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Learning Library Blog There Is More to Digital Equity Than Devices and Bandwidth
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There Is More to Digital Equity Than Devices and Bandwidth

By Matthew Hiefield and Nichole Carter
September 26, 2021
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The past two years has seen a narrowing of the digital divide when it comes to two things: the number of school devices per student and the Wi-Fi that transforms these devices into powerful learning tools at home and in the classroom.

But it’s premature to say the digital playing field has been leveled. Today there remains striking differences between the ways wealthier students use technology and their poorer peers do in schools separated by mere miles.  

As devices and increased bandwidth have improved since that pandemic, we are now seeing the next great equity challenge: the way educators use technology with their students. An emerging definition of digital equity now involves access to devices, access to broadband and access to teachers qualified to offer technology-powered opportunities to drive learning in the classroom.  

To understand the impact of teacher training on digital equity, let’s look at one example of how students might use their school-issued devices differently in various schools.  

Drill and practice vs. meaningful learning

Studies have shown that "low-income, nonwhite children more often used technology in math class for drill and practice, while affluent white children were more likely to use technology for graphing, problem-solving and other higher-order exercises."

Sociologist Paul Atwell observed in the Connected Learning Alliance Report that even as technology gaps close, a digital-use divide becomes increasingly apparent. Affluent students use the same technologies to support richer forms of learning with greater adult mentorship. The report offers evidence of how inequity persists despite removing technical and economic barriers, and what we know about the social and cultural forces that determine these inequitable outcomes.

The teaching and use of technology becomes a matter of equity and educational opportunity because using technology to "drill and kill" students for test prep saps the creativity and curiosity out of the classroom environment. These types of activities contain little or no collaboration and don't allow for research and deeper inquiry skills.

Using technology in this way might appear to help educators manage classroom expectations (e.g. "finish this practice test in the next 40 minutes"), but these types of lessons encourage boredom, dread and misbehavior and don’t support critical thinking.

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PD just as important as devices

One cause of this disparity in educational opportunities comes down to professional development. When new Chromebooks or iPads gather dust in a back of a classroom because a teacher isn’t sure how to use them effectively, the investment in devices — as well as buy-in from stakeholders and the potential for student learning — is squandered.

Figuring out how to support all teachers regardless of limited budgets — and not just applaud the few great examples of tech use within a district — is critical to providing a quality, engaging education for all students and prepare them for the jobs of today and tomorrow.  

Here are three low-cost ways schools can support educators in using technology in meaningful ways:

1. Embed the ISTE Standards in your school or district ecosystem.

The ISTE Standards are the blueprint for how to use technologically in pedagogically sound ways. The ISTE Standards for Students are designed to empower student voice and ensure that learning is a student-driven process. The seven standards are not about learning to use technology or even using technology to learn, but engaging with technology in ways that help students become computational thinkers, innovative designers, global collaborators and digital citizens.

The ISTE Standards for Educators, on the other hand, speak directly to teachers engaging as learners, leaders and advocates. These standards stress the importance of learning from and with others, seeking ways to empower learners, improving their practice, designing authentic learning and analyzing student data. As leaders, teachers should also advocate for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students.  

ISTE’s Education Leaders Standards are focused on some of the most timely, yet enduring, topics in education today – equity, digital citizenship, visioning, team and systems building, continuous improvement and professional growth.

All of these sets of standards do not guarantee results, but they do provide focus and clarity. In facing both digital divide and digital-use divide challenges, starting with clear standards provides a solid foundation to build upon.

2. Encourage nontraditional forms of PD.

Having devices and connectivity is one thing. Using those tools to successfully drive digital age learning, integrate technology across subject areas and help students become respectful digital citizens is something else altogether.

Like the students they teach, educators are better served by choosing their PD and by learning on their terms. Some districts have implemented early-release teacher collaboration days that embrace teacher choice. At Beaverton School District, where we work, we have something we call Week 3. Courses are conducted on site, online via Zoom rooms and in anytime formats. The first year we had more than 500 events engaging over 7,000 participants.

Additionally, Beaverton is using model called IlluminatEd, a PD model where teachers on special assignment and district specialists teach courses for a day, freeing up classroom teachers to observe different teaching strategies and technology that is of interest to them.  

At the end of the day, educators gather to share what they learned and brainstorm next steps.

Educators should be encouraged and supported in choosing alternative forms of PD, such as professional learning networks, webinars, edchats, edcamps and online courses. Many of these options provide PD in real time and offer the support of peers and experts on the most up-to-date tools, strategies and research-based practices.

3. Invite all stakeholders to the table.

It’s not uncommon for important stakeholders to be left out of conversations about how best to serve all students. Sometimes those stakeholders are the very teachers who spend all day teaching those students. Sometimes it’s the parents who best know what their children need to learn and develop. Often it’s the students themselves who know what their deficits are and what sparks their interests and meets their needs.

If we are going to close the digital-use gap, school communities need all heads in the game to experiment and innovate. That means inviting parents and students to participate in the process.

In my district, schools are inviting specific parent communities into schools for year-long technology trainings. Teaching parents how to digitally interact with teachers and schools is a key component in building an affirming and constructive educational community. To see what this looks like, read How We Empowered and Engaged Latino Parents—by Building a Tech Community or view the video.

Skilled teachers are key to digital transformation

While technology and access is improving, providing transformational learning opportunities remains an ongoing and serious challenge. The essential leverage point will always be well-trained and curious teachers who integrate technology in transformative and engaging ways.

Finding devices and solving connectivity issues is the first challenge of digital equity. Teaching educators and the larger community to use this technology meaningfully is a much more nuanced challenge in the fight for digital equity.

Expand digital equity in your school! Read ISTE's book Closing the Gap.

Matt Hiefield is a digital curriculum specialist for Beaverton School District with a passion for investigating digital equity issues. Nichole Carter is an innovation strategist for Beaverton School District and author of the book, Sketchnoting in the Classroom. Learn more about the Beaverton School District future ready team.

A version of this post originally published on Oct. 3, 2018.