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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

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.