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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Latino students and the digital divide (Part 1 of 2)

Latino Students and the digital divide:  home access

Schools throughout the U.S. are beefing up infrastructure and adding computers/tablets in schools.   Of course, not all of this integration and infrastructure upgrades is happening equitably, but the general trend of more tech and more teaching with tech is more than notable.   With respect to Latino students, it is obviously impossible to make statements to apply to everyone in such a diverse group.  With that said, though, some important trends are emerging.   With respect to the digital divide, Latinos as a group in the U.S. are gaining access to internet at home through cell phones while actual computer ownership is on the decline.  This has serious implications for success in schools, especially when large numbers of teachers move to digital platforms and assign digital homework.   Educators are becoming more aware of students who don't have home access, but at the same time many fail to recognize the challenges that students face when trying to complete various types of homework on a cellphone (as they might not have a computer at home).   This type of "underconnectedness" makes some types of flipped classrooms and digital assignments that require larger screens and/or collaboration very problematic.   One creative approach can be found in the "Modifying the Flipped Classroom"   Educator Jennifer Gonzalez discusses the benefits of flipped lessons but how these benefits might be used in a classroom of students who have no internet access or cell only access at home.  With respect to Latino students, this is especially significant as broadband connection rates at home are significantly lower than other groups.
Teachers (myself included) can make assumptions about connectivity and the ability to complete electronic assignments at home.  Testing assumptions and modifying teaching strategies, in the end, is best practice and can work to benefit all students.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Digital Use Divide

The Digital Use Divide:  

Challenges to Technology Implementation

As schools continue to integrate technology into the teaching day, educators are talking about an emerging phenomena called "the digital use divide".   Many people talk about the digital divide with respect to access to technology, but the digital use divide is speaking more to what happens when schools and teachers have access but implement technology in different manners.

Here is a good working definition of "the digital use divide" from the U.S. Dept. of Education:

"Traditionally, the digital divide referred to the gap between students who had access to the Internet and devices at school and home and those who did not. Significant progress is being made to increase Internet access in schools, libraries, and homes across the country. However, a digital use divide separates many students who use technology in ways that transform their learning from those who use the tools to complete the same activities but now with an electronic device (e.g., digital worksheets, online multiple-choice tests). The digital use divide is present in both formal and informal learning settings and across high and low-poverty schools and communities."

Some of this, of course, revolves around how teachers are using technology.  If students are simply doing electronic worksheets, then they are operating on the lowest level of the SAMR model.   Really, no educational gains are made from a consistent use of substitution of electronic worksheets for paper worksheets or multiple choice tests.  Perhaps an argument could be made for quick formative assessments using electronic multiple choice tests as this could immediately inform instruction for the day.

Great (albeit unequal) strides have been made in technology implementation and best practice with respect to classroom instruction over the past several years.  However, the 2016 report from the U.S. Office of Educational Technology notes that there are many areas in need of awareness and improvement.  Some of these include

• Research on the effectiveness of technology-enabled programs and resources is still limited, and we should build capacity to generate evidence of individual-, program-, and community-level outcomes. • Many schools do not yet have access to or are not yet using technology in ways that can improve learning on a daily basis, which underscores the need—guided by new research—to accelerate and scale up adoption of effective approaches and technologies. 
• Few schools have adopted approaches for using technology to support informal learning experiences aligned with formal learning goals. 
• Supporting learners in using technology for out-of-school learning experiences is often a missed opportunity. 
• The focus on providing Internet access and devices for learners should not overshadow the importance of preparing teachers to teach effectively with technology and to select engaging and relevant digital learning content. 
• As students use technology to support their learning, schools are faced with a growing need to protect student privacy continuously while allowing the appropriate use of data to personalize learning, advance research, and visualize student progress for families and teachers. 

Change with regards to technology integration is coming more rapidly than most educators would have imagined and probably will continue to do so.  With this change comes challenges and nuanced situations that require systemic thinking from all parties involved.  That includes teachers, school administrators, district leaders, and community members.  For many districts, it is a matter of not knowing what they don't know.   Implementing technology and reimagining education and classroom instruction is empowering.  However, time and thought are needed to do this effectively.

For more reading on this subject, go to 2016 National Technology Plan

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What are districts doing to close the digital divide?

Access to reliable broadband internet outside of school is a nuanced and often overwhelming problem.  Educators (certified, classified, and admin) have resorted to advising students to "find a local hotspot at a McDonalds or Starbucks" or perhaps find a library if possible.  This advise is well intentioned (I have advised this myself) but ultimately it is unrealistic for many students and is not best educational practice.   There is no one single answer in providing access to students as schools and districts across the nation are so different.   The article below from Edtech magazine explores some of the initiatives that districts are exploring.  They include wireless on busses as well as extended library hours and hotspots.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Homework Gap in U.S. Education

What is the "Homework Gap" and why should we care?

When talking about the digital divide in U.S. education, many articles reference “the homework gap.”  A good working definition of this term is provided by families.com:

The homework gap “is the space between the students whose families have access to the internet at home – and the students whose families do not have internet access at home. Those who cannot access the internet at home are at a disadvantage.”

But why is this significant?   As it turns out, the past several years have seen large influxes of technology into classrooms around the country.  Although this technology hasn’t been distributed equally among all districts, great strides have been made in technology integration and the vast majority of students are getting at least some hands on use.  In many districts, this influx of technology has led to a change teaching practice.  At Its best, this change has led to a redefinition of education and to tasks, collaboration, and projects that were not possible before.  (See SAMR model below)

Technology has led to the increased integration of learning management systems like Edmodo, Google Classroom, Haiku, Schoology, and Canvas.  Assigning digital homework, projects, and collaboration can lead to deep understanding, but it also puts students without home access at a significant disadvantage.    When teachers have just a few students without access, they often work to find alternatives (even though these alternatives are not always equal).  When the number of students without home internet access increases, then teachers become hesitant to assign work (hopefully empowering and redefining work that motivates students). 

