Featured Post

Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Monday, December 18, 2017

Connectivity Is Not a Simple Yes/No Question

The digital divide is still apparent in schools throughout our country, and it can be
heartbreaking when schools with great hardware and connectivity are only a few
miles away from schools who have fewer devices and slow to no connectivity.  
With coordination, advocacy, and planning, more schools are getting better access.  

As schools gain access and teachers learn how to implement technology in
meaningful ways that extend outside of the classroom, the next focus tends to
be on home access and connectivity.  Many educators start by trying to find out if
students are connected at home.  However, a recent study by the Cooney Center that
was 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 capabilities to make the most of being connected is becoming just
as important.”  The study went on to survey low and moderate income parents with
school aged children (ages 6-13) and found that

52% said that their access was too slow
26% said that too many people share the same computer
20% said that their internet had been cut off in the last year due to not paying the bill.

Initially, then, educators who ask a simple yes/no question might be convinced that
there is little problem for their students to access the internet at home because a high
percentage of them said that they had access.  In addition, accessibility gets clouded by
the definition of what it means to be connected.  Increasingly, low/moderate income
families are shifting away from broadband and to a wireless only connectivity.

Again, students might say that they are connected when they answer a teacher,
but this type of connectivity is most likely not enough to meet the demands of what a
teacher is asking a student to accomplish outside of the classroom.

Once schools realize that connectivity is not a simple yes/no proposition,
then it is easier to design more meaningful surveys.   Knowing the types of
connectivity that are found in a student population is the first step in brainstorming
strategies for learning opportunities outside of the school day.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Skilled Teachers: A Critical Part of Bridging the Digital Divide

Skilled Teachers:  A Critical Part of Bridging the Digital Divide

A few years ago, a discussion of the digital divide centered first around devices and then about access.  Schools with few devices worked to find ways to add to their computer labs, and today many districts are moving to class sets of devices for each classroom,  mobile computer/ipad carts, expanded computer labs, or a 1 to 1 device per student implementation.  As districts purchase more
technology, many realize that their wifi infrastructure is inadequate and cannot handle the increase traffic from school and student devices.  When the infrastructure is inadequate to begin with, districts scramble to figure out how to increase bandwidth as well as security.  Great strides are being made in this area, but much work remains to be done -- especially in some financially strapped rural and inner city districts.  In general, an emerging definition of digital equity involves access to devices, access to broadband, and access to consistent opportunities to sharpen skills within in the classroom.

What is fast becoming a critical part of the digital divide//digital equity equation, though, is teacher training.   There are certainly superb examples of technology use in most schools where teachers and students are using devices to transform classrooms into a dynamic and collaborative learning environment.  However, these examples are often the result of a skilled teacher who is willing to experiment and innovate with technology.  This means going beyond assigning online worksheets or drill and kill tasks and providing technology uses that engage and foster higher level thinking and collaboration.

The great challenge, though, is teaching educators how to use technology in transformative ways and to do this in a systemic manner.   This doesn't mean that all teachers need to teach in the same way.  Efforts to mandate uniformity seldom succeed.  However, there should not be vast differences in tech use within the same grade level at the same school, or within the same grade levels at schools in the same district. 

Districts throughout the U.S. have found out that implementing technology without adequate training leads to both wasted money and wasted opportunities.  When new chromebooks or ipads gather dust in a back of a classroom because a teacher isn't sure how to use them effectively, everyone loses.  Devoting money and personnel for professional development and tech mentoring in a systemic manner is critical.  In the end, technology can magnify both good teaching and bad teaching.  Figuring out how to support all teachers (and not just applaud the few great examples of tech use within a district) is critical in providing a quality and engaging education for all students.  A district can have access to devices and adequate connectivity, but without a district wide focus on training teachers in best practice, digital divides will continue to appear.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Equity vs. Equality in the Digital Divide

Equity vs. Equality in the Digital Divide

bzml8pgceaaprab-jpg-large.jpgIn most states, school funding formulas are fraught with politics and this has significant implications for technology infrastructure, devices, and opportunities.  The urban vs. rural digital divide surfaces in most states, especially as it relates to connectivity.  Many rural schools in my state (Oregon) struggle with getting enough bandwidth to do innovative and meaningful classroom learning.   When discussing home connectivity for students, some of my rural colleagues lament the cost of the middle and last miles and the struggle for reliable bandwidth and the lack of opportunities that this creates in comparison with most urban and suburban schools.

