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States answer access, equity challenges

At SETDA Leadership Summit, educators identify ways to help students stay connected outside of school

access-equityAccess and equity remain two stubborn issues surrounding ed-tech deployments, but a number of states are carving out innovative ways to put devices in the hands of students and expand broadband connectivity to those without home access.

Addressing equity and access concerns not just equity of devices, but equity of learning opportunities, said Doug Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), during SETDA’s Leadership Summit.

Expectations of students, parents, educators, and other stakeholders are changing access, Levin said, but significant inequities still exist.

(Next page: Two state approaches to access and equity)

School leaders are focusing not only on what’s available in the school building, but also at home and outside of school. These issues affect federal and state policy, and states have started to step up and play a strong role in access and equity in schools and for students.

“No longer is it OK for school leaders to have blinders on and [only] worry about what that equity looks like in the building,” he said.

In Hawaii, a one-to-one pilot called Access Learning is expanding broadband and technology tool access to students in areas where the majority of residents don’t possess advanced degrees. The $8.2 million pilot, with funding from E-rate, Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grants, and other sources, put devices in the hands of every student and teacher at eight elementary schools. It spanned fall 2013 to spring 2014.

While one of the program’s goals is to help build technology capacity in schools that currently lack it, state Department of Education officials identified areas with sufficient infrastructure to support broadband as the pilot got off the ground.

Teachers reported better working relationships and organization, along with an increased ability to create instructional materials and integrate technology into their instruction. They received professional development, though many indicated that they would prefer to have more time for professional development moving forward.

Fifteen percent of teachers used technology in their instruction once a day in fall 2013, compared with 25 percent in spring 2014. Eighteen percent did so a few times during the day in fall 2014, while 35 percent reported the same in spring 2014.

Teachers use classroom technology for research, video games and simulations, collaboration, digital assessments, and more.

“The last thing we wanted to do was drop off some computers and say, “Goodbye, you’re on your own,’” said Stephanie Shipton, institution analyst for Hawaii’s Department of Education. “We wanted to make sure it was more than devices … we’re focusing on strong instructional strategies, because devices and curricular approaches will change over time.”

The state is identifying ways to increase broadband to its school, Shipton said, and Access Learning lessons and results will be used to inform the statewide deployment of the Future Ready Learning initiative.

The need for access and equity goes far beyond putting a device in a student’s hand, because research and best practices prove that such actions don’t automatically equal success.

“It’s not about wires and computers—it’s about how that technology can create an ecosystem that enables learning,” said Joseph South, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

Only 40 percent of schools in the U.S. have access to classroom broadband, and schools serving large minority populations are half as likely to have high-speed internet access.

“We can’t wait for students to leave school to turn from being digital consumers to digital creators,” South said. “It’s when they use these digital tools as tools that they get where they need to go.”

“A fundamental change in instruction is driving the need for more bandwidth in schools,” said Sterling Beane, chief technology officer with the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE).

West Virginia is heavily focused on providing and boosting broadband access to students, both in school and at home, to support its virtual school, a statewide student information and data system, local one-to-one initiatives, blended learning, social media-based professional learning communities, and assessments.

“Our use of bandwidth, and need for bandwidth, grow ever-higher,” Beane said.

Each school district uses a local WAN that connects to the K-12 backbone with a single fiber optic connection. WVDE maintains two point-of-presence locations to aggregate all district connections, carry traffic, and provide filters and monitoring. Districts carry the cost of their WAN, and the state funds the backbone and internet connectivity.

One of the state’s major challenges lies in connecting students’ homes to the internet. Many students live in such rural areas that service providers don’t offer connectivity, and paying for costly satellite internet access is not feasible for most families.

“We still have 20-30 percent [of students] who don’t have internet of any type at home,” Beane said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to provide that access to students, to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

One approach is known as the Whitespaces Home/School Connectivity Project pilot, which provides wireless internet via unused television frequencies. The approach is still fairly experimental and remains a bit costly, at around $2,000 for an in-home receiver, but Beane noted that costs could decline after the Federal Communications Commission makes a decision about spectrum auctions. Connection speeds are slow, but could increase if the model proves viable and receives more attention.

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Laura Ascione

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