Digital equity is a concern in many communities

October 17, 2016 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

When I was in middle and high school, I would often meet my friends on Sundays at the local public library, where we would work on our homework and conduct research for projects. We would thumb through the card catalog, searching for books or magazine articles that we could use as sources.

Now, students can conduct research from their home computer, tablet or mobile device, accessing articles online from the comfort of home, in their pajamas on a weekend morning, if need be. And their teachers are enhancing classroom lessons by sending home suggested websites and apps that provide fun educational resources.

Technology plays a pivotal role in the way students today complete their homework assignments, access information and connect with their teachers, according to “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families,” a 2016 report published by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, an independent research and innovation lab that focuses on the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.

“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; researching papers and typing essays; investigating colleges and financial aid opportunities; looking for local after-school activities and community resources; or taking advantage of educational software, games and videos—digital tools have become key components of children’s education,” according to the report.

The study concluded that “among 10- to 13-year-olds who use computers or the Internet, eight in 10 (81 percent) do so to do homework, and four in 10 (44 percent) to write stories or blogs. Many also use the Internet to connect with teachers (40 percent) and other students (46 percent) about school projects. Among 6- to 13-year-olds, 81 percent play educational games and use the Internet to look up things that they are interested in. Seven in 10 (70 percent) use computers or the Internet to do something creative, such as make their own art or music.”

But what about those students whose families live in an area where the infrastructure doesn’t exist to access the Internet or their families can’t afford home technology, such as computers or tablets? The “digital divide” is a growing concern amongst some educators and parents.

Some districts have taken it upon themselves to provide the tools and access to technology. The Port Byron Central School District in Cayuga County has given iPads to students in grades 3-7 to use at school and home throughout the school year. The devices are also used during summer instruction. Within the next two to three years, the district hopes to expand the home access program through grade 12, Superintendent Neil O’Brien said.

“I want my students to have the technology that allows us to bridge the gap between home and school,” he said.

Students using the iPads can only access permitted information, and teachers so far have used the devices to focus on literacy skills. Through the use of an app, teachers receive data on what and how much their students are reading at home and can track their literacy progress.

“The computer is better than my mom,” Mr. O‘Brien half-joked, recalling the days when his mother would send him off to his room to complete his homework. Parents may not actually know how much content is being completed when children do their homework, but his teachers can track reading activities through the app and have real data to build their instruction upon.

So what can parents do if their children don’t have home access to their own, or school, technology? How can they bridge that gap?

Several groups are working to close the digital divide that exists in many communities, including the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology and EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that provides access to high-speed, low-cost Internet service and computers and free digital literacy courses.

EveryoneOn has several programs for families that are in need of assistance in obtaining Internet service and/or the technology to access the Internet. The group’s Connect2Compete program provides affordable Internet and devices to students in kindergarten through grade 12 that qualify for the National School Lunch Program.

And don’t forget your local public library as a resource for Internet access and technology devices. Many public libraries have made digital equity a focus, according to the American Library Association’s 2016 State of America’s Libraries Report.

“In 2015, libraries explored ways to address this issue by seeking out community partners to help ensure that all teens have access to tools and using trained experts to help teens build the digital literacy skills they need to succeed in school and prepare for college, careers, and life,” according to the report.

So while students are using different tools at their local public libraries and in school than I did many years ago, the goal is still the same: to complete a homework assignment. Finding pathways for families to access technology outside the classroom is vital to providing digital equity for all students.

“The reality is, technology is part of the learning environment,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons, both of whom try to snag her smartphone to access the Internet, typically to watch Netflix.   

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