The urban vs. rural connectivity divide, though, is just part of the issue.   In many urban districts, schools are funded in a relatively equal manner.  However, monies flow into schools from parent organizations at a very different rate.  Rich schools can raise thousands of dollars at a drop of a hat while poor schools struggle to raise extra funds.  This can have serious implications for types of opportunities within the same district.  Wealthier schools can fund robotics clubs, lego programming experiences, engineering activities, computer labs, drones, etc. while poorer schools often cannot afford to offer these things.  From the school district's perspective, the schools are being funded equally, but the extra money that comes in makes for a much different educational experience.

Of course, parent contributions and volunteering in schools is a good thing as it means that the public is invested.  This should always be encouraged.  With that said, it can create vastly different learning environments between schools who are just a few miles apart.  

Portland Public Schools has taken on this problem of the great differences in parental contributions in their schools through the creation of the PPS Parent Equity Fund.  Portland is a district that has some very wealthy schools and some very poor schools.  The Equity Fund collects parent donations and allocates 1/3 of them to schools in need.   The wealthier schools still end up with more money for purchases at their schools as they keep the majority of funds that they raised.  With that said, at least some of the money that is raised ends up in schools where there is great need.  

Not everyone is happy with the redistribution of funds, especially some of the parents at wealthy schools.  This unhappiness has been documented in a thoughtfully written New York Times article.
Having a percentage of money taken away from a successful school campaign can cause frustration.  However, the inequities in many cities like Portland are significant.    There will always be a difference in resources and opportunities when comparing wealthier and poorer schools.  Portland's effort, though, at least acknowledges the opportunity gap that is created by disparate levels of giving.  Looking at school opportunities from a systemic district wide view is the least that educators can do when considering opportunity gaps.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Digital Divide Planning at the County and State Level

Digital Divide Planning at the County and State Level

As technology adoption is moving at breakneck speed, different organizations are coming to grips with the lack of internet connectivity both in urban and rural settings.   Urban people who are not connected might be living in a connectivity desert, but frequently cost is the most cited factor.  The rural unconnected, though, often face the possibility of no options to connect, even if they wanted to.

The lack of connectivity for a portion of citizens has effects on education, health care, government access, and economic development.  Each sector strives to get people connected, but sometimes there is overlap or simply a lack of coordination.

At a recent Broadband Conference in Oregon, a state legislator mentioned that there could be no "top down approach" to connectivity and that market forces would eventually solve the problem.  Although there is some truth to this statement, local and state governments still need to provide vision and leadership on this critical issue. 

One state worthy of note is New Hampshire.  They are hosting annual digital equity summits which gather together people from many different constituencies.    They are supporting a GenYes cadre of students who help non tech oriented teachers to implement technology in their classrooms, and this is helping with digital literacy and the digital use divide.  Connections are also being made with communities who are working to expand access and with funding sources.   This doesn't necessarily solve the problem in all areas, but a laser like focus on digital equity is helping to move the needle in this state.

In Oregon, the legislature recently approved a pilot program for rural broadband development.  "The Governor’s Office has allocated $500,000 for grant(s) of up to a total of $500,000 from the Strategic Reserve Fund to be available for the support of broadband planning, engineering, and/or infrastructure deployment projects targeting rural and underserved populations (areas that do not have broadband service available at the current FCC designation of 25 million bits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, excluding satellite service)."  This is definitely a good start and will foster innovation in vastly underserved communities, but more systemic planning and vision is needed. 

At the local level, cities are working to address digital equity as well.  Portland Oregon and Multnomah County have a Digital Equity Action Plan.  This effort includes data gathering, long term planning, and an attempt to unify multiply constituents behind a common goal:   "All residents of Portland/Multnomah County will have barrier free access to high-speed broadband internet at home and school, an affordable computing device, and the training to use them effectively."  Portland is a good example of systemic measuring, planning, collaborating, and implementation.

