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Can Schools Bridge the Digital Divide?

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As education becomes increasingly digital, it creates a world of opportunities for students, who can now visit world-famous museums or collaborate with other students without ever leaving the classroom.

But it also creates potential barriers for families lacking access to adequate devices or high-speed internet and can lead to a growing opportunity gap.

These issues were the focus of a panel called “Inequities in Technology: Bridging the Digital Divide” at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Boston, where experts explained facets of the divide and how school districts can intervene to ensure all students benefit from technology in the classroom.

The Hechinger Report’s Meghan Murphy, who moderated the panel, was joined by Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and Katrina Stevens, the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

Some of the equity issues surrounding technology have been resolved in recent years, Krueger said, as devices have become more affordable and the Federal Communications Commission last year provided a more predictable funding source for wireless internet in schools.

“But that begs the question of what happens when kids go home, especially as education – the actual learning – has gone digital,” Krueger said. The disparity in access to high-speed internet at home, he said, has become known as the “homework gap.”

Innovative Solutions

To be sure, at-home internet connectivity is less of an issue than it was five years ago, when only about half of households had broadband. But there are still about 5 million households with school-aged children lacking high-speed internet, Krueger said. And those households are four times more likely to be low-income, black or Hispanic.

Some schools have used community partnerships and ingenuity to bring internet access to kids at home, and many of the more innovative solutions, like Coachella Valley Unified Schools’ solar-powered Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, have garnered media attention.

But the vast majority of school districts – 75 percent, according to a recent CoSN survey – are not doing anything to address the lack of internet access for those students outside of school, Krueger said.

“We have to convince an awful lot of educators and policymakers that this is, in fact, their responsibility,” he said.

Active and Passive Use

Inequities in technology can also manifest themselves as what Stevens called the “digital-use divide – where the way in which technology is used varies widely from school to school.

Some schools use devices passively, simply as content delivery platforms, she said. If students are just using, say, an iPad to complete an assignment they might otherwise do on paper, it’s “not really transformational in any way,” Stevens said. Passive use, she said, could in some cases diminish student engagement.

For devices to truly make a difference in students’ learning, she argued, they need to be “a car that students are driving somewhere.”

Several good examples of “active use” Stevens cited include:

  • Connecting students with researchers and other experts;
  • Taking a virtual field trip to museums in Europe; and
  • Digitally linking up a pair of schools – one in Rochester, New York, the other in Tampa, Florida, for instance – for a collaborative civil rights class.

A major predictor of whether students are actively or passively using devices, she said, is the socioeconomic status and racial makeup of the student population. Schools that primarily serve low-income families tend to use technology in more passive ways than affluent schools.

“Technology’s really great power is that it can be used to shrink these longstanding equity and accessibility gaps,” Stevens said. “It’s really an important moment … to make sure that we are, in fact, shrinking those gaps by using technology and that we’re not somehow increasing these by the way we’re using technology in class.”

Technology also allows educators to personalize student learning, Stevens said, which she argued is key to narrowing achievement gaps.

“In the past, teachers were kind of overwhelmed and would teach to the middle,” she said. Technology now helps educators more quickly assess what students know, bring in appropriate resources, and intervene in a way that suits the individual student, she said.

For schools to ensure devices are used in a meaningful way, Stevens said, educational leaders need to bring all teachers on board and provide them with adequate professional development around technology.

It’s not enough, she said, to just give every student a device.