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Schools bridge the digital divide

OER, new software and business partnerships can connect all students with educational technology
  • COMPUTING FAIRNESS—Students work on assignments in a Huntsville ISD classroom. The Texas district built its curriculum with open-educational resources, and the money saved on textbooks funded the installation of Wi-Fi on buses and other digital equity initiatives.
  • CONSUMER SAVVY—The Chromebooks these Huntsville ISD students use have been leased so the district can spread the cost of its 1-to-1 program out over three years.

Ensuring all students have equal access to educational technology—both in the classroom and at home—often requires innovation. Educators can find cost-effective solutions in new technologies such as open-educational resources and by partnering with the business community.

“The vast majority of superintendents agree with the premise that digital equity is a problem, but when we ask them if they’re doing anything about it, the alarming thing is that 70 percent say they aren’t,” says Keith R. Krueger, CEO of CoSN, a nonprofit professional organization of K12 technology leaders.

CoSN has developed a free Digital Equity Action Toolkit that offers examples of how district leaders are narrowing the digital divide.

Superintendents should first assess their districts to identify what devices students have access to, where students use those devices and the available connection speeds, says Krueger. Once limitations are known, districts can first consider low-cost, simple efforts to assist low-income families, such as creating maps of where free Wi-Fi is available.

They can also recruit local businesses to become “homework helpers” by setting up free Wi-Fi hotspots as a community service.

The good news is that the ever-growing flexibility of technology creates many options when it comes district efforts to create digital equity.

CoSN’s district approaches to achieving digital equity:

  • Partner with local businesses on Wi-Fi access
  • Seek mobile hotspot programs and affordable LTE options
  • Take advantage of special broadband offerings
  • Repurpose the educational broadband service (EBS) spectrum
  • Create a wireless community-based mesh network

Cost-conscious tech solutions

Lack of funding often presents the biggest impediment. The federal E-rate program provides support for broadband access, but many districts have found other ways to maximize tech resources.

Putnam City Schools, an economically diverse district of 27 schools covering parts of Oklahoma City and two other municipalities, has 17,000 tablets available for 20,000 students as it transitions to a 1-to-1 program. The district purchased the devices with school bonds and has saved money by developing its own digital curriculum.

“We can write our own digital textbooks so much cheaper than it actually costs to purchase textbooks,” says Cory Boggs, Putnam’s executive director of information technology.

The district’s teachers use open-educational resources to write all content, to align it to state standards and to update it annually. The textbooks contain references to local topics and interactive elements such as video snippets demonstrating math problems. The savings allows the district to continue purchasing tablets for every student.

Huntsville ISD in Texas also developed a digital curriculum using OER to stretch funds. The sprawling, 640-square-mile district has 6,300 students in eight schools, and another 1,000 students online. About 67 percent of students have been classified as low socio-economic status.

The district’s five-year technology plan includes 1-to-1 access. It leases 3,000 Chromebooks to spread the cost over three years and to free up funds for other equity-related measures. For example, the district is testing bus-based Wi-Fi on 15 vehicles, with plans to expand to the full fleet of 100.

Virtual agility

Hutto ISD in Texas is one of the fastest-growing districts in the state, having gone from 6,800 students to 7,500 in the last year alone. It’s a minority-majority district with nine schools; 42 percent of students are designated low socio-economic status and nearly 10 percent are ELLs.

Over the past three years, the district has developed a virtualized desktop. Every student can now access Hutto’s network with any device’s internet browser and will experience the equivalent of a full PC with the speed and power of the district’s resources.

Students can connect to the network with Chromebooks and lightweight zero-client devices—which don’t have hard drives and require substantially less power than full computers.

“It’s pretty massive because we can accommodate students who don’t have a computer or a device at home to access school-supplied software, such as Photoshop or animation software,” says Travis Brown, Hutto’s director of technology. “It levels the playing field without having to take on the financial burden of providing every student with a $2,000 laptop.”

The initial capital expenditure was $1.3 million, but the entire cost is being recouped through the savings on drastically lower electricity—a reduction of more than 25 percent—required by the Chromebooks and zero clients. The district also leases equipment to spread the cost over a few years.

“The beauty of this solution is that we can instantly scale and we’re extremely agile,” says Brown.

‘Together we’re better’

In Putnam City Schools, Connect2Compete—a program from internet provider Cox Communications—offers high-speed internet access for $9.95 per month to families of students who are on free or reduced-price lunch.

“We are focused on a digital curriculum that is interactive and aligned to what we need to teach, so we need all of our students to have the same opportunities going forward,” says Boggs, who estimates nearly 200 families participate.

In a similar initiative, the Hamilton County Department of Education in Tennessee invites local internet providers to back-to-school nights to sign up qualified families for discount programs.

Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, meanwhile, collaborates with the city of Charlottesville to install free Wi-Fi in laundromats. The district is also adapting its Education Broadcast Spectrum (which formerly showed show educational TV programs) to provide basic internet connectivity in rural mountain communities.

In North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reaches out to municipalities to close Wi-Fi “deserts”—high-poverty neighborhoods with no broadband. So far, it has enlisted more than 80 organizations to provide home internet to nearly 700 low-income families.

And in California, the vast Coachella Valley USD—a socio-economically challenged district where some students spend 45 minutes per day commuting to school—outfitted more than 100 school buses with Wi-Fi.

Following the ride home, some buses are parked in mobile home communities to create a Wi-Fi hotspot, which gives parents—many of whom are learning English—a chance to work on homework with their children.

“I don’t know if a school district can solve the problems of every low-income family,” says CoSN’s Krueger. “But by working together with the community, it can do really creative partnerships.”

Empowering parents

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District just outside of Minneapolis—where 55 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—works with its local internet providers to increase awareness about low-cost access availability.

The district recently joined T-Mobile’s EmpowerEd, a program for Title I schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It enabled the district to equip 250 families, or about 5 percent of its student population, with portable hotspots.

The district also partners with public libraries to ensure secondary students have a library card to access print and digital research resources. And the district’s efforts to bridge the equity gap go beyond simply providing more access.

Johnson leads tech classes for parents that focus on digital citizenship, home device management and setting limits on student use, among other subjects. Classes include interpreters for the community’s large Spanish-speaking and Somali populations.

“It’s great to have thousands of educational resources to access,” says Johnson. “But if the parents aren’t aware or know how to use them with their kids at home, you’re still experiencing a digital divide that’s perhaps more profound than with hardware or connectivity.”


Ray Bendici is special projects editor.