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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

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.