Inequities in student access to reliable internet service and personal technology are not insurmountable. School districts can improve digital equity through investments, partnerships with businesses and national grants, says Steve Langford, CIO of Beaverton School District in Oregon.
He should know. He’s seeing that process work for students in his district. Langford recently talked with EdTech about the challenges of the digital divide and practical ways to overcome them.
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 also 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.
Once we began deploying Chromebooks, I started getting emails from students: “My father lost his job, and we had to reduce our Internet. I don’t have a way to complete assignments. What do I do?”
We are right outside of Portland, and we have 41,000 students. We have parents who are wealthy, but we also have families that are challenged socioeconomically. It’s something we have to pay attention to.
MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out what one Iowa school district is doing to narrow the homework gap.
EDTECH: How are you solving the digital-equity problem?
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. The school team drew a map of businesses in the surrounding areas that offered free Wi-Fi.
One school in the group did that, and we shared it out to the other schools.
We have great Wi-Fi, so we also extended our school library hours to late afternoon or early evening, and that was successful.
We also had parent nights and brought in translators in multiple languages. We wanted to reach out to parents of all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels to talk about how the learning environment is changing, how the devices are connected to learning, and the importance of finding ways to have connectivity for students.
The next step was getting hotspots. At that time, Sprint launched its 1Million Project Foundation, trying to get hotspots to students who need connectivity. We applied, and received hotspots starting in 2017. Sprint provides us 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.
If we had more hotspots, could we use them? Probably. It is challenging to identify all the high school students who needs the support. We don’t want the message to be that we are providing hotspots only to our poor kids. But if parents are challenged socioeconomically, students struggle with that too. We have to work hard to reduce the stigma. We’ve had assemblies in school and told students about this great opportunity with the hotspots.
EDTECH: What’s next on your digital-equity roadmap?
Langford: Continued community outreach and raising awareness of the digital-equity issues and how they can help. That never ends. Our digital-equity group is having other equity discussions and asking, are there differences by school in how teachers are using or not using technology? 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 students in that high school for the college experience. That relates to teacher practice, training and comfort level, and support as they use those tools.
We’ve also started analyzing data around discipline incidents related to technology misuse, such as cyberbullying and inappropriate communication. Do we see differences connected to race, ethnicity or gender? What does it look like at each high school? We are just beginning the discovery process, and that data can inform professional development needs.
EDTECH: What benefits have you seen from your efforts?
Langford: The holy grail has always been, does technology translate to higher test scores? But my thinking on that is different. There’s not a study where electricity translates to higher test scores, but we don’t question the value of electricity. We are past the point of saying there has to be this hard line, that a Chromebook will result in a certain percentage of higher test scores. The application is at a different level than that.
We see a very different classroom with Chromebooks. Students work on their devices in groups, creating and building things. Allowing students in grades six through 12 to take their devices home lets teachers extend learning outside of the school day. Learning is happening all over the city — at home, in coffee shops, and at all hours of the day.
EDTECH: Do you have tips or advice for other districts on bridging the digital divide?
Langford: You don’t tackle this alone. It’s not an IT problem. It’s not a teaching and learning problem. It’s an organizational opportunity. Putting together a group of internal stakeholders is key. Look at what your district and your local partners can do, and see what grant opportunities are out there nationally.