Technology is evolving and radically changing and affecting how people live, work, learn, and survive.  No state or city has found the perfect solution, but addressing the problem is much better than a "wait and see what happens" approach.    As organizations adapt to meet future needs, more discussion and coordination is needed.  States and local governments need to be deliberate in their efforts to provide digital equity.  Providing leadership on this complicated issue is not a "top down" approach.  Rather, it is an important step to making all of our communities more equitable when it comes to internet access.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Finding Partners in Addressing the Digital Divide: Health Care Providers

Finding Partners in Addressing the Digital Divide:  

Health Care Providers

School districts across the country face a variety of challenges with respect to students accessing resources from home.  At a recent conference, a representative from Chicago mentioned that many of their students who don't have home access attend local libraries.  Some urban and suburban districts have been adopting hotspot programs (Kajeet is an excellent provider of student hotspots) while rural districts have put wifi on buses for the long bus rides to and from school.

Increasingly, educators have come to the realization that home broadband access affects more than just a student's education.  Families that have internet access at home can fulfill other needs and access other services like job applications, government programs, and health care.  In a recent article on the digital divide in health care, author Mark Brohan discusses the use and lack of use of health care portals.  After reviewing data with respect to health care portal usage, specific patterns emerge which coincide with the digital divide in education.

Health care portal use, as one might suspect, reflects broadband internet connectivity rates in specific neighborhoods:   "In neighborhoods where 20% or fewer homes had a broadband connection the portal use rate was just 17.5% compared with 34.8% patient portal use where more than 80% of homes had broadband".  From a healthcare provider perspective, bridging the digital divide is an important way to increase efficiency.  More important, though, is the idea that access to advice, appointments, and labs leads to a greater health awareness and increased chance for wellness.   

Often large institutions and/or sectors don't often think of the connections between each other.  Certainly, both health care portals and schools have a vested interested in increasing connectivity for their patients/students.  Instead of addressing this issue alone, having health care providers, educational systems, and government agencies work together would decrease an overlap of efforts.  Urban, suburban, and rural areas all provide unique challenges which are complicated by geography, cost, and historical forces.  In the end, though, a focused effort of pooled resources and creative thinking would seem to have a much greater chance for success when addressing the digital divide.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Digital Divide and Families: a group effort

The Digital Divide and Families:  a Group Effort

In households that don't have a culture of computer use, it is often children who teach their parents how to accomplish various tasks on the internet.   Given this reality, it is important to realize that integrating technology into schools end up extending far beyond the classroom.  One focus should be to encourage parents to become more computer literate.

Of course, encouraging computer literacy is one thing, but providing realistic opportunities is another. Some schools, for example, have offered technology learning nights for their parents.  Daycare and snacks are often provided, and the central focus is teaching parents about technology use (like how to check a student's attendance and academic progress on a computer) as well as teaching parents any relevant mobile phone apps that connect to the school.  Additionally, these evening courses at school focus on digital citizenship issues and some parenting norms around technology that parents might not have thought about as they didn't experience them when they grew up.

Given the fact that many students are teaching their parents about technology, it is of utmost importance that schools teach about digital citizenship.   Parents (especially those who haven't used a lot of technology) often assume that younger people are "just good at it" since they grew up with it.  However, this is not necessarily the case.  If schools explicitly teach digital citizenship and literacy ideas, student in turn can take these ideas back home.   If parents become more aware of some of the challenges around technology use in today's world, both parents and students can work together as a team when these challenges come up.  When it comes to bullying, meanness, privacy, digital footprints, passwords, etc., families that talk about these issues are much more able to actively deal with these issues when they come up.

In the end, schools  should consider offering opportunities for parents to learn after school hours as well as providing direct instruction on digital citizenship within classrooms.  These two strategies help when it comes to the "digital use and knowledge" divide that is found in many schools today.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Starting School and the Digital Divide in Classrooms

Starting School and the Digital Divide in Classrooms

In many classrooms, teachers don't start realizing internet home access challenges until October or November when online work for specific students is spotty or non-existent.   It is easy to assume (like I did) that students were not just academically inclined or had poor organizational skills and that was why they weren't able to complete projects/research/peer editing/blogging/presentations at home.

