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.
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.
Going 1:1 had an impact on academics too. More students started to participate in the dual enrollment and distance learning courses we offer with local colleges. For example, we had a gifted student who, because we made the technology available to him, was able to take distance learning classes at Harvard and ended up graduating from high school and college at the same time. Without access to a device in class every day, that wouldn’t have been possible. Implementing 1:1 also made our online GED courses accessible to more students.
The impact of COVID-19
When COVID-19 forced schools to close, Ulysses USD 214 was already better prepared than many districts because of our earlier investment in 1:1. However, we still had to make some changes. Previously only high school students were allowed to take their devices home.
Once schools closed, we extended the take-home policy to middle school students and gave them a crash course in our acceptable use policy – the rules for what you can and can’t do with the devices.
We allowed teachers to use the platforms that worked best for them, such as Google Meet and Zoom, to handle their classes, and they used Impero to manage students’ devices during instruction. We also used Impero to limit the websites that students were able to access such as YouTube and shopping websites. This helped to keep them on track.
Here is some advice for districts as they make the move to 1:1.
1. Adopt filtering and monitoring software. Without proper monitoring software in place, instead of facilitating learning, the devices can become distractions. To make sure students are staying on task and aren’t visiting off-limits websites, it’s critical to have the proper filters in place and software to monitor students’ activity on the devices. We use Impero Software’s classroom management software across our Chrome and iOS devices, which allows teachers to view thumbnail images of students’ screens in real time so they can see if a student is off task. When the devices are off campus, this software allows us to put restrictions on students’ devices, such as blocking certain sites or restricting access to social media during certain hours.
2. Teach digital citizenship. Each of our schools provides a mandatory digital citizenship class. It teaches students how to do proper searches and to recognize bullying, how to understand social media, and how to avoid online predators. Students get a digital citizenship certificate after each class. We also offer digital citizenship advice to parents.
3. Train your teachers. Teachers must be comfortable teaching with technology in order for your initiative to be successful. Our district piloted the Chromebooks for two years. Our tech department trained the first group of teachers and then those teachers trained the next group. Teachers also have PLCs once a month where they get together as a group and go through anything that is changing with digital learning. Now, as districts shift rapidly to distance learning, they can bring teachers together for virtual PLCs and offer more trainings to meet teachers’ needs as they dig into online instruction.
4. Do your homework. Select the best devices for your district, taking into consideration the ages of the students and the curriculum you want to use. Some schools opt for iPads. We use Chromebooks. Other districts have used MacBook Air laptops. There is no wrong answer, but do your research to make sure you buy the devices that will let you achieve your goals.
5. Make sure your broadband can handle the load. This is critical, especially in rural districts where hotspots may be few and far between. Upgrade your servers and work with your local internet provider to get the infrastructure in place. Look for grants and e-rate funding to help pay for it.
Our 1:1 program has helped to level the playing field for our students, helped us compete with other districts throughout the state, and helped prepare us for the switch to distance learning when COVID-19 hit. It just took overcoming some obstacles to get here.