Oct 24 2019

Digital Equity: How Far Have We Come?

School district leaders share insights on providing students equal access to digital resources.

For IT staff and administrators, the work of ensuring all students have equal access to the internet, and to technology that is now standard for modern classrooms, is complex. 

First, they lead the effort to distribute digital devices such as notebooks and tablets. With those device deployments, district leaders also must ensure every school has strong Wi-Fi, software and other applicable resources to support effective learning. 

But district leaders have also discovered that digital equity goes beyond devices and on-premises infrastructure

It includes training teachers on best practices for incorporating technology into instruction and offering students a consistent digital learning experience. 

Districts also need to address factors that prevent students from completing assignments outside of school — namely, poor internet access. 

That disparity, known as the homework gap, is increasingly a concern for districts, according to 95 percent of IT leaders who responded to the Consortium for School Networking’s 2019 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report.

Three district leaders recently spoke with EdTech: Focus on K–12 about their strategies and lessons learned on how best to tackle digital equity. 

Those leaders are Kim Buryanek, associate superintendent of Sioux City Community School District in Sioux City, Iowa; Steve Langford, CIO of Beaverton School District in Beaverton, Ore.; and Tracy Smith, assistant to the superintendent for operations at Parkland School District in Allentown, Pa. 

EDTECH: What challenges related to digital equity are you facing in your district?

Langford: We deployed our first round of Chromebooks to students in 2016. Through bond money, we purchased devices and changed the classroom environment. 

We added a learning management system and other applications. We also had a team of teachers, called innovation strategists, who provided professional development to their colleagues

Where we missed the mark was connectivity. We assumed that all students had internet access at home, and they don’t. For about 10 percent of our high school students, connectivity was a real issue. 

Smith: There needs to be a lot of professional development and a change in mindset from teacher-oriented instruction to empowering students to take more ownership of learning.

As a one-to-one district, we need to ensure that essential infrastructure for students is available beyond the walls of their schools. Education now is 24/7. Parents are a critical partner in this. We’ve done surveys, and 3 percent of our students — about 300 kids — don’t have internet access at home.


We also have seen increases in the free- and reduced-price lunch population and the English-language learner population, and we are trying to address our challenges. 

For example, some staff say, “How do I teach a class where four students speak a different language?” We’ve experimented with Microsoft Translator, which provides translation on students’ laptops when the teacher is talking. We’ve played with it, and it’s remarkable. Technology can make a difference, and in this case, it’s a good fit. 

Buryanek: Asking the right question was our first hurdle. We asked, “Do you have connectivity at home?” Over 80 percent of students said yes. But when we drilled down and asked what that meant, some homes have Wi-Fi and others have internet access on their phones. We asked better questions to understand what connectivity looked like at home. We suspect the percentage who have robust access is below 70 percent

EDTECH: How are you solving the digital-equity problem?

Buryanek: We have evening and Saturday school so kids can come and connect to our wireless network. We also have robust wireless connections in our 11 elementary schools. We are looking into opening up the elementary buildings after hours in the neighborhoods where there is high poverty and where we suspect students have less connectivity in their houses. 

Our next step is to order more hotspots. We have about 20 in our high school libraries that students can check out, and we will purchase more and put them in community spaces in trailer parks. 

We’ve also put some hotspots in our buses so kids can ride to and from school and have access. And as they travel to ballgames and activities after school, they can use the Wi-Fi so they are not getting home late after games with homework left to do. 

Langford: We’ve taken a multifaceted approach. In 2016, we formed a digital-equity team made up of teachers and administrators districtwide. We shared promising practices and brainstormed new solutions

For example, one school had a great idea to sit down with coffee shop owners and go to other places where people congregate and ask, “Can you be friendly to our students and let them come sit and work?” A number of businesses said yes. One school in the group did that, and we shared it out to the other schools.


The next step was getting hotspots. At that time, Sprint launched The 1Million Project Foundation, trying to get hotspots to students who need connectivity. We applied and received hotspots starting in 2017. Sprint provides us with about 375 devices a year.

That was great for our high schools, but we didn’t have support for middle school students. Fortunately, we found another partner through the Kajeet Homework Gap Grant. We have to purchase hotspots, but Kajeet gives us an aggressive discount. With Kajeet, we have about 150 for our middle schools.

Smith: For us, the fix is a combination of purchasing Kajeet hotspots and working with EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that partners with service providers to offer low-cost internet for qualifying parents. We also work with our community library to make sure they are a resource. 

We have about 75 Kajeet hotspots, and they’re a great solution. Students can have them for about two weeks. If students need something longer term, EveryoneOn is a solution. 

If that’s not affordable, we work with students, and in some cases we will extend their use of the Kajeet hotspots. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how a Wi-Fi enabled backpack may help close the digital equity gap.

EDTECH: What’s next on your digital-equity roadmap?

Smith: We broke down digital equity into four areas: devices, infrastructure, broadband and skills. We’ve tried to bridge the divide in the skills base of our staff. We added tech mentors in each school building prior to the one-to-one rollout. 

We are fortunate that only 3 percent of the families in our district don’t have home internet, but in some nearby communities that’s true for 20 to 30 percent of families. 

I believe we are at a crossroads in our area where we can either watch the digital-equity gap get wider or we can join regional efforts to try to close it completely by getting fiber to the home, like in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

We are part of a regional consortium focused on equity, and digital equity is a big part of our discussions about preparing for 5G

Langford: Our digital-equity group is having other equity discussions and asking, are there differences by school in how teachers are using technology or not using it? What kind of professional development do we need to put in place to make sure students are getting a consistent educational experience

For example, you can’t go to college now without using a learning management system. In college, you do everything through a portal. We have some schools that are all in: 100 percent of teachers are using the LMS.

But, say most teachers in another high school are not using it; then we’re not preparing all the students in that high school for the college experience. That relates to teacher practice, training, comfort level and support as they use these tools. 


Buryanek: We started an initiative three years ago called Future Ready Cohort, based on the Future Ready Schools initiative. It’s a competitive application that we put out to the 1,000 teachers in the district. We ask applicants to form teams that will work closely during the next school year. About 40 teachers go through this training every summer. 

We expose teachers to tech tools such as Office 365 and coding-type applications. Teams of teachers develop units and lessons that transform their classrooms. It’s inquiry-based and project-based learning

I want this experience for every student in every classroom. Last summer, we added a mentoring component so some of our Future Ready teams can mentor teams in other buildings who are interested in replicating what they’ve done. We are trying to grow this by leaning on teachers as the experts.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Here are some best practices for developing a project-based learning program in your school.

EDTECH: Do you have tips or advice for other districts on bridging the digital divide?

Smith: It’s not something a district can do on its own. You work in tandem with the community. Learn from workshops with other school districts, partner with them, and pick their brains on how to tackle this. 

Langford: It’s not an IT problem. It’s not a teaching and learning problem. It’s an organizational opportunity. Putting together a group of stakeholders is key. Look at what your district and your local partners can do and see what grant opportunities are out there nationally. 

Buryanek: Digital access and opportunity are so important for everyone. You just have to make sure you are not leaving anyone out. We have 1,000 teachers and want to impact every classroom. So take one step at a time, and as you move forward, you eventually can see the progress that you make.

Chris Gash

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