Despite a brighter spotlight on digital equity, gaps still remain, including the troubling and persistent homework gap–but a newly-relaunched digital equity toolkit aims to highlight the important work districts across the nation are taking to address equity differences.
The 2014 E-rate modernization helped a majority of schools meet the FCC’s short-term connectivity goal of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students, according to CoSN’s relaunched Digital Equity Initiative toolkit. But because classroom use of technology and digital resources is growing, a gap has continued to grow between students who have internet access at home and those who do not.
Because it tends to impact low-income and rural students harder than others, the homework gap can intensify other income or access issues these students and their families face. And even if a family has internet access, students don’t necessarily have access to a device–or the right device–with a large enough screen or enough data to complete homework.
CoSN’s toolkit is updated with new strategies and examples regarding how to best address the larger implications that come with a lack of home internet access. The toolkit also highlights five strategies districts are leveraging to address those challenges.
There seem to be five steps school districts are taking in an attempt to close the homework gap and help level the playing field for rural and low-income students.
1. Partner with community organizations to create “homework hotspots.” As part of the Access4All program, Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools mapped free wi-fi locations for students. Their Community Internet Access maps list sites in neighborhoods within the district, including libraries, community, family, and other resource centers where students can access wi-fi to complete their homework.
2. Promote low-cost broadband offerings. In Chattanooga, Tenn., the city’s public utility internet provider, EPB, provides subscribers with up to gigabit speeds. In 2015, EPB began offering the NetBridge Student Discount Program, which provides 100-Mpbs internet service for $26.99 a month to households with students eligible for free or reduced lunch. The Hamilton County (TN) Department of Education disseminates program information along with applications for free and reduced meals and validates student eligibility for the program.
3. Deploy mobile hotspot programs. In the fall of 2017, Oregon’s Beaverton School District deployed Sprint hotspots in all of their high schools after receiving a Sprint 1 Million Project grant. The district worked with Sprint specialists, high school teachers, administrators, and counselors to identify students without home internet access. Prior to the hotspot program, teachers in low income schools were hesitant to assign online homework, practice or readings because many of their students did not have home internet access, despite having school-issued laptops. The hotspots have changed the way that teachers deliver instruction.
4. Install wi-fi on school buses. In the Salamanca City (NY) Central School District, located on the lands of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Allegany Indian Territory, in rural western New York State, approximately 40 percent of the district’s 1,250 students are Native American. Due to the district’s rural location and high poverty rates, many students lack home internet access. After launching a 1:1 mobile device program, the district worked with the Seneca Nation to ensure students could access public wi-fi at the administration building, library, and community center. Additionally, because a high percentage of students participate in athletics and other extra-curricular activities involving long bus rides, the district partnered with its wireless provider to install a cost-effective bus wi-fi solution.
5. Build private LTE networks. Albemarle County (VA) Public Schools is leveraging Educational Broadcast Spectrum (EBS) licenses to provide home connectivity for underserved students through a private 4G LTE network. Spanning 726 square miles at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the district is both geographically and socioeconomically diverse, comprised of both urban and rural communities with pockets of poverty and low levels of both broadband adoption and access. According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, broadband is not available through either cable or commercial 4G cellular service in many of the district’s rural areas. Following an initial pilot that included partnerships with local police and fire agencies and began with mounting antennas on school buildings, the district is expanding the EBS service to cover additional areas. With an eye toward sustainability, its strategy includes partnering with a commercial firm to install towers on school campuses, allowing the district to broadcast signal to wi-fi devices while also leasing space to commercial carriers, generating revenue to support system upkeep
CoSN also outlines steps school leaders can take to collaborate with local governments and community for a broader take on digital equity and inclusion:
1. Assemble a team and develop a shared vision
2. Assess existing community resources, gaps, and needs
3. Engage stakeholders and partners
4. Develop and execute a project plan
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