Digital equity: Solving the technology issue through collaboration

Government, telecom companies, the business community and school districts must work together to overcome significant obstacles
Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration.
Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration, and former CIO for Houston ISD.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused every organization to quickly redefine what normal operations must look like. In response, K-12 had to immediately adapt to a remote or virtual mode of instruction, communication and management. Navigating this “new normal” is a significant change to culture, expectations, professional development, resources and technology.

As district leaders start to look beyond the current school year, they must take the lessons learned from this crisis and begin to develop strategies that will help them move beyond a crisis management philosophy to one of incorporating virtual learning into everyday practice.

Read: Updated: 208 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

One of the most prevalent gaps in the virtual learning scenario is student devices and connectivity. For years, there have been discussions about digital equity, but as an education system we were never able to truly solve this issue. COVID-19 has forced the hand of every K-12 institution to take on digital equity as a key element to defining and operating under current circumstances.

Taking a new approach

When analyzing digital equity from a technology perspective, there are three factors that must be considered in order to fully remediate this issue: a device in the hands of every student and teacher; the ability for these devices to connect to the internet anytime, anywhere at an affordable price; and existing Wi-Fi infrastructure throughout our communities.

The reason digital equity remains an issue is that school systems have been trying to solve this problem on their own. Solving the digital equity problem will require taking a different approach and understanding that this is a community issue, not a school district issue. Resolution can occur if, and when, the following groups come together:

  • the local, state and federal government
  • telecom carriers
  • the business community
  • school districts

Solving the digital equity problem will require taking a different approach and understanding that this is a community issue, not a school district issue.

To get a device into the hands of every student and teacher, the school systems will need to reprioritize their budgets. It is highly unlikely there will be a huge influx of new funds to accomplish this, which means school systems will need to look at their existing funds and current allocations.

Establishing partnerships

Discussions at the federal level regarding Title monies and removing some of the restrictions on what these dollars can be spent on could provide some new opportunities for school district budgets. Reprioritization discussions will require the abandonment of spending money on some very “sacred cow” expenditures. The focus of reprioritization must take into consideration not only the purchase of the devices, but also the ongoing maintenance, support and life-cycle replacement. This is a great opportunity for a school system to partner with local businesses to establish financial partnerships that aid in the purchase, support, maintenance and life-cycle replacement.

The ability for devices to connect to the internet anytime, anywhere will require partnerships with the business communities, housing departments and telecom carriers. In conjunction with the mayor’s office, school systems have an opportunity to work with local restaurants, community centers, churches, and any other location their families routinely gather to encourage the installation of public Wi-Fi.

Read: Infographic: The COVID-19 crisis and school district budgets

Additionally, conversations with housing departments and apartment complexes should be occurring to encourage these facilities to install public Wi-Fi access for their tenants. It has been commendable how telecom carriers have stepped up to the plate offering hot spots to school districts across the country at a discounted monthly rate. However, most of the discounted rate programs were short-term solutions to weather the storm. We will need long-term affordable monthly rates for the hot spots to ensure anytime, anywhere access.

This long-term affordable monthly rate will require telecom carriers and school systems to come together and as partners define this long-term solution. I am confident that school systems and telecom carriers can come up with a monthly fee that is both affordable to school districts and profitable for telecom carriers. The number of school systems needing to solve this issue and the number of students needing hot spot devices indicates the importance of a partnership. Finally, changes to federal regulations such as E-rate will need to be considered to assist in the funding opportunities currently unavailable.

Moving toward reliable Wi-Fi infrastructure

The greatest challenge will be ensuring that a reliable Wi-Fi infrastructure exists throughout our communities. We can solve the device as well as the anytime, anywhere internet connection issue, but if there is not an adequate Wi-Fi infrastructure, it is all for naught. A reliable Wi-Fi infrastructure impacts homes with and without internet connectivity. In urban, suburban and rural houses across the country, we have parents and students now in one location and all needing a connection to the internet to do their work.

For homes that do not have any Wi-Fi infrastructure available, simply providing students with a hot spot will not work. These devices need an underlying Wi-Fi infrastructure with the ability for a network connection to be functional. For homes with a Wi-Fi infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, the monthly data usage plans are not designed to have an entire household on the internet for eight hours per day. In some instances, households have used up their monthly data allocation within the first three days and are forced to pay for additional data tokens.

Read: How online learning is unmasking disparities

Solving this problem will require local government (mayors), school systems and telecom carriers to work together and map out the current Wi-Fi infrastructure coverage for their communities. In addition, this group needs to identify the types of monthly data plans available for their communities. The coverage map and data plan analysis will provide this group with the necessary information to develop a comprehensive implementation strategy to address their connectivity infrastructure communitywide.

Digital equity can’t be solved simply by addressing the technology needs outlined here. Digital equity includes age-appropriate access to systems, instructional resources, staff and training. The problem will not be solved quickly, but this pandemic has forced everyone to embrace the concept of a new normal. Defining the strategies and solutions necessary to move quickly now should be our focus.

Lenny Schad is chief information and innovation officer of District Administration, and former CIO for Houston ISD.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad
Lenny Schad, one of the most prominent voices in K-12 technology leadership, is District Administration's chief information and innovation officer and technology editor-at-large.

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