Students expect easy and immediate access to technology tools and high-speed internet in schools, and recent research shows that 99 percent of school districts are offering enough bandwidth to support digital and mobile learning in classrooms. But the digital equity gap isn’t so easily solved.
While many schools have reliable high-speed internet access, many students leave school and go home to unreliable internet access, or no internet access at all. This means that even if students have a school-issued take-home device, or a device of their own at home, they have no internet.
Some districts are hoping to close this digital equity gap by giving students take-home Wi-Fi hotspots with filtered, district-provided internet access. Kajeet‘s SmartSpot is one such example. Kajeet’s SmartSpots are filtered mobile hotspot devices designed to give students safe wireless internet connections. Kajeet partners with five major U.S. wireless networks to offer coverage.
Leaders in New York’s Beekmantown Central School District wanted to push instruction in new directions, and solicited participation from teachers across the district. Gary Lambert, the district’s director of 21st century learning, says the district team expected 10-15 volunteers to sign up for the digital literacy initiative, but nobody was expecting nearly 40 teachers to volunteer that first year. Participation grew to about 95 percent of district teachers.
The initiative, which is in its fourth full school year, promotes the use of technology when appropriate, when it offers something new and different, and when it contributes to learning in ways that wouldn’t be possible without technology, Lambert says.
As the district built its digital literacy initiative, educators knew there were important puzzle pieces that needed to be in place to ensure the initiative’s success. One of those puzzle pieces was a hard look at digital equity.
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The district’s student population includes about 59 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch, and it spans a wide socioeconomic range.
“Knowing all that, we knew one of the pieces of the puzzle was to wrap our brains around what resources our students had at home,” says Lambert. The district surveyed families and discovered around 65-70 percent of students had some sort of broadband access, but not necessarily reliable access. For example, some students might only have internet access via a smartphone.
“We realized there still was a large portion of our student population whose parents weren’t able to provide [reliable internet access] to them. We were fortunate to have a commitment, on the part of the school board and superintendent, to bridge that digital divide. We didn’t want to widen the gap by providing these opportunities to students and exacerbate that digital divide by [excluding those without internet access].”
This is why the district’s partnership with Kajeet is so important to its digital literacy initiative. The district’s four schools use Kajeet SmartSpots to help students access reliable internet at home. Through social media posts, emails, word of mouth, and other outreach (parents without internet connections were less likely to see electronic communications, Lambert notes), word spread and students began requesting use of the SmartSpots. District buses also are equipped with Kajeet Wi-Fi to provide access to students with long bus rides home and to those on extended bus rides for extra-curricular activities.
“Teachers didn’t have to worry [as much] about whether students had connectivity at home. That was a critical element, because if you don’t have that connectivity, you can provide it in school, but so much of learning continues and is reinforced outside of school walls,” Lambert says. “By having that connectivity barrier removed, you remove the impediments to pushing the envelope of what’s possible.”
The district also has a high number of homeless families in temporary hotel and motel housing. The Kajeet SmartSpots ensure students in those families don’t have trouble keeping up with their learning. In fact, managers at local hotels are aware of the district’s program and inform parents about the SmartSpots.
There are three metrics district leaders point to when discussing the impact of an initiative: student achievement, discipline, and student attendance.
After implementing the digital literacy initiative, disciplinary referrals plummeted, dropping from 193 in a 2-month period to 61 during that same period two years later. Attendance, already pretty high at 94.7 percent, jumped to 95.8 percent.
“We won’t take all the credit because we have a lot of other initiatives that make our district a place that really works for kids. But we also know we contributed to the positive movement. Connectivity is part of what helped that student achievement,” Lambert says.
“Access to technology has completely changed our students’ lives for the better. Are we going to reach everybody? No,” says Lambert. “But just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.”
Students band together to close the digital equity gap for peers
Over the summer, two rising seniors at James River High School decided to tackle digital equity in their district, Virginia’s Chesterfield County Public Schools.
In their Center for Leadership and International Studies track within the school, students were discussing concepts of equity, which led them all to discuss what life would be like if they weren’t able to go online. The students contacted Brian Jones, the district’s executive director, technology services, to come up with a plan that would help more students get internet access, or more reliable internet access, in their homes.
All middle and high school students in the district are assigned a Chromebook to the tune of about 38,000 Chromebooks total, and most of the district’s curriculum is online. But what happens when you can’t access that digital world from home?
“It’s a very digital environment,” says Jones. “Students were investigating what it would be like if they didn’t have reliable internet access in relationship to their learning environment.”
The realities of limited or no internet access seemed to hit students hard.
“Some students have internet access but it’s a limited commodity in their life. They might have a data plan where it’s not unlimited. I think that was eye-opening to the students,” Jones says.
Students in the Center for Leadership and International Studies program are required to complete a capstone project, and these students decided to frame their project around finding ways to provide internet access to students without it, or without reliable internet access.
“I was very impressed with their ambition and their sense of resolve on this,” Jones says. “I told them about Kajeet’s program, and they were certain that was the solution.”
Jones reached out to Kajeet and Verizon, one of Kajeet’s five nationwide broadband partners, to firm up the project, which resulted in a 40 percent discount and a two-year contract. “Verizon was key in helping us secure that discount and ensure access,” Jones adds.
The school district has already paid the contract, but students are holding fundraisers and raising money to try and expand the program and offer more SmartSpots.
The 10 SmartSpots are checked out about 80 percent of the time.
“To have to leave your home in order to do your homework doesn’t seem to be an equitable approach,” Jones says. “This helps level the playing field in relation to a 1:1 environment and a digital curriculum.”