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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Redefining Connectivity in small town America and the masking of the digital divide

At a recent trip to a small town on the Oregon Coast, I was sitting in a restaurant and overheard a nearby conversation about connectivity.  4 locals (that was my impression anyway) were talking about their cell phone reception in certain parts of town.  Most agreed that the most expensive carrier in town (Verizon) offered the best coverage.  The discussion then moved on to the geographical challenges of every other carrier and where they received the best reception.

This discussion, remember, is simply about cell phone reception.  It is a fairly common discussion that occurs in small town America on a frequent basis.  In general, though, discussions of cell phone reception and of wireless broadband have been two distinct discussions.   People can certainly use their phones as very slow hotspots, but this type of connection has never been classified as broadband connectivity.  Indeed, some students use phone connectivity to do some research, but this type of work is often limited by speed and data costs.

In a few weeks, though, the FCC will be voting to reclassify some types of cell phone connectivity as broadband.  Although this might not seem that significant, it can/will have a potentially severe long term impact that will mask the digital divide for years to come. Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of municipalities aimed at expanding local broadband access, observes that "it seems antithetical to all the other efforts we’re doing. “I spent a good part of my life as a teacher and a principal. If I had a classroom full of children that included a lot of failing students, I wouldn’t change my standards [to increase the number of passing grades,] I’d change the intervention.”  (The FCC's Next Stunt: Reclassifying Cell Phone Data Service as 'Broadband Internet')

Redefining connectivity in order to show that people have connectivity when they really don't is poor public policy.   The vast majority of Americans might not notice this change or care all that much as it doesn't affect them directly.  If a household already has access to high speed broadband, then a reclassification of cell phone plans as broadband might not matter.  However, if you listen closely to conversations about connectivity in smaller towns, you might be surprised at how difficult being connected (through broadband and/or cellphone) can be.

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.