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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.

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.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Digital Divide School Strategy #1: Wifi Community Collaboration

Digital Divide School Strategy #1:  

Wifi Community Collaboration

Sometimes, the needs of students and our families seem overwhelming.   At times, it seems like schools are called upon to solve deeply rooted problems that are systemic in nature.  Districts have been finding success in upgrading connectivity in schools and many have made significant progress in providing more machines/access points throughout their schools.  However, when it coat mes to students getting connected outside of school, the problem seems greater than most districts can handle (or even consider).   The vast majority of districts do not have plans for how students get connected outside of school, and this has led to great inequities in education.  As teachers move to digitalize curriculum, provide class websites and/or school management sites, and assign group electronic projects, those students that are not connected at home suffer from a notable disadvantage.  Sometimes, students will say that they are "connected" when asked, but this might simply mean that they can access the internet via a parent's smartphone if need be.   For many innovative and collaborative projects, this type of connectivity just doesn't fill the need.

One creative solution that Mountain View Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon implemented was creating a collaborative Community WiFi map.  The school approached local businesses and mentioned the need for student access after school and on weekends.   As Oregon is notable for it's rainy weather, the businesses were asked to let students sit and work inside and use the wifi.  In this proactive manner, many businesses were more than happy to help.

One a list of wifi community points was collected, Mt. View created a flyer (in both English and Spanish) that is given to students, families, and businesses.  It has turned out to be a win win and an example of a healthy school/community partnership.

Although this is a significant step in the right direction, it is still important to note that access to community wifi is not the same as having internet access at home.  Many students have obligations after school and can't get to their homework until later in the evening.  Parents are often reluctant to send their children out to a local wifi access point when it is dark and/or raining -- especially in the younger grades.  Still, providing information to students and giving options is an important way for schools to note that they are considering the challenges of access for students and families.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Latino Immigrants and the Digital Divide

Reframing How Educators Approach
Latino Immigrants and Technology Use

A recent discussion from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center focused on the challenges of technology integration and use in Latino immigrant families.   It is not surprising that lower income families have less access to technology and home broadband.  When families have to choose between a cell phone and a broadband bill, it seems logical that the cell phone would almost always win out.  With that said, though, it is notable that Latino immigrant families are especially vulnerable when it comes to having access.  This lack of access has serious implications as schools across the country move to digital curriculum and learning management systems that require home access for a student's success.

Additionally, many Latino immigrant parents lack experience with technology and don't necessarily have a "culture of technology" in the household.  Immigrant Latino parents have less technology experience than other groups.  Only 40% feel confident in using the internet and 45% have been online for five years or less.  Amidst these statistics, though, there is emerging a positive trend:  Latino parents are making technology purchases for their children's education at an increasing rate.

Latino immigrant families are prioritizing the purchase of technology as it relates to their children.  Great income disparities hinder the drive for digital equity for students, and some subgroups like Latino immigrants tend to have less experience with technology.  With that said, the trend to try to purchase technology to aid in their children's education is definitely of note.  It has implications for programs and districts who are increasing technology purchases and implementation.  Harnessing the desire of Latino immigrant parents to integrate technology is a key to ensuring student growth and success.  When schools and parents work together to address nuanced issues relating to the digital divide, the chance for student success increases greatly.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Complexity of Problems and Solutions

Nuanced Issues and Approaches

Millions of students cannot do their homework as they don't have access to home broadband internet.  A few years back, it seemed that devices were a primary issue.  Devices are still an issue in many districts, but the a shift to 1 to 1 devices in school district is gaining momentum.   Some students might have a computer issued to them but still lack home access.  Some students (especially in rural areas) don't have any possibility of access.  Here is an interesting two interesting statistics that speak to the problem of the homework gap:

  • As many as 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband, but one in three households do not subscribe to broadband service

  • More than half of principals nationwide now cite digital equity as a major challenge in their schools.
The video below is a panel discussion that features Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the FCC.  The discussion helps outline both the complexity of the problem and the complexity of the solution.  In reality, there are several problems operating all at once which require different solutions.