When classrooms first adopted educational technology, rural districts such as mine saw it as an opportunity to level the playing field. We could personalize learning more easily or use technologies like augmented reality to show students places such as Egypt from our small, remote towns.
In the last few years, it’s become clear that we’re far from that level playing field. Digital equity continues to be a challenge and conversations to address it are falling short. I see it in my own district in Bunker Hill, Illinois. And I hear it from other superintendents at the Tech & Learning Leadership Summits and other administrator forums.
It’s time to stop siloing our approaches into 1:1 device policies or connection speeds and understand the intertwined relationship of devices, connection, and instruction in accelerating digital equity.
Using Our Progress as Momentum
The good news is we have made progress. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, many districts closed device gaps as 90% of districts adopted 1:1 policies. We also took steps to make broadband connection more accessible. In my rural district, when we heard some students had to log in from their attics or hang routers out a window to get a clear connection during virtual classes, we created mobile hotspots to provide these students with the short-term access they needed.
Despite these steps forward, we still have work to do in reaching device and connection parity, especially for students in rural areas or under-resourced communities. As more districts do that, we need to consider the way we are using technology to teach.
The Role of Instruction in Digital Equity
Instruction is an overlooked aspect of digital equity. Even if all students in a district have the appropriate device and access to broadband internet, lessons need rigor; without it, education will continue to be unequal.
For example, if digital instruction is based on worksheets or rote drills, it’s no better than using flashcards. It’s not enough to use an app or a video in class. Classrooms should use technology to challenge students to think in new and interesting ways, and districts need to support teachers to do this better.
4 Ways to Accelerate Digital Equity
Addressing all three aspects of digital equity will require districts to be resourceful and innovative. Thankfully, the last few years have forced us to do just that and we can build on some of the progress we’ve already made in four key areas.
1. Better Funding
The emergency funding that came during the COVID-19 pandemic helped many districts make strides toward digital equity in terms of devices and connections. Now it’s time for substantial and sustained investments to keep that work going. Grants, funding bills, and other financial allocations that allow districts to upgrade devices, support high-speed internet access, and prepare teachers for an increasingly digital world are essential.
2. Education-Created Networks and Connections
Homework hotspots, such as a school bus that provides an internet connection, were a popular option during the COVID-19 pandemic to address connection issues. Now it’s time to scale this short-term answer into a more sustainable solution.
Some districts are doing this by creating their own private LTE networks. Districts in Utah, Indiana, Pittsburgh, and other places across the country now own and manage networks that are available to students. These require a significant financial investment but could provide a long-term way to close gaps in internet access.
Partnerships offer a way to tap into available resources without directly asking for financial support. We are part of T-Mobile’s Project 10 Million. Through the partnership, we get 22 gigabytes of data each month that families in our district can access. There is an opportunity for these types of partnerships with private entities to become more persistent in communities.
In addition to public-private partnerships, there is a great opportunity in public-public partnerships. Libraries have always been tremendous community resources. By helping these spaces become the place families rely on for device rental, internet connection, or even additional instruction could help libraries evolve to meet more community needs. Libraries could become hubs that are focused on future-ready education and extensions of what districts are doing within schools.
4. Professional Development
There is an opportunity to evolve today’s professional development to include taking what works in the physical classroom and translating it into digital spaces. However, district leaders can’t expect teachers to learn what they need in one in-service day or over a semester. It will take time. Teachers too are still dealing with the fallout of being overworked, overstressed, and under immense pressure during the pandemic. We need to leave them room to grow like we would students.
Personalizing PD is an effective approach. In our district, we are examining how to use microcredentials to guide our professional learning. This would give teachers the opportunity to learn at their own speed, moving through credentials quickly if they master certain competencies or being able to take their time if they are less confident with technology.
There’s no question that wherever students are learning – remotely, in the classroom, or a combination of both – technology will be part of the experience. By considering the roles of devices, connection, and instruction, districts can ensure education becomes more equitable and all students are supported.