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A 5-step plan for bridging the digital divide

Daniel Neal
September 29, 2020

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

The digital divide means different things to different people, and its effects show in diverse ways. The technology and learning challenges faced by rural schools are different from those faced by inner-city schools. Then there are the challenges faced by schools with multiple levels and types of funding and student and teacher diversity. Bridging digital access at a school in a small rural town will vary in scope, cost, and definitions of success from a similar initiative at a school in a different socio-economic or cultural setting.

The complex nature of the digital divide is what makes it difficult to address. Students face a range of obstacles when it comes to access. Some simply cannot afford the devices, applications or bandwidth needed for virtual instruction -- much less compete with others who can. Others face socio-demographic, cognitive or instructional design obstacles. They, or their teachers, do not have access to training to improve their technological literacy, or cannot access information or applications tailored to their needs.

Institutional access also plays a role in the digital divide. When tech access and tech solutions are offered through schools, community centers, libraries and elsewhere, those with limited or no access to technology at home can use these options. Yet, even here, geography, culture and resistance to change in the hierarchical structure of a school or district can hamper edtech initiatives. 

School leaders, state education agencies and local education agencies must assess their needs and then choose the solution that meets those needs -- instead of looking for problems to address using the tools at their disposal. With any good product or software application, educators and leaders should take a student-first or desired-outcome approach to making decisions for their school or district. They should understand the goal and the challenges. From there, they can pounce on opportunities, funding and training that suits their needs, and, over the long-term, focus on successes and improving in areas of deficiency.

Here is a five-step framework for implementing such a program at your school or district.

Assess your needs

You may need to take a gradual approach to fulfill them, but understanding your needs and prioritizing is important. Identify local needs via questionnaires, digital data, IT usage, assessment results, local demographics, attendance rates, and an assessment of relevant district or school plans, policies and decisions on how resources are allocated. Ask yourself what data you have, what data you need and where the most glaring -- and addressable -- gaps are.

Create an action plan

Based on the data uncovered, select an appropriate plan, project or intervention. Some changes may be needed just to meet compliance requirements, but beyond those, ask why you need a specific intervention, and what would happen if it is not conducted. Who are some of the relevant stakeholders in the process, and when is their participation needed?

When planning the implementation, explore how your proposals will address learning gaps and what you may already have in terms of resources. How will you measure results? How will you prioritize conflicting goals and define impact that is both measurable as well as lasting? Do not design a plan that hinges on the actions of those outside the authority of those directly involved in the project. Focus on what you can control.

Explore funding sources

As mentioned above, some things will be beyond your control. For example, the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provide funding for schools, though the allocation of funds is based on a predetermined formula. To receive these funds, SEAs are required to submit to the Department of Education various forms signed by the Chief State School Officer. We recommend  looking into funding sources that you can competitively apply for, such as the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation’s academic enrichment grants or the Innovative Educator Prize. Other funding sources can be found here.

You can even collect donations, as many small and rural schools have done through Computers For Learning, or take advantage of local or state initiatives, as a school near urban Atlanta did to deploy over 1,000 new electronic digital devices for its middle school students.  

Scale-up slowly and adjust as needed

Follow your project plan and pivot as needed if unforeseen issues arise. It helps to work on initiatives relevant to existing areas of work that align with known priorities and address the needs of your community. Keep your key guiding principles in mind (“Why are we implementing this initiative?”) so that you can work towards  your goal.

Tech expenditures add up, and not all of it is useful. It can be difficult to get a good grasp of what you are paying for, what is working, what has been abandoned, and what is used by only a handful of students but is effective. This is why step 1 -- assessing your needs -- is critical. Schools should identify where expenditures -- in terms of funds, teacher time, and other available resources such as bandwidth, or student screen time -- produce the greatest improvements. Next, they should continue to invest in the initiatives that bring about benefit until either its desired goals are achieved, or its funds or resources are depleted.

Be sure not to overinvest in one category and ignore others. For example, it might not be prudent to invest in outfitting buses with Wifi if students don’t have devices or spend budget on the fastest broadband connection possible if students lack access to feature- or media-rich resources. These types of decisions should be revisited and revised throughout the process.

Think long-term

Bridging the digital divide is an ongoing process. I personally believe this process is underpinned and necessitated by deep-seated structural inequities that will increasingly require schools to provide for many students the right type of new, distance learning infrastructure, similar to what they do to address persistent food insecurity. Be creative when necessary -- repurposing buses as hotspots or experimenting with new applications -- but strive to keep growing your digital program. Over time, the synergies between different types of tech can make your digital programs -- and their benefits -- greater than the sum of their parts.

Many things will be beyond your control. You cannot determine when fast broadband connectivity will come to your area (even if such initiatives have the backing of the president and the Federal Communications Commission), what funds will be allocated to specific projects, what kinds of applications will be available for use in schools, what some parents will be able to afford, and what training will be available for teachers. However, with a well-thought-out plan in place, you can incrementally make meaningful changes to address the causes and outcomes of the digital divide as they manifest in your school or district. From there, you can achieve anything.

Daniel J. W. Neal is the chairman, CEO and founder of Kajeet, a provider of wireless solutions.

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