COVID-19 has shed light on digital equity gaps across the nation--here's how one district's 1:1 program helped it prepare for online learning

Digital equity, as defined by ISTE, involves “making sure students have equal access to technology like devices, software, and the internet, and that they have trained educators to help them navigate those tools.”

But creating digital equity has historically been a challenge for many school districts – especially those with high need student populations. When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools across the nation to close in March and switch to distance learning in a matter of weeks (or for some, just days), tech teams, administrators, and teachers – as well as students and parents – had no choice but to figure out a solution, and fast.

Related content: What the pandemic has revealed about digital equity

Rural districts like mine, the Ulysses Unified School District 214 in Kansas, face specific challenges when it comes to digital equity. Perhaps the biggest challenges are making sure students have access to broadband internet service, and making sure supports such as training, digital citizenship classes, classroom management tools, etc. are in place.

Here’s how our district overcame these hurdles, and here are some tips for districts facing similar challenges.

First, let me paint a picture. Ulysses USD is a very rural 1,700-student school district in Western Kansas where farming is the main industry. Approximately 80 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch and we also have a large number of migrant students and students who are English language learners. Until recently, 20 to 30 percent of our students didn’t have internet access at home. Many would stay after school, well into the evening, so they could access the internet.

Digital equity, as defined by ISTE, involves “making sure students have equal access to technology like devices, software, and the internet, and that they have trained educators to help them navigate those tools.”

But creating digital equity has historically been a challenge for many school districts – especially those with high need student populations. When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools across the nation to close in March and switch to distance learning in a matter of weeks (or for some, just days), tech teams, administrators, and teachers – as well as students and parents – had no choice but to figure out a solution, and fast.

Rural districts like mine, the Ulysses Unified School District 214 in Kansas, face specific challenges when it comes to digital equity. Perhaps the biggest challenges are making sure students have access to broadband internet service, and making sure supports such as training, digital citizenship classes, classroom management tools, etc. are in place.

Here’s how our district overcame these hurdles, and here are some tips for districts facing similar challenges.

First, let me paint a picture. Ulysses USD is a very rural 1,700-student school district in Western Kansas where farming is the main industry. Approximately 80 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch and we also have a large number of migrant students and students who are English language learners. Until recently, 20 to 30 percent of our students didn’t have internet access at home. Many would stay after school, well into the evening, so they could access the internet.

Even before COVID-19, we were trying to help our students gain more access to technology during the school day. We first tried a BYOD initiative. But we soon realized that many students didn’t own their own devices, so that put them at a disadvantage. Ultimately, we decided the better way to provide digital equity was to launch a 1:1 initiative in which we would provide devices for all students – and also let them take the devices home. We didn’t know at the time just how fortuitous this decision would turn out to be!

Broadband and take-home Chromebooks

First, we needed to make sure students had internet access at home. According to the FCC, roughly 39 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband, compared with just 4 percent of urban Americans. This creates a challenge for districts like ours that are trying to improve the use of technology for their students. First, we used federal E-rate funds to improve internet access within the district. Our community’s internet provider, Pioneer, also installed more Wi-Fi access points throughout the community so more students could access the internet off of school property. Pioneer worked with families to affordably connect them with high-speed access in their homes.

Next, we needed to convince our school board. We provided cost analyses to convince the board of the financial benefits of 1:1 and negotiated deep discounts on the devices. We also promoted the need to support digital equity and create a level playing field for our students. The school board agreed and approved the purchase of several carts of Chromebooks for classrooms. We also purchased iPads for our K-2 classrooms and provided all of the training in-house. In all, we will have 2,000 Chromebooks and 360 iPads for students this school year.

We found the biggest gap in technology equity at home to be at the high school level, so we decided to let our high school students take their devices home with them so they could do homework and continue their learning at home. We adopted Impero Software’s mobile device management software which allows us to put restrictions on devices when they are used at home. We also give students the option to purchase their devices for a minimal fee when they graduate. These practices encourage responsible use of and care for the devices by students.

1:1 successes

Adopting a 1:1 program had a big impact on our students and teachers, even before the pandemic. It gave teachers more options when it came to lessons and resources because of the myriad materials available online. It facilitated online testing and gave our students the opportunity to graduate with years of experience with digital learning tools, apps, and programs, which helps make them more competitive than other students graduating from other districts throughout the state.
source: Read More, eSchool News

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