An "Aha" Moment

Alex was a typical 9th grade World History student.  He was full of energy and excited about starting high school.   He wasn't a perfect student, but he participated in class and worked hard.  Alex was a relatively quiet student, but he enjoyed opportunities to engage with his peers.   In mid October, I had assigned a group project (which had many different options) on early civilizations.  Students were randomly assigned into groups and students developed a work plan for their overall project.  Much of the project was accomplished in class, but groups delegated tasks to be done at home as well.
After several class periods, Alex's group members came to me privately and complained that he wasn't coming to class prepared with his part of the project.  I checked in with Alex and he initially said that he would get it done.  He worked hard in class, but unfortunately he did not accomplish any of his electronic work outside of the class.  (Note:  we are a 1 to 1 school so Alex at had chromebook to take home).   After another class and another disappointment, Alex finally mentioned that he did not have access at home.   As an educator, I felt somewhat ashamed that I had not picked up on this earlier as I could have worked on strategies with Alex (and a few of the other unconnected/underconnected students in my class).   I had attributed a lack of digital homework to other issues like disorganization or developing academic abilities.

New Start of Year Routines

For many 9th graders around the country, admitting that you don't have home internet access can be difficult.   Additionally, many students might say that they do have internet access (perhaps a parent's phone, their own phone, or a local store/library with wifi access) but don't have broadband at home.  Interestingly, school information systems have a wide variety of in depth information on families but don't have a field that details connectivity.    The best time to find out the status of your students, of course, is at the very first week during ice breaker and classroom culture activities.   A few simple questions can provide a lot of insight into how a teacher can approach lesson planning and providing opportunities for students to succeed.  A simple survey (click here) can accomplish this efficiently.  A survey that addresses both hardware and levels of connectivity is best and can be given alone or integrated into a larger class survey.   Whether your school is affluent, mixed, or high poverty, knowing the connectivity levels of students is critical to their success.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Access is not equal: number of internet providers matters

Access is not equal:  number of internet providers matters

There is a variety of reasons that families don't have broadband internet connections.  Many assume that family income is the main determining factor and that provider prices across the area are pretty similar.  However, this isn't necessarily the case.  As providers look to maximize profits, it makes financial sense for them to focus on middle class neighborhoods and to set their prices based on high volume.  In a recent study out of USC, it is clear that competition and opportunity affect prices and access.  In the map of LA County below, there are some areas with no broadband access and a majority with just a single option.  Even after accounting for income and other variables, the lack of internet access in LA County impacts primarily minority residents.   The lack of internet providers drives up prices and leads most families to choose a "phone only" approach to the internet.  The study notes that a phone only approach is not adequate for educational purposes.   In La County and in many locales across the country, the poor and disenfranchised often have to pay more for internet due to market forces.  In the end, this only exacerbates inequality and deepens the digital divide.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

School Scaffolding and the Digital Divide

School Scaffolding and the Digital Divide

As it turns out, buying devices for students is the easy part.  Educators enjoy spreading the news that their school is providing access to students and teaching digital skills that will be critical to their futures.  Delivering the devices, opening them up, and watching pleased faces is a feel good moment for most people in a district (granted, the people who are imaging and managing the machines might take issue, but I suspect that device rollout days are exciting as well as exhausting).

Districts, after hearing horror stories from around the world, are more aware of network wifi loads and speed issues, and many are able to avoid the challenges that faced early adopters.  And although 75% of districts do not have a plan for internet access outside of the school, at least the issue is starting to percolate through the diligent work of many educators throughout the United States.

Actually, one of the greatest ongoing challenges tends to be the assumption that some districts have about digital learning.  In an MIT Study on education and social media, researchers examined districts that assumed student digital prowess and those that didn't.  As one might expect, districts that implemented a 1 to 1 program without significant professional development found that devices were improperly and under used and had a higher breakage rate.  Districts that took the more costly and longer route of training their educators on how to implement laptops found a much higher success rate.   This "longer implementation" framework often includes school wide awareness programs and proper use and a common set of expectations.  Additionally,  the professional development pushed teams of teachers to think more about redefining and broadening education through digital implementation instead of just substituting paper worksheets with electronic ones.  Proficiency in teaching with technology does not come overnight.  At best, it takes several years to master the art of tech integration and informal training "on the go" is minimally effective.