Although the United Nations has recognized the detrimental impacts of the digital divide on a global level (http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ares68d198_en.pdf) the majority of school districts have not made plans to address the issues surrounding the homework gap in the U.S..  There is no magic solution, of course.  However, beginning to address this problem on a system level is crucial for the education of all of our students.  

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Teaching in the Digital Divide: Classroom 3 of 3

How do teachers lesson plan when teaching in a digital divide?

Case Study 3:  A device rich class with mixed broadband home access.

Out of the 3 case studies considered, this one is perhaps the most challenging when it comes to planning lessons.   How does a teacher use technology in an empowering and transformative way when some of their students have home broadband access and others do not?  Districts around the U.S. are purchasing technology for the classroom, and many are creating system wide structures to facilitate learning.  These structures include LMSs (Learning Management Systems) like Canvas and Schoology that can extend the classroom and opportunities for meaningful interaction and collaboration outside of the classroom.  But what happens when some students cannot access digital homework at home?  What happens when students are assigned digital assignments/projects and they cannot work on them outside of school?  Most importantly, how does a teacher plan for a class where some students have access and others do not?

Of course, there are no easy answers.  Technology integration is moving at breakneck speed.  Consider the following 2 statistics with respect to technology in our schools:

1.  20% of students say they are impacted by the homework gap - they cannot do homework because they lack internet access outside of school

2.  75% of school systems nationwide do not have any strategies for providing connectivity at home and after school.

We know that the digital divide is an issue, but it has so many nuances that we are often at a loss to respond.  We know that students are being impacted due to assumptions that schools and teachers make, and we also know that the vast majority of school systems are not addressing the home access challenge.   

Classes where some students have home broadband access and others do not require thoughtful planning.   Here are some strategies that teachers have used.

1.  Don't assume anything with respect to student access.   Doing a confidential survey at the start of the  year can be very informative.  Over the past few years, many teachers (including myself) didn't really realize that there was a problem until student work submissions were infrequent.  By then, students are already at a significant disadvantage in the class.  Knowing (not assuming) the broadband access levels in your classroom is the best starting point.

2.  Alone or partnering with a group of teachers, designate a class before school/during lunch where students can come in and work on digital content.  If students are in a 1 to 1 school, this also might mean keeping the library open later after school so that students can complete work.

3.  If students have a school issues device but lack home access, have them download documents from a teacher's website/LMS site and read them at home.

4.  Be cognizant of peer to peer digital assignments like peer to peer reviews or group presentation projects.  Students can still accomplish peer reviews digitally, but perhaps a teacher could give some sample work to evaluate at home (on paper and/or digitally) and have the actual peer review work time in class.  

5.   It is quite possible that students with home access will be more skilled at some digital tasks.  Setting up "genius times" for peer to peer teaching within a classroom can be helpful.  Creating a collaborative learning community (one where the teacher models learning as well) seems like a basic foundation for success.

6.  When needed, making available paper copies for those who want them is still a good option.  It takes away from the goal of "going paperless", but it doesn't penalize students for not having access.

It would be easy to abandon technology integration and innovation given these challenges, but that doesn't seem to be a viable option.  Successful use of technology is not only transformative, but it is necessary for a student's success in the future.   Recognizing the challenge of teaching in a digital divide and sharing ideas with admin and fellow teachers is the first best step.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Teaching in the Digital Divide: Classroom 2 of 3

How do teachers lesson plan when teaching in a digital divide?

Case Study 2:  A device rich class with limited home broadband access.

Technology can create great classroom opportunities for students that did not previously exist.  It can be engaging, compelling, collaborative, and transformative.  However, access outside of the classroom (or lack thereof) shapes how teachers plan and teach.   Over the past several years, more and more schools have purchased technology for individual classrooms, and other schools have carts of computers for checkout.  In many districts, Title 1 schools have access to funds and grants which allow the purchase of technology.  In these schools, though, many students might not have access to broadband internet at home.  Essentially, this means that a teacher can plan for engaging activities using technology in the classroom, but will often limit homework assignments that require outside devices and access.

When each student has a device within a classroom, a teacher can start a class by posting an agenda or writing prompt in a learning management system (LMS) like Google Classroom or Canvas.   If a teacher does not have access to an LMS, they can still post a question or a prompt and have students keep a running document of responses to opening questions.  Many teachers will use Dropbox or Google Drive to collect writing prompts.

In addition to opening the class with a prompt or question, teachers can also use free web based programs like "Goformative" or a Google form to pose a formative question so assess student understanding.  This, of course, could shape the lesson for the day:  if students have mastered a concept, the teacher might choose to spend less time on that and more time on a question/prompt where greater numbers of students had difficulty.   At the end of a class period, teachers can also opt to integrate programs like "exitticket" in order to assess where students are and what types of lessons/instruction students need for the next class period.  Teachers can show the "whole class" results of an exit ticket to get students to reflect on how the class is doing and what concepts have been mastered as well as which ones need more attention.

In addition to formative assessments and exit tickets, classrooms that are device rich can also use devices for student collaboration.  Working simultaneously on a project (presentation, mock trial prep, peer editing protocol) teaches team building skills and gives students an immediate audience.  If the majority of students don't have broadband access at home, then assigning them to work on electronic projects will not yield good results.  However, teachers can still assign some short writing prompts, lab reports, math problems to prep students for a formative assessment at the start of class the following day.

Click the link below to visit a resource page for the Device Rich Class