Across the nation, school districts are investing in one-to-one computing programs and supplying digital devices for their students to use as learning tools. While these tools can be very empowering, giving each child a device isn’t enough to close the digital opportunity gap that exists between students of varying economic means.
This issue is near to our hearts in the Manor Independent School District in Texas. We’re a very diverse community, with a significant population of economically disadvantaged students. About 73 percent of our nearly 9,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 36 percent are bilingual or speak English as a second language. We want to make sure all of our students, even those from the poorest homes, can contribute to our digital future.
Over the last few years, we’ve built a very strong technology infrastructure to prepare our district for a digital transformation. We have a fiber network connecting our 13 schools. We have a one-to-one initiative in our high schools, and we’re looking to extend that opportunity to our middle and elementary schools as well.
But we realize that’s only a starting point, and we need to do more than just give every child a mobile device. Here are three other steps we’re taking to ensure true digital equity for our students.
1) High-speed internet access at home as well as school
At school, students have access to high-speed internet service. Away from school, however, students from low-income families often struggle to get online. As a growing number of assignments require internet access, this phenomenon has become known as the “homework gap.” Some students forgo extracurricular activities so they can use the school or public library to complete their homework during business hours. Others skip doing homework altogether because they’re ashamed to admit they couldn’t get online.
According to a survey from the Consortium for School Networking, four out of five school systems don’t have a plan to address students’ home internet access. Many K-12 leaders don’t see this as their responsibility. But to have true digital equity, we must address this challenge head-on.
In Manor ISD, we’ve started to tackle this issue. We’re talking with local business partners about how they might help us provide free or affordable internet access for our students. We’re also looking at what other districts are doing, such as purchasing mobile hotspots that students can check out from their school library as needed.
For instance, Lawrence Public Schools in Kansas has purchased more than 300 mobile hot spots from Kajeet to support its one-to-one initiative. “The devices were the easy part; the tougher piece is having reliable, high-speed home internet access,” said Jerri Kemble, the assistant superintendent for educational programs and technology. “We love the Kajeet hotspots because they are CIPA-compliant, so we know students’ internet access is filtered even when they are offsite.”
2) High-quality content that is available 24-7
Access to digital devices and high-speed internet service doesn’t guarantee that students from all backgrounds will have equal opportunities to learn. Students also need access to high-quality learning materials.
To that end, we have partnered with myON to make sure every student in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade has access to a digital library featuring more than 6,000 fiction and nonfiction books customized to fit each child’s personal interests and reading level—including Spanish and dual-language titles.
The books are accessible on a wide range of devices, including smartphones, and they can be read from school or home, either offline or online. Giving families access to a vast library of digital books, complete with read-aloud features and other supports, helps us level the playing field for all students—and that’s very exciting to us as a district.
3) Rich learning experiences that include opportunities for digital mentorship
Giving every student a digital device can actually widen opportunity gaps unless school systems have rich learning experiences and high-quality teaching to leverage the technology. We’re redesigning our learning experiences and moving to more project-based approaches that engage students in solving real-world challenges, so they learn the critical 21st-century skills they’ll need for success.
What’s more, we have partnered with Austin Community College to help prepare students for future careers. We are developing opportunities for students to receive dual credit and earn industry certifications in high-demand fields.
A key aspect of preparing students for the jobs of the future is exposing them to career possibilities and the skills these require. Students, and especially those from low-income families, need opportunities to meet and learn from successful professionals. We are fortunate to have a partnership with companies like Samsung, which has a facility in our community and participates in student mentorships, and Nepris, a local Texas company that connects students with career professionals through online video conferences.
Ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity for success in a digital world requires a coordinated effort on all these fronts. It might not be easy, but we owe it to every child.