10 Strategies Promoting Digital Access and Equity

The printing press changed the world, fueling a global renaissance in learning, art and science and upending historical power structures. The shift from print to digital is having an even more profound impact. It has taken hold in two decades rather than two centuries, transforming communication, democratizing learning and creating new markets.

Today we live, learn, work and play on digital platforms. The five largest companies are digital platforms (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft). Most of us hop seamlessly from a communication screen to a production screen to a shared screen, and we often use several simultaneously.

Tremendous progress has been made in K-12 education in this country over the last 20 years, even in low-income communities. Most schools have broadband connections, devices for every student or two and practices that have begun to personalize student learning.

But challenges remain in these early days of developing new personalized learning models. These 10 strategies promote excellence and equity in elementary and secondary schools in the digital learning age. The first five are the basics of access, the second five are the basics of quality.

1. Support 1:1 Take-Home Technology

The combination of inexpensive devices (especially Chromebooks) and open education resources have made it cheaper to provide digital access to great instructional resources than textbooks. It also powers blended and anywhere anytime learning models. A few interesting facts around this:

  • Maine is the only state to provide 1:1 take-home technology to secondary students. Everywhere else, it’s up to school districts.
  • The Mooresville Graded School District near Charlotte, North Carolina, was a 1:1 pioneer and demonstrated that in a low-spending district (relative to other North Carolina districts) it was possible to provide all students with a full-function laptop.
  • Beginning in 2012, Council Bluffs, Iowa; Leyden, Ill.; and the Richland Two schools in South Carolina, became early leaders in adopting Chromebooks.

A user fee of $25-$50 for take-home laptops has been adopted by some districts to cover insurance and can usually be paid in installments for those who need payment assistance. Some districts cover the cost for low-income families upon request.

Full 1:1 access makes possible the transition from textbooks to digital instructional materials, particularly open resources. Several school districts have partnerships with open educational resources:

  • The El Paso Independent School District in Texas worked with CK-12 Foundation to develop 30 open high school flexbooks. El Paso teachers adapted CK-12 content with their own touches and aligned the content with Texas standards. Savings from planned textbook adoptions helped pay for laptops for every high school student.
  • The Santa Ana Unified School District in California partners with Gooru for customized playlists of open content.
  • Schools in Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York use open digital playlists from PowerMyLearning.
  • Six districts are piloting comprehensive open math curriculum from nonprofit Open Up Resources.

Some 1:1 schools and districts are reluctant to allow students to bring devices home because of safety concerns, particularly if the students wear recognizable uniforms and walk in dangerous areas. This difficult choice puts more pressure on home and community connectivity solutions.

2. Support Community Broadband Access

Home connectivity is important to support extended learning opportunities and full digital equity. In a limited number of cases, school districts may provide a connected device (tablet or laptop with hotspot) to students lacking home access, but this quickly becomes cost prohibitive to do at scale. The most common effort to promote home connectivity are community partnerships including low-cost broadband services (about $10 per month) and encouraging and mapping community Wi-Fi hotspots.

Taking advantage of the urban density, the Santa Ana district made efforts to boost home internet access by boosting school signal strength to cover nearby apartment units and, in partnership with the city, increase access to Wi-Fi hotspots. Where that doesn’t meet the need, school libraries check out filtered wireless hotspots for home use. One hot spot often covers multiple students.

Santa Ana’s deputy superintendent, David Haglund, says home access is improving as families have found ways to access the internet. “The most recent technology survey in Santa Ana found that 85 percent of families have internet in the home. We use the hotspots as a strategy to solve for the remaining 15 percent.” The district is also in talks with the city regarding a citywide broadband initiative.

In Alabama, the Huntsville City Schools put Wi-Fi on buses with extended travel time. In addition to more study time, the district experienced a big drop in discipline problems on the buses equipped with Wi-Fi.

Coachella Valley Unified Schools in California provides students with a mobile device and, according to superintendent Daryl Adams, “parks buses in isolated rural areas to provide access for students and families with no internet service.”

3. Encourage BYOD

Because the vast majority of secondary school students nationwide today bring their own device to school, most districts have dropped their phone bans and allow teachers to decide when and how students can use phones in class.

Bring your own device policies should be used to create a high-access environment — a three-screen day that includes a mobile device, a production device and a large sharing/editing screen. BYOD doesn’t replace a school district’s commitment to 1:1 access. Rather, it augments this commitment and creates a three-screen day with extended learning opportunities.