In sum, as districts move forward there is often a sequential implementation of 
1.  Buying Devices
2.  Focusing on the Network 
3.  Thinking about home access
4.  Considering Professional Development with respect to digital instruction.

Although this flow seems to make sense, successful districts more often than not consider professional development and instruction first and not last.   Putting training first, although it delays the big rollout, can pay much bigger dividends down the road.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Family Dynamics and the Digital Divide

Family Dynamics and the Digital Divide

When thinking about the digital divide, many educators start talking about devices and then move to home connectivity issues.  The main focus (as it should be) is how to provide opportunities for all of our students to learn in this increasingly connected world.  In examining the digital divide and family dynamics, though, some interesting trends have emerged.  In higher income households where parents have higher levels of tech proficiency, many parents educate their young on various uses of the internet and online applications.   In lower income households, parents still do some of the educating, but their children are now providing a significant amount of help in this ever changing landscape.  


Why is this significant?  When low income parents start learning online skills such as accessing medical records and applying for jobs, their success for a better standard of living increases.   When a school sends a laptop home, it might be the first computer that has ever been in that household.  In districts where there is no student computer checkouts (the great majority) sending students home with technology skills can still be a game changer as parents and guardians might ask for computer guidance from their children at places like public libraries.

Much has been said about how there is a significant computer use gap developing between higher income and lower income families.  Specifically,  students without parent guidance tend to use computers more for gaming and social media and far less critical research.   This digital literacy gap is an ongoing challenge.  With that said, the trend of students from low income households teaching their parents computer skills is a trend worth noting because it extends the power of tech integration into areas far outside of the initial educational mission.   When adults can learn basic technology skills from their students, everyone can benefit.  As government programs, educational opportunities, and health care increasingly go digital, whole families can benefit when technology is successfully implemented in schools.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Summer and the Digital Divide

Summer and the Digital Divide

Educators will often talk about the importance of staying engaged over the summer in order to curtail the effects of "the summer slide", and they also will mention the time needed in the fall to formatively assess students and to review skills that have deteriorated.   Students without access to both devices and broadband can suffer even more in comparison to their peers.  This does not mean that students use devices over the summer are always doing so for education purposes, but the reading and creating of digital assets can indeed help in maintaining skills.

As more districts implement a one to one program for their students and as teachers (and summer school courses) move towards digital formats, having access over the summer becomes even more important for students and learning.  But what happens to student devices at the end of a school year?  Should a school check them in for the summer in order to take inventory?  This approach does have some advantages.  Specifically it guarantees that the device will be their in the fall to check out to students who are coming back to school.  Checking devices back in acknowledges the fact that it could be difficult to recoup the device of students move.

However, checking in devices does have significant disadvantages.  First off, it takes quite a bit of human capital to check in all devices and then to store them.  More importantly, though, is the fact that school issues computers might be the only way that students can access digital content from home over the summer.   (The home broadband connection is another challenge, but districts are working on this issue as well).   Taking away a device that has recently empowered a student and perhaps their whole family is a significant opportunity cost.

Perhaps there is a middle ground.  If schools can advertise that students can check out their device for the summer once it is briefly inspected, then they could access and create content all summer long.   This summer checkout might even entail a simple contract to be signed by a parent/guardian.   With that said, though, this process would allow students to continue their digital education over the summer.  A one size fits all policy for student device use over the summer is a fairly rigid approach that does not address the problem of the summer slide.  A more flexible approach might have more risks, but in this case the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Digital Divide Inside and Outside of the Classroom

The Digital Divide Inside and Outside of the Classroom

In summer 2017 article entitled Promising Practices for Education Technology, author Molly Zielezinski provides a thoughtful overview of a digital divide with respect to classroom uses of technology.   In her research, she found that technology is often used for more "drill and kill" lower level thinking exercises for disadvantaged students while more creative and dynamic applications are found much more often in privileged classes.   Supplying devices to every student at first seemed to foster claims that "the digital divide is shrinking".   Comprehensive studies showing that technology is utilized in drastically different ways, though, illustrate why pedagogy is so important.

With that said, broadband connections outside of the home continue to be a central issue in bridging the digital divide.

