Distance and hybrid learning

Bridging the digital divide when students learn from home

Across the country, schools are investing in technology access and usage in the classroom setting, and most teachers say they’re seeing the benefits. According to the fifth annual Educator Confidence Report from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and YouGov, 82% of teachers agree edtech is enabling them to strengthen their teaching in new ways, which is why almost three quarters say they use it every day.

But that access doesn’t always follow kids home. While some students are zipping through homework on their state-of-the-art laptops with 1GB Internet, others are vying for use of their family’s single mobile phone and limited data plan.

One survey of high school students who took the ACT found that around 14% had access to only one digital device at home, and in more than half the cases that device was a smart phone. Unfortunately, the numbers of single-device households are much higher for American Indian/Alaskan Native (26%), black (22%), and Hispanic/Latino students (19%). Rural students also tend to lack adequate device access, in addition to lacking high-speed Internet (24%).

So how can teachers bridge the gap to ensure they’re being realistic about digital access while also taking advantage of technology and preparing students for the digital workplace?

Give students time to research in class

If you’re using a blended learning model, consider giving students time to conduct research for their distance learning assignments while they’re sitting in your classroom. Allowing students to pull up and print out resources that will help them complete their assignments at home is a great way to reinforce digital research skills while being mindful of the digital divide.

Getting a head start on homework also helps students start mentally completing their assignments before sitting down to work at home, which offers them the opportunity to ask you questions and may lead to a more successful end result.

Don’t assign bandwidth-intensive work

It can be tempting to assign students homework or distance learning assignments that require extensive Internet research, video streaming, or downloadable content because you’re trying to make the most of the web.

But nearly half of students who have only one device also only have mobile phone service, not Wi-Fi. So if your underserved student has siblings, there’s a good chance they’re vying for not only device time but their piece of the family’s data plan.

Other students who live in bandwidth constrained areas may be operating on low-speed broadband Internet, as their local telecom provider has not yet upgraded to fiber. As a result, the more you can limit the bandwidth needs of your assignments, the easier it will be for your underserved students. Opt to include bandwidth-intensive content while your students are in the classroom instead.

Research supplemental programs in your area

Familiarize yourself with national and local programs dedicated to bridging the digital divide.

For example, TMobile’s Project 10Million is giving 10 million eligible households 100GB of data per year and a free mobile hotspot for 5 years. In addition, participating school districts are able to buy certain Lenovo devices at cost and can apply up to $500/year per student towards additional data plans. 

Another great way you can help is by educating students and their parents on the federal Lifeline program, which lowers the monthly cost of phone and Internet for qualifying candidates. To qualify, families must either have income that’s 135% or less of the poverty line; use SNAP, Medicaid or certain other federal assistance programs; or live on Tribal lands.

In addition, a number of more locally focused programs have sprung up, like Project L.I.F.T. in Charlotte, North Carolina or Plugged In in East Palo Alto, California. These programs are focused on increasing connectivity and access to technology both inside and outside of the classroom.

Many schools are applying for grants and donations from local philanthropists, in addition to federal funding for low-income schools. Although raising funding is never easy, for better or worse, it seems to be the core issue driving the digital divide.

Understand educators’ version of the digital divide

Interestingly, teachers in lower-income schools face a digital divide of their own that can have ripple effects on the quality of students’ education. These educators often report they do not have adequate skills or training to integrate technology into their lessons.

If you’re in this boat, you can leverage free, supplemental training resources from edtech vendors like LanSchool. Subscribe to newsletters like eSchool News and EdWeek’s Teacher Update. Follow Pinterest boards that provide inspiration and tips on developing digital literacy skills – check out this board we created as a starting point. If students have access to devices in the classroom (even if the quantity is limited), you can also utilize free curriculum resources, like CK12, which curates science and math content.

Be aware of your class’ digital divide

Educators can’t fix the digital divide on their own, but understanding your students’ limitations is a great first step toward ensuring you’re catering to different levels of digital access.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to discreetly survey your students on how many devices they have access to for when working remotely, how fast their home Internet is, how many other siblings and adults they’re sharing the devices with, and any other limitations they face, such as data plan limits. Mapping out your students’ digital divide is the first step toward bridging it and ensuring all of your students are supported as they learn from home and build skills for the digital workforce.

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