Diving Deeper on Digital Equity: Case Study: Nashville, TN

Diving Deeper on Digital Equity

My last blog explored Your 5 Steps to Begin Addressing Digital Equity. In this next series of posts I will describe communities where school systems are partnering with city governments, business communities, and nonprofit organizations to “go big” in addressing digital equity. As we previously noted, digital equity is a community challenge, not solely one that can be solved by a school district.

Case Study: Nashville, TN

Even though it hasn’t always been a fast or smooth process, a group of education, business, and community leaders from Nashville has been seriously discussing digital equity for more than five years. Under the leadership of former Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Superintendent Jesse Register and long-standing former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, the group is working on a major effort to transform education in the city.

According to Laura Hansen, Director of Information Management & Decision Support at MNPS, the school district has undertaken a major education transformation effort and is “going deep” around blended learning with fidelity. Broadband access outside of school directly impacts how learning happens at school. Technology is no longer optional; instead it has become a fundamental requirement for all students.

A 2011-12 survey (TESS) administered by the Tennessee Department of Education found that 44% of students lacked home computers and Internet access. This data was the impetus for an initial business community meeting of about forty companies, mostly technology related, many of which have continued to play key roles in the MNPS effort. Throughout this process, the support of the Mayor’s Office set the groundwork for larger community involvement.

In 2014, the group launched the Anytime Access for All Education Technology & Connectivity Summit – “a day-long event for local leaders from business, education, technology, community, and civic organizations to launch a conversation for bridging Nashville’s digital divide for MNPS students who leave school each afternoon and return to homes without technology or broadband service.” Major technology companies such as AT&T, Google, Dell, Samsung, and Microsoft, as well as local, state, and national political leaders, participated in the effort to create a shared vision.

Anytime Access for All is not viewed as a district- or even mayoral-led effort; instead it is a community driven, collective impact initiative. However, it is coordinated by Ms. Hansen, who worked in the Mayor’s office on children and youth issues before moving to the school district. Her “day job” focuses on data governance, quality, and use, but Anytime Access for All functions as both an “additional duty” and a passion project for her.

Last month (September 2015), the effort resulted in the creation of a Digital Inclusion Fund.  With $100,000 in initial funding from Metro Nashville Government, the fund has received matching support from Google, the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation, and Comcast for a combined total of $400,000. Additional contributions are still sought by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

The Anytime Access for All initiative focuses around the three traditional areas of digital equity:

  • Devices
  • Connectivity
  • Training

The community is making progress in all three areas, especially in providing devices to low-income families. One key partner in bridging the device problem was Vanderbilt University, which donated over 3,800 desktop computers (between 1½ and 3 years old) that it was in the midst of replacing. A commercial provider accepts the donated computers and then repackages, reimages, and refurbishes them and provides them to low-income families complete with a new warranty. Old computers are then monetized with an “exchange rate” based on their age and condition. This strategy has been found to be more sustainable than recruiting volunteers to clean old devices, and eliminates the problem for the school district of storing computers for long periods of time. Of course, this also adds to the cost of the program. The District hasn’t done a cost analysis, but the “exchange” method saves time and resources, although they have fewer computers to distribute. They believe that in the end it probably is about even, and they are able to obtain more usable computers due to the quick turn around by the refurbishing company, which supplies on demand. 

This fall the school district is in a pilot phase of identifying schools that are in the process of implementing blended learning across their classrooms. As they get to the latter stages of their implementation for at-school, Anytime Access for All will come into play to ensure that students have adequate access to devices and connectivity at-home. A survey completed by the district of the initial pilot school (a high school) identified students who lack devices and connectivity at home and will be reaching out to those families to solicit participation in the program. 

Organizers say that community connectivity problems have been the most challenging to address. Getting key technology partners to work collaboratively with their competitors takes considerable political finesse, so the strong support by the former Mayor and Superintendent has been key, and the participation of new Mayor, Megan Barry, in the announcement of the Digital Inclusion Fund is a good sign that political support will continue. 

The Nashville Digital Inclusion Fund is particularly critical because it offers low-income families free home broadband; while programs such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials (which offers home broadband at $9.95 per month for low-income families) have been steps in the right direction, there are still some families that cannot afford such a solution. With an eye to keeping prices down, the community is also closely watching the proposed changes to the federal Lifeline program and hoping the Federal Communications Commission will update this telephone program for low-income families to allow for the choice of broadband. If that occurs, there will be another tool to support home broadband connectivity for low-income Nashville families.

Finally, the overall digital literacy effort has been led by the public library system. Nashville Public Libraries, like many others, trains the community to use the internet and learn digital literacy skills. These efforts are being tied to distribution of the donated computers as described above. Low-income families must participate in a certain number of training hours before receiving their donated computer. Students will participate in the training with their families, and the community anticipates that because the students have exposure to technology during the school day, they will be able to assist their parents with digital literacy skills.

Leaders of the effort were asked what they would do differently. Having a full-time coordinator would move the project along faster, in contrast to having several folks co-lead with this as one of their many responsibilities. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Digital Equity conversations at the community level take time. The issue cannot not be solved overnight – in Nashville it has taken several years. 
  • Political buy-in and leadership are key.
  • Difficult conversations need to occur. Getting multiple companies who are often competitors to collaborate for the common good isn’t always easy, but it is essential for the credibility of the effort. Even getting nonprofits and government agencies to work together means breaking down silos and asking everyone to roll up their sleeves.
  • Shared Leadership…With Dedicated Staff. Ensuring that there is community sense of ownership is requires a full time, dedicated staff to move the project forward.