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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in 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.