A common statistic is that 1 in five families does not have broadband at home.  This is masked by students saying that they do have access to the internet at home through either their phone or a parent's phone.  This is where it gets nuanced, as connectivity through a phone is just not the same as broadband. 

First off, cell phone companies can control phone access and limit it in a way that broadband doesn't.  Additionally, speeds are often much slower and embedded applications are often just not feasible.   These types of limited connectivity relate back to some extent to the problem of what is being assigned in classrooms.    Students in wealthier classrooms often get assigned more open ended work, especially if some of it needs to be done at home.  With faster speeds and broader access to resources, wealthier students get exposed to more challenging learning digital environments and the skills that they strengthen just continue to widen the gap over time between rich and poor students.  Teaching with technology needs to be done in a manner that is authentic and interactive for all students.  Focusing on teaching is paramount, but focusing on home broadband access for all students is also needed in order to close the widening opportunity gap.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Impacts of the Digital Divide: Classroom Case Studies

Impacts of the Digital Divide:  Classroom Case Studies

For many people who have broadband connection at home, it is sometimes hard to imagine the effects of the digital divide in a classroom setting.  While many educators assume that students can go to the library after school or perhaps find free wifi at a fast food restaurant, this is often easier said than done -- especially for younger students who are not of driving age.  While a few districts nationwide have 100%of their students connected at home and while other districts have virtually no student connected at home, the vast majority of districts fall somewhere in the middle.  As educators move to using technology to enhance learning, collaboration, and differentiation, having students that don't have access at home can have subtle but observable effects on learning and achievement.  Here are 5 examples (names of teachers changed) that illustrate this from my teaching experience in a district that has about 36% of students on free and reduced lunch.

Case #1:   In a 9th grade World History class, Chris was working in a collaborative group on a summative project with 3 other students.  The group members assigned work on specific presentation slides and research to be done outside of class.  Although Chris works hard in class, he cannot fulfill his work requirements outside of class because he can't access research or the actual presentation.  Students in his group reach out to the teacher after class to share their frustrations with Chris and the fact that their presentation is suffering.  The teacher approaches Chris, and he is a little sheepish and says that he will try his best to finish.  It takes several months before the teacher actually realizes that Chris does not have access at home.

Case #2:  Ms. Hawkins 10th grade English class is writing an essay and is going through the writing process which entails multiple drafts, feedback, and revision.  As part of the revision process, Ms. Hawkins assigns students to do electronic peer reviews for homework.   6 of her students do not have access at home and have difficulty providing quality reviews.  As a result, the face to face process of going over peer reviews and asking clarifying questions does not run smoothly and the whole class (both those with and without access) suffers as a result.

Case #3:  Mr. Bobzien is a 5th grade teacher who is flipping his classroom.  He creates instructional videos and assigns the videos and practice problems for homework.  At home, parents often learn math along with their kids and help them after watching the videos.  Back in the classroom, Mr. Bobzien checks in with individual students and checks for understanding.   Although all of the 5th graders in his class have chromebooks to take home, seven of his students don't have access at home.  As a result, these students try to learn math the best that they can before school and during class.  Overall, Mr. Bobzien's students are achieving at higher levels in the flipped classroom model, but those without access are progressing at a much slower rate.

Case #4:  Mrs. Thompson, an environmental science teacher, assigns a class discussion question once a week for homework in Canvas.  She notices this has elevated the level of discussion in her class and that students often refer to the discussions the next day in class.  She started to evaluate  students on their communication skills, but she notes that several of her students rarely submit answers.  Although she encourages students to log in at the start of class, she notes that students who are not submitting at home often have less developed responses and don't benefit from the online interaction and thinking of other students.  She suspects that several of her students don't have home access.

Case #5  Effects on teaching practice
Mr. Evans teaches at a high poverty school in our district and has a friend (Ms. Fuller) who teaches at a low poverty school.  Mr. Evans rarely assigns electronic homework and research as he knows that almost half of his students do not have home access.  Instead, he assigns paper copies and foregoes the electronic benefits of reading differentiation, peer chats, peer revisions, and collaborative electronic projects.   His friend Ms. Fuller, on the other hand, assigns creative and collaborative work outside of school.     Although Mr. Evans and Ms. Fuller teach the same grade level in the same district, when they compare notes they realize that their students are getting a very different 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.