Jun 02 2020

CoSN2020: Seeing the Bigger Picture of Digital Equity

Securing devices and granting internet access for students are crucial for remote learning. But that’s only part of a larger issue.

As K–12 administrators work to improve digital equity for their students, they must ensure students have the devices and internet connections needed to continue learning outside of school buildings.

But, experts say, the conversation doesn’t go far enough if it starts and stops with access.

“We have all now realized the critical importance of making sure that every single student has access to these pieces, not just at school but also outside of school for the opportunities of 24/7 learning. But that’s really just the first piece,” Beth Holland, director of the Consortium for School Networking’s Digital Equity Project, said at CoSN2020, the organization’s annual conference.

Even with one-to-one device programs, there are wide variations within districts, schools and even classrooms when it comes to the conditions under which students engage in remote learning. Examples include home noise levels, physical safety, household responsibilities such as caring for siblings, and the presence of an adult who can help with classwork or troubleshoot technical difficulties. Some educators have also struggled to accommodate students with disabilities and English language learners during remote learning.

As experts pointed out at CoSN2020, the implementation decisions administrators and teachers make can also affect equity in remote learning. Disparities in the quality of the work teachers assign and the amounts of time students have to engage in meaningful discussions with teachers and peers also weaken equity.

Holland led a discussion specifically about digital equity, but in numerous sessions, administrators, educators and other presenters noted issues of equity as well as schools’ holistic needs beyond instruction and operations. The latest results of CoSN’s annual IT leadership survey help explain why: 96 percent of IT leaders consider digital equity a priority, the report states.

More than half of U.S. school districts have one-to-one computing programs, and many of the rest come close.

But, as Holland said, digital equity is more than “home access or digital access or even the homework gap.

“How are we really creating equity of opportunity?”

The What, When and With Whom of Online Learning Aren’t Equal

The way districts implement remote learning can introduce disparities instead of erasing them. The intentions for implementation may not match up with reality.

When schools across the country closed because of COVID-19 and shifted instruction online, some districts took a systematic approach to determine which programs and platforms teachers used. At other schools, administrators let teachers make that decision

When a school takes a systematic approach across grade levels, it helps families, said Matt Hiefield, a teacher on special assignment for Beaverton School District in Oregon. That way, students within the same family would all use the same communication tool.

That’s “really essential, especially for families who aren’t as fluent in technology,” Hiefield said. “It’s easier to teach them one communication tool.”

A “free for all” approach with different programs and platforms for different teachers forces families to learn multiple tools, Hiefield said, and that can be “really difficult. It can be confusing, and it leads to a lack of continuity.”

Inconsistency is also stressful for teachers, who need the training to understand how to use the tools and to effectively implement them in instruction.

It’s important to remove the tool as a barrier, said Teshon Christie, executive director of organizational effectiveness for Kent School District in Washington. “Then you can start to apply creativity and other things to the actual solution,” he said.

Watch Marialice Curran, founder of the Digital Citizenship Institute, talk about ways to make digital content more accessible.

Creating Opportunities for Students to Come Together and Learn

Student autonomy can also be an equity issue. Educators should be mindful of the balance they strike with giving students synchronous learning opportunities — virtually coming together as a class and having meaningful discussions — versus asynchronous tasks such as completing digital worksheets, Holland said.

That can be a challenge.

Students aren’t always able to log in at certain times of day, so asynchronous assignments enable those students to work autonomously, Hiefield said. But if that is the only option students have, “you can miss out on the relationship building,” he said.

Disparities also arise around remote learning instruction, with some schools offering more engaging activities for students while others assign more “drill and kill” lessons. That’s one reason why it’s important for teachers to get training to help them develop richer, more creative learning opportunities, Hiefield said.

It’s a matter of creation versus consumption, said Sarah Thomas, a regional technology coordinator at Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland. “Equity includes access to transformational learning experiences,” she said.

Challenges aside, Thomas and the other educators also noted that the widespread adoption of remote learning is also driving innovations about when, where and how students learn.

“There’s also tremendous opportunity,” Thomas said. “I would love to see more learning without borders, where our students are truly global citizens learning with one another and from one another. And I feel like now, with so many students learning online, the opportunity is ripe for that.”

EdTech covered CoSN2020: A Breakthrough Virtual Experience, so check out this page for our coverage. 

FilippoBacci/Getty Images