7 Ways We’re Confronting Internet Access Challenges—and Our Own Blind Spots

Diversity and Equity

7 Ways We’re Confronting Internet Access Challenges—and Our Own Blind Spots

By Matt Hiefield     Apr 17, 2018

7 Ways We’re Confronting Internet Access Challenges—and Our Own Blind Spots

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

Alex was an enthusiastic 9th grader in my World History course and had just been issued a Chromebook as part of our district’s 1:1 implementation. Alex’s excitement was palpable as this was the first computer to ever enter his home: He was now participating in digital learning and exploration, and he appeared as enthusiastic as anyone.

A few months into the semester, Alex and his classmates embarked on a collaborative project that required students to research and create online using a variety of interactive tools. I had worked hard to give students choices and resources for them to collaborate, explore and create. The project got off to a good start, and the students seemed to embrace their learning and the collaborative process.

My enthusiasm was dampered, though, when one of the student groups came to me after class and complained about Alex. They were worried about their presentation (and grade) because Alex never completed his project work at home. This surprised me as Alex always worked hard in class. When I conferenced with him, he just mentioned that he would do better.

But as the project continued, that never happened. The group successfully completed their presentation, but his part seemed watered down. In the following weeks, I noticed that he was not taking part in many online discussions and the contributions to his digital portfolio of work was minimal. After three months, Alex finally told me that he did not have internet access at home. As a white middle class educator, I really hadn’t considered the ramifications of connectivity—I assumed that since everyone had a computer that they would figure it out.

Achievement Vs. Opportunity Gap

I was a bit ashamed of my lack of awareness and perhaps my willingness to blame Alex for laziness instead of digging deeper. Worse, as I began to make more discreet inquiries, I learned that I had many more students with internet access issues. I knew of other educators and schools that encouraged students to go to Starbucks or McDonald’s for free WiFi, but this didn’t seem realistic or a fair substitute to home access.

Many students complete homework later in the evening and traveling outside the home brings up safety concerns. Additionally, not all students live within walking distance and don’t have transport to and from an establishment. One educator argued with conviction that offering digital homework and learning opportunities outside of school was not our issue and that the best thing to do was to just not expect students to do anything outside of the school day. Although initially compelling, this argument failed to honor student curiosity and initiative.

While some would see Alex’s academic record and cite an “achievement gap,” it seemed to me that it was more of an “opportunity gap.” As educators, we needed to do better, and dozens of stories like Alex's led our district on an ongoing quest for digital equity.

A Pathway to Action

Matt Hiefield

Closing this opportunity gap requires a variety of strategies involving schools and communities working together. In Beaverton, the Oregon school district where I work, we began addressing this challenge by starting a monthly lunchtime discussion group devoted to finding creative ways to identify and solve the problem.

We cast a wide net and extended invitations to people from different schools and departments, including teachers, administrators, IT leaders, ELL specialists and curriculum curators. Really, the main requirement was to show up and to bring focused energy and a collaborative mindset. Most had first hand experience with students who were struggling to integrate into our digital learning environments, and this provided motivation to examine our practice. Importantly, though, the monthly meetings didn’t jump directly to solutions. To this end, we gathered data and identified the additional information we needed. Participants brought a wide variety of perspectives, and that led us to solutions that we might not have thought of in a small, homogenous group. After a full year of study, some initial action items emerged:

  1. Extended Library Hours: One outcome to support students was to extend library hours. In addition, the district provided transportation for students who depend on bussing.
  2. Hotspot Pilot Project: We piloted a small hotspot project in one of our high schools—giving students access to WiFi hotspot devices they could take home—and quickly learned that demand far exceeded the supply. The project included help and guidance from the school’s student leadership, administration, and library and tech teacher, as well as district librarians.
  3. WiFi Access Maps: Some of our schools in highly impacted areas contacted local businesses to see if they would be willing to allow students to use their WiFi after school hours. This proactive approach helped build community support and engage others with our access challenges. (Check out one of our sample WiFi maps, in English and Spanish, here.)
  4. Sprint 1 Million Hotspot Grant: In the Spring of 2017, our Digital Equity Team applied for a Sprint 1 Million hotspot grant. This is a 5-year grant that provides 400 hotspots a year for distribution to our neediest students and will run through 2022.
  5. Latino Tech Parent Nights: We host Latino family technology nights to educate parents on how to support their students with technology. Many of these parents have not used a computer before, so educating them about digital citizenship, expectations, and parenting helps show them the value of being connected and of being ready for the future.
  6. Focus on High-Needs Schools: To meet the needs of middle and elementary schools, we are piloting a Kajeet hotspot project at three of our highest-needs schools. We are working closely to gather data on teaching and learning at these schools in order to inform future adoptions.
  7. School and District Surveys: We added questions about home internet connectivity in our district wide student survey to help us make informed decisions about future steps.

Reflection to Awareness

Student on Chromebook at Beaverton Public Schools, OR
Matt Hiefield

Teaching and technology are quickly evolving, and we must continue to address challenges (both short term and long term) in order to provide an engaging and equitable education for all of our students. Although I never really solved Alex’s problem in my class, my interaction with him inspired me to take a closer look at my assumptions about connectivity, motivation and learning.

Introspection is not always comfortable, and I know that I still have personal blind spots. With that said, it is my sincere hope that the projects our digital equity team has started will begin to address these blind spots, at least on an institutional level.

Finding a dedicated group of professionals who are willing to learn together and challenge common thinking is the first step in a long journey towards equity and inclusion. And whenever I make hasty judgements about student motivation and performance, I quietly remember the hard lessons that I learned from Alex, and how students like him motivate all of us to work harder to address digital equity challenges in an affirming and transparent way.

Ed. note: Student names were changed for this story.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Stories of Change: Educators Shift Practices to Reach All Learners

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up