Leveling the Playing Field for Education

Start with Student's Access to the Internet

January 02, 2019 by Judy Nguyen, Teacher & Learning Consultant

Internet access for better education Last year, I attended the Fall Cue 2018 Conference in Napa, CA where Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning for Lufkin ISD in Texas, Refranz Davis, provided the opening keynote. In her discussion, “Learning Beyond Barriers,” Davis challenged educators to keep in mind the community they’re serving. 

Davis recommends that school leaders ask how they can provide the tools needed to connect, not just for their families, but with their families.  Educators often assume that students have access to the Internet when they’re not in school, but if they can’t – how and where can a student go to connect, and how can the school help?

What is the missing link that school districts need to consider?  They need to work in partnership with members of the community to better serve their students’ needs and provide effective learning opportunities while never assuming all students in their districts have the same level of access to even the most basic teaching technologies like the internet.

These questions serve as a guide for district leaders to continually examine their expectations of students. And if they do not have at- home access, how will the school district facilitate students to use on-campus offerings?   

Finding answers to these questions may require school leaders to start a dialogue with community leaders to assist their students. This could be school-sponsored forums that provide opportunities for input from the families and business leaders willing to help.  By understanding the different groups and populations that make-up their districts, school leaders can avoid creating blind spots in their technology plans and policies, as well as curriculum.

Nationwide statistics indicate that many schools and districts will have significant pockets of underserved households. The U.S. Census of Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2016 (published in 2018) reports that 19% of American households do not have adequate broadband internet access. If your school has even a 5% or 10% underserved population, your school probably needs to develop policies and programs to deal with this. One option is to go the lowest common denominator route: No homework that requires internet access. Another could involve developing after-school alternatives for the underserved population.  In bridging the gap between the student with and without broadband access, districts should remember to keep in mind the community that is being served when developing policies and strategies for their technology programs. 

A great real-life example of how creative solutions solved this issue is found in an EdSurge article, "7 Ways We’re Confronting Internet Access Challenges—and Our Own Blind Spots," authored by Matt Hiefield, a Future-Ready teacher on special assignment in Oregon.  He describes how his assumptions about internet access outside of school were naïve. Being new to the community, he had assigned projects that required online tools and assumed his students without connectivity at home would just figure out how to access the internet from the local or school library. It was only when a significant number of students could not complete the assignments that he realized there was a community-wide issue.

Once Hiefield learned that limited broadband access affected a number of students, his district began to address the challenge by meeting monthly to find creative ways to identify and solve the problem. Some creative solutions included extending the school library hours along with afterschool busing; Wi-Fi Access maps of local businesses willing to allow students to use their Wi-Fi after school hours; and a Hotspot lending program. Other options would include working with the local library and park district on creating safe, welcoming spaces where students can access the internet after school hours.

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