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Equity of Access

OET Roundtable Blog
Convened by SETDA, CoSN, & Digital Promise
By Julia Fallon, Executive Director, SETDA

Equity of Access

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, reliable, robust broadband access both at school and away from campus is required to equitably engage all learners no matter where they live and learn. As it has become in so many facets of our society from banking to healthcare, access to the internet is now a necessity for learning. We must begin to treat access to the internet as a utility, rather than a luxury.

SETDA has long set the standard for school broadband access, and now is engaged in conversations about ensuring quality connections for all students, regardless of location, beyond school walls. Capitalizing on the momentum in this area (more than many of us have seen in our careers), we were eager to engage in a roundtable discussion about the challenges and possibilities with our colleagues from CoSN and Digital Promise. Everyone agreed with the mindset that connectivity is now a utility and that it impacts the very quality of life for students and their families, but what would it take to connect everyone? The issues are many, and varied.

Because of the diversity of our nation’s geography and the unique situations facing our nation’s families, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Bringing connectivity to every student will take a multi-faceted approach. 

Many states and districts made great strides to connect families during the pandemic. However, it is clear that some of the measures of the past year have been temporary fixes, rather than enduring solutions. For example, participants felt that public access (e.g. libraries and business hotspots) was not a sufficient solution. Instead, connectivity needs to be provided directly to households in such a way that it supports the needs of families with multiple students who may need to stream several videos simultaneously.

Given the complexity and variety of barriers to connectivity, it would be beneficial to separate the problem into its component issues and stakeholder groups that each of these particularly impact. Rather than focusing on all of the barriers simultaneously, perhaps progress can be made in smaller areas by addressing more specific needs.

  • Geography: Barriers to broadband access differ between rural and urban areas. In rural America, the barrier is often a lack of access to a broadband grid, but for those in cities, it is more often affordability that primarily limits connectivity.
  • Speed: Connectivity needs to be provided to the household, and in amounts that allow families with multiple students to stream video simultaneously. Home connectivity is also essential for all educators. When the connectivity speeds of the staff are inadequate, they are reluctant to connect with the students, or they limit their time for connections.  
  • Community outreach and engagement: Another of the lessons learned during these endeavors was that even free broadband offers may struggle to bring every family online. Issues working against adoption include distrust, language barriers, and aversion to Internet Service Providers. For these reasons, literacy and home outreach are critical components of getting kids online. 
  • Professional Learning: The group emphasized that equity of access isn’t just about the availability of broadband. Equity also means providing professional learning opportunities for teachers working in new digital environments. Educators need support to be able to build lessons and provide instruction that takes advantage of fully connected learners. 
  • Privacy, safety, and security: Parents also need support as they come to terms with privacy and cybersecurity issues that come with their children bringing connected devices, especially when they are at-home and streaming video. Districts have been scaling up parent support desks that offer multiple languages to ensure that learning time isn’t lost to technology issues.
  • Data and metrics: Data collection must shift in virtual environments and school systems are looking at alternative metrics to make sure that we have better ways to measure engagement, and the impact of district investments in technology. Many districts are tracking the amount of time students are spending on learning platforms, and using this data to follow up with students they see falling behind. Some have seen a very mobile group of students, even during the lockdown—connecting multiple devices from multiple locations, sometimes multiple states. 
  • Broadband Mapping: It is also clear that we need much more visibility into access. States and districts have been launching massive data collections to understand what kinds of devices students have access to, whom they share them with, and what kind of connectivity they have. However, many students, families, and teachers do not have the broadband literacy to understand the access they have or consume. Thus, self-reported data is insufficient to get a clear picture of connectivity. The group voiced support for federal legislation to do universal broadband mapping, down to the household level, to get a definitive picture of where there is availability and where there is not. Gaining this accurate understanding of the digital access divide, is the first critical step to closing it for good

By targeting efforts toward solutions to the barriers and specific needs that we have identified here, we hope to collectively rise to the need that has been so clearly demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Participants:

  • Rajesh Adusumilli, Assistant Superintendent, Information Services, Arlington Public Schools (VA)
  • Doug Casey, Executive Director, Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology (CT)
  • Baron Davis, Superintendent, Richland School District Two (SC)
  • Jaraun Dennis, CTO/Director of Facilities, Uinta County School District #1 (WY)
  • Patrick Gittisriboongul, Asst. Superintendent, Innovation & Tech, Lynwood Unified School District (CA)
  • Matthew Hiefield, TOSA, Digital Equity Facilitator, Digital Curriculum, Beaverton SD (OR)
  • Christina Iremonger, Chief Digital Officer, Vancouver School District #37 (WA)
  • Julia Legg, Coordinator, Office of Data Analysis & Research, West Virginia Department of Education (WV)
  • Chris Rush, Sr. Advisor for Innovation & Educational Technology , U.S. Department of Education
  • Tom Ryan, Chief Information & Strategy Officer, Santa Fe Public Schools (NM)
  • Andrew Wallace, Director of Technology, South Portland, Maine Schools (ME)

This blog reflects the summary by the author and may not represent official positions of the organizations.

Read blogs on other roundtables hosted by SETDA, CoSN, and Digital Promise:

CoSN: The Tsunami Threat of K-12 Cybersecurity
Digital Promise: Today’s Innovations are Tomorrow’s Practices: Adapting Learning to Meet Students

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