4. Support Digital Literacy

“Digital learning is mission-critical because digital literacy and digital collaboration don’t come naturally,” says Jan Rashid, assistant superintendent of Des Plaines School District 62, located in a Chicago suburb. “Writing digitally is not the same as using Facebook or Snapchat.”

To prepare students for middle school, high school, college and beyond, the district uses a digital literacy curriculum. Students have 24/7 access to the content, so they can work in class, at home or on the bus.

Santa Ana dropped its ban on cell phones and encouraged students to bring their own device and use their own network. While that makes other administrators nervous, Haglund thinks locked-down networks are like teaching young people to drive on a Disney amusement park ride. Instead, he believes we should teach students to become responsible digital citizens.

Common Sense Media provides a free comprehensive curriculum designed to help students to think critically, behave safely and participate responsibly online.

5. Go Online

Districts serving diverse and low-income communities are finding very high smartphone penetration rates. Highline Public Schools, near Seattle, uses the SchoolWires mobile application to connect with parents and share assignments, contacts and calendar events.

Coding as Digital Equity?

Schools are rapidly adding coding to the curriculum as an important career skill. Web developers without a college degree can earn good money. Coding in high school can expose students to careers in computer science.

When coding is taught with robotics, problem-solving and maker experiences, it encourages computational thinking. At Olin College, a next-generation engineering school west of Boston, just-in-time computing is taught across the curriculum. Students learn the programming skills they need to solve the problem they are working on.

While valuable, these “add coding to the curriculum” instincts miss the broader implication — artificial intelligence is rapidly impacting lives and livelihoods.  

We used to code algorithms to perform specific tasks. Now we can code them to learn, and the more data the algorithms are exposed to, the smarter they get. Artificial intelligence (and its subsets, machine learning, neural nets, and natural language processing) currently results in narrow forms of machine intelligence — programs that are very good at specific tasks.

A recent Stanford study noted numerous ways that artificial intelligence is transforming social media, healthcare, retail, transportation and the employment landscape. Over the next decade, machine intelligence will broaden in capability rivaling humans in increasing respects. The report suggests that, in addition to in introducing coding and computational thinking, school communities should discuss the emerging ethical and economic questions implications of artificial intelligence.

6. Adopt Broader Aims

Houston ISD and Marion City Schools in Ohio hosted community conversations about what graduates should know and be able to do. AASA calls it Redefining Ready.

In addition to traditional measures, these districts built a graduate profile embracing broader aims including growth mindset, collaboration and critical thinking. Districts benefiting from Next Generation Learning Challenges grants use the NGLC MyWays outcome framework that add workplace success skills and “wayfinding” or navigational and decision making skills.

7. Support High-Quality Personalized Learning

Developing a blended and personalized learning environment is complicated. Districts including Washington D.C. have in-house experts that help school staffs make good decisions about building, adopting or adapting a learning model. Some D.C. schools have partnered with NewClassrooms and others have adopted the Summit Public Schools personalized learning plan. Over 100 schools districts nationwide have formed a partnership with nonprofit New Tech Network and benefit from their personalized project-based learning model, platform, and support services.

8. Support Access to Rich Curriculum Options

Houston ISD uses digital curriculum to support 10 different deployment models to extend access and student learning options. Online learning, with a teacher at a distance, provides and expanded list of electives and world languages. Blended learning provides personalized attention and supports tailored approaches to credit recovery. Digital curriculum supports Advanced Placement courses as well as career and technical education.

9. Support Teacher Development

Like students, teachers deserve access to blended, personalized and competency-based learning experience. Fulton County, Georgia identified and trained 400 Vanguard Teachers, about four per school. These teachers provide support and lead conversations about new learning models. Schools received technical assistance specific to their plans when they were ready to move—a great example of supporting teacher leadership and providing the right professional development at the right time.  

10. Support Parent Guidance

As the digital divide narrows, a new divide of concern is the quality of guidance regarding screen time and learning opportunities. Technology is an amplifier and can accelerate the development of 21st-century skills or be unproductive (or even dangerous). Districts should support robust parent communication (No. 5) and education to ensure that all students have access to quality formal and informal learning experiences.

It’s time to push for full digital equity — take-home technology, engaging learning models, quality learning opportunities, well-supported teachers and parents.

For more, see:

A version of this article originally ran in the March edition of the AASA School Administrator magazine.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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