Tackling Digital Equity in the Classroom – Strategies for Teachers

Thanks to initiatives such as the Federal E-Rate program, which provides discounted Internet access and funding for schools and districts, most students now have the ability to get online while in school. However, once students head home, they may lack high speed Internet as well as a device other than a smartphone, resulting in what policymakers now term the homework gap. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 35% of households with school-aged children and a yearly income of less than $35,000 lack access to high speed Internet. Further, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in 2015, only 61% of school-aged children reported having Internet at home, and yet 80% of eighth grade students indicated that they needed a computer to complete assignments. Whereas the effects of the Digital Divide have been lessened to some effect for students while in school, the most recent infrastructure survey from the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) revealed that fewer than 10% of district leaders felt that ALL of their students had access outside of school.

This inequity of access to the Internet, and often devices, presents teachers with a quandary. An increasing number of schools and districts advocate for the use of digital tools for assignments, but students may not be able to access these platforms once they head home. Although district and school administrators can build community partnerships as well as provide access to mobile hotspots, teachers may find themselves caught between meeting their students’ immediate needs and waiting for a broader intervention from their school or district. However, individual teachers can take steps to address the homework gap that could be lurking within their classrooms.

Identify Access Challenges

Because technology has become relatively ubiquitous, teachers may not realize that some students lack equitable access once they leave school—whether because of household income, geography, or family beliefs. This lack of access could manifest in missing assignments or lower quality of work, creating even more challenges for students who could already need additional support. If teachers want to address digital equity, they first must identify it.

Student surveys—either online or on paper—to determine who may or may not have access at home serves as a first step. The Appendix in the CoSN Digital Equity Toolkit even provides sample questions. However, as explained by educator Matt Hiefield, this strategy can prove problematic. He found that many students may not understand the intention of questions and assume that a shared smartphone or the ability to find public WiFi qualifies as “access.” Others may not feel comfortable revealing that they lack the same resources as their peers. Instead, Matt suggests that teachers leverage personal relationships to understand the challenges faced by their students instead of assuming equal access outside of the classroom and overly relying on the results of a survey.

Secure Additional Resources

Depending on the number of students requiring additional resources as well as the culture of the school community, teachers can look to get devices and hotspots donated or purchased for their classrooms. Groups such as EveryoneOn and PCs for People provide refurbished computers at low or no cost. Similarly, teachers might contact local businesses and ask if they might donate older computers instead of recycling them.

Another option is to leverage Donors Choose. Recently, CoSN created a toolkit to help district leaders guide teachers in using the platform to get technology for their classrooms.  Not only might this be a great way to purchase technology resources but it also might give teachers an opportunity to raise equity issues within the district.

Universally Accessible Assignments

While it would be ideal to provide every student with the same access to technology and the internet, equal does not always mean equitable. Just because students have the same access does not mean that they also have the same literacy, learning needs, or supports at home.

Jon Bergmann (@jonbergmann), flipped classroom pioneer, advocates that teachers should think about flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy between home and school. Instead of relying on students to use technology at home to access content and material, consider the ways in which they could use that time to build content knowledge that can then be applied in class. For example, students might use available technology in school to conduct research, collaborate with classmates, or create multimedia representations of their learning. They would then use homework to review, remember, and reflect on their learning – tasks which may not require devices.

However, despite the growing number of schools that provide 1:1 devices as well as increased access to the internet, teachers can help students learn how to plan for offline work. They might structure classes so that students have time to download course content, set documents to work offline, or capture assignment information before leaving as well as the opportunity to re-synch or upload at the start of class. Especially with students who may be easily distracted by the Internet, this could also serve as a strategy for self-regulation and focus.

Finally, even if a school or classroom does not have access to devices, teachers can model digital literacy skills. A 2017 study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that students from families with low levels of digital literacy do not get exposure to the skills that they need for future success. To address this disparity, teachers can be conscious of how they model the ways in which they search for, validate, or analyze information; communicate and collaborate through various mediums; or leverage accessibility features to support their own learning. Regardless of whether teachers can provide equal access to devices and the Internet for all students, by focusing on digital equity they can begin to create more equitable learning environments both inside and outside of school.

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Beth Holland

Dr. Beth Holland leads Research & Measurement as a Partner at The Learning Accelerator and is the Digital Equity Project Director at the Consortium for School Networking.

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