How Teachers Can Provide Equal Learning in a World of Unequal Access

How Teachers Can Provide Equal Learning in a World of Unequal Access

Shutterstock / Lim Yong Hian

The lack of access to high-speed internet and its impact on learning is well-documented. What has been coined as “the digital divide” is one of many problems that threaten students from mid to low-income families nationwide. 33% of low and moderate-income families—and 50% of families below the poverty line— do not have home access to high-speed internet.The Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s recent Opportunity for All? report succinctly describes the impact, both negative and positive, that technology and the lack thereof can have:

Whether it is keeping up with school assignments and tracking grades; selecting an appropriate new school; watching tutorials on how to complete a math problem… or taking advantage of educational software, games and videos—digital tools have become key components of children’s education. Because digital devices and the Internet have become so essential, digital inequality can exacerbate educational and economic inequality as well.

Unfortunately, the students that lack the means to use this technology are the students that need it the most—and it doesn’t just affect them outside of the classroom. 

Sure, there is incredible work being done to make high-speed internet accessible to everyone. For example, the FCC voted a few weeks ago to expand the Lifeline program to include access to broadband internet. But we are still years away from the gap being eliminated. When 3,100 teachers were surveyed by the Gates Foundation in November 2015 about the biggest barriers to using digital resources, the most common response was “My students do not have access to technology outside of the classroom.”

Educators are no strangers to making micro-changes in the classroom before policy and administration have the chance to catch up. Great teachers diagnose the needs of their classroom and develop a patchwork solution that improves the learning environment for every student. So, what can a classroom teacher do to mitigate the effects of unequal internet access at home—while still maximizing the use of classroom technology in a strategic and effective way?

1. Start with the basics—research your student and their families, and respond accordingly

Don’t assume that because students can see your posts on a website or can access a service like Remind or Edmodo that they have uninhibited internet access. Students may be accessing these through inconsistent means, such as a parent’s mobile device that relies on a monthly data plan. Opportunity for All says 33% of families below the poverty line access the internet solely through a mobile device. What happens when a large project is due towards the end of the month and the student’s family has consumed all data for the month?

Additionally, the Opportunity for All report suggests “parents with less education and lower incomes tend to help their children less, but to depend on their children more” as it relates to using technology. In families without home internet access, parents are less likely to be able to “evaluate and interpret” information and content that students encounter online.

Teachers need to be cognizant of how their students and families interact with technology. For example, spend some time at the beginning of the year discovering the digital landscape of the classroom by giving students and parents a “Student Technology Access & Use Survey” (STAUS) similar to the one created by Brian Sersion and Douglas Stevens of Cincinnati Public Schools.

2. Be proactive in creating lessons and assignments, thoughtfully

Think carefully before assigning online research, a lab simulation, or writing assignments that need to be done at home on a desktop or laptop. LMS’s and many web pages provide a considerably different experience on a mobile device, and may have limited functionality if the sites weren’t designed with mobile in mind—and that’s assuming that there’s actually mobile access at home.

We differentiate based on student exceptionalities, but we need to start thinking about how we differentiate for the digital divide, as well.

In every classroom, there must always be a strategic response to the question “How does the use of technology contribute to the learning taking place in this lesson?” When creating a lesson with technology as an integral piece, be able to explain why that technology is an integral piece and—more importantly—how you are going to accommodate for students without home access.

3. Put extra effort towards pushing digital literacy

Basic tips for any classroom in teaching digital literacy are especially important to be aware of when considering students that may be new to the internet in an academic setting. Routine tasks in word processing, web browsing, creating PowerPoints and YouTube videos should be built into classroom procedures at the beginning of the year to accommodate those students that are unfamiliar. Do not expect students to have the same familiarity with the web that you do, even if they can Snapchat faster than you can snap your fingers. For example, spend some time discussing what a credible web page looks like.

4. Provide extra opportunities for technology and internet access

Once you’ve got a better idea of your students and parents’ access at home, find a consistent time before or after school where students can come in and use the technology available in the school—and allow their parents to join. In fact, consider hosting an optional technology night that teaches parents about the school’s expectations and provides tutorials on commonly-used apps, programs, and basic digital literacy skills.

There are also access opportunities outside of school and the home—but sadly, those opportunities aren’t always known. Only 21% of those students without home access use public libraries to access the internet. Provide students and parents with a guide with basic information on nearby libraries’ locations, policies, and hours, as many students may not be aware of the community centers in close proximity to their homes.

5. Advocate for more resources in your district or school

What resources and solutions are available to students without access at the school or district level? One potential answer might be the Kajeet SmartSpot, a broadband hotspot that can be purchased by the school and loaned out to students in need.

While the students and schools in most need of these devices are the ones least likely to be able to afford them, educators could apply for grants or seek alternative funding to purchase these devices. And if your district can afford them, talk to your administration about what is purchased and being done to eliminate the digital divide.

And access doesn’t just come with tools—it comes with smarter educators. Push for more professional development, and open the dialogue within the professional community at your school and district.

Digital inequality is cyclical in nature. As the “Opportunity for All?” report explains, “Digital inequality can contribute to educational inequality, which in turn perpetuates economic inequality.” Hence, this is not just the problem of students, teachers, or parents—it’s everyone’s problem. But instead of waiting for national policies and programs to save the day, educators must adapt and create flexible solutions to combat the troubling cycle of unequal access.  

Sean Wolohan (@sean_wolohan) is a Math and Science Teacher at St. Peter and Paul School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Oklahoma). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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