

As educators and districts throughout the country work to solve device and access inequities, these changes will not facilitate significant educational gains unless educators become skilled in coaching students in technology use.  This includes digital literacy, of course, but it also includes the transformative use of technology that goes beyond simple substitution tasks.   This process might take years to fully complete, but the current struggle and thinking around this issue is a step in the right direction.