Five Opportunities to Tackle Digital Equity at the Start of the School Year!

When the Beaverton, Oregon School District first rolled out their 1-to-1 program in 2014, they did not realize that the technology could inadvertently disadvantage some of their most vulnerable students. Unaware that all students did not have equitable Internet access at home, teachers became frustrated with missing assignments and lack of collaboration. However, beginning with the diligent work of the Digital Equity Brown Bag Lunch Group, the district implemented a number of programs to bridge the emerging homework gap. Through ongoing efforts to create Internet access via extended library hours, community Wi-Fi maps, and a 1Million Project Grant to provide hotspots to high school students in need, Beaverton ultimately won the CoSN Community Leadership Award for Digital Equity in 2018.
 
Looking ahead to the 2019-2020 school year, leadership in Beaverton continue to work hard on digital equity issues. In particular, they have found that clear communication at the start of the year to be critical to their success. From the week before school starts through Back-to-School nights, the district focuses on communicating about five key opportunities for Digital Equity.
 
1. Build Awareness Among Staff
As schools migrate assignments and opportunities online, access becomes both a Digital Equity issue and one that teachers must understand. During back-to-school faculty meetings, leadership can inform teachers about the challenges of limited or no connectivity that students may face as well as potential solutions. This does not mean that teachers should avoid providing students with digital opportunities outside of school. Rather, both teachers and leaders should be conscious of the issue and knowledgeable of options within the district to mitigate digital equity issues.
 
Digital equity is not limited to high-speed Internet access. In schools without 1-to-1 programs, students may not have a laptop or tablet. Teachers need to be aware that a student could be trying to conduct research or write a paper on a smartphone. Further, students may struggle with accessibility or language. As teachers move more of their coursework online, they need to consider whether all students can really access it. In other words, can they take advantage of text-to-speech or speech-to-text? Is it possible to work in multiple languages? Addressing these questions as a faculty can help teachers to fully consider their students’ needs from the start of the year.
 
2. Engage and Educate Parents
Given the multitude of information both for and against the use of technology in education, ALL parents need guidance and support. Tech-specific parent events are a great opportunity to both showcase new opportunities for students and help parents get digital literacy support. If there are already special parent meetings that have been scheduled for the school year, add a technology education component.
 
Additionally, if your district has sub-populations of families that may not speak English, consider special events with translators. Beaverton hosts Latino Family Technology Nights to educate parents in Spanish about how they can assist their students with technology. Because many parents have not used a computer before, educating them about digital citizenship, student expectations, and different school technologies shows them both the value of digital programs and the ways in which they can support their children.
 
3. Create Community Learning Spaces
For students who may not have Internet access and/or devices at home, consider extended library hours. During back-to-school meetings, have conversations with teachers and librarians about how to make this an opportunity for ALL students - not just those needing access - and discuss ways to make students as well as their families aware of the opportunity.  Although Beaverton is a suburban district with pockets of wealth, they also have one of the highest concentrations of homeless students.  Extending library hours, not only addresses issues of access but also provides a safe space for students to learn.
 
If it is not possible to extend school library hours, identify other spaces in the community where students can get Wi-Fi access and maybe even devices. Public libraries often have computers, free Wi-Fi, mobile devices that can be checked out, and knowledgeable librarians who can provide digital literacy support. Additionally, local businesses may be willing to allow students to use their Wi-Fi after school hours. Beaverton took this community approach to build broader support and engage a larger coalition with their access challenges. (Check out one of their sample community Wi-Fi maps in English and Spanish).
 
4. Promote Hotspot Programs
When Beaverton first piloted a small hotspot program in one of their high schools, they quickly learned that the demand far exceeded the supply.  Teachers and counselors can be great ambassadors for any hotspot program. Not only can they help to identify students who might not otherwise have Internet access, but they can also let those students and families know that the program even exists. Further, teachers and administrators can make students and families aware of these opportunities in welcome materials or at back-to-school events.
 
5. Survey Families and Students
During back-to-school time, families and students expect to complete surveys. When collecting information, consider also asking about home access to devices and the Internet. In doing this, Beaverton recommends not just asking whether students have internet access at home but specifically if students can get their school device online. Many families may not realize that a shared phone with Internet access is not sufficient for students trying to engage in more robust learning opportunities. This can be difficult information to navigate, so teachers, counselors, and principals need to leverage personal relationships with families to better understand their learning needs.
 
Back to school brings with it the promise of new learning experiences. Unfortunately, those opportunities may not be equitably distributed once students go home. With that said, clearly communicating opportunities to students, parents, and staff at the start of school can help to get the year started with a focus on addressing the challenges of digital equity.
 
Many thanks to Matthew Hiefield, Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) from Beaverton, for his contributions to this article. To learn more, make sure to follow the district (@BeavertonSD) and Matthew (@MattHiefield) on Twitter. If you have questions or would like to share a story about your own district, please contact Beth Holland at bholland@cosn.org or @brholland.