How K-12 leaders are closing the digital divide

Educators work to ensure digital equity for students by shifting mindsets and improving professional development
By: | Issue: January, 2020
December 5, 2019
During districtwide professional development programs at Troy City Schools in Alabama, educators receive training on best practices to improve digital equity.During districtwide professional development programs at Troy City Schools in Alabama, educators receive training on best practices to improve digital equity.

Digital equity in education has centered on putting technology in all students’ hands and expanding access with increased bandwidth and Wi-Fi.

And while those issues continue to be a priority for some districts, many educators are changing their focus to more proactively using technology to support learning for all students.

“Tech is fast-moving and education is not,” says Diane Doersch, technical project director for the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools initiative. “Our students have phones and other tools even outside school, so digital equity now is really digital use equity.”

To achieve that level of digital equity, educators must use technology to support the four C’s—collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking, says Doersch, who is a former chief technology and information officer for Green Bay Area Public School District in Wisconsin.

“More money isn’t always the solution,” she adds.

Shifting mindsets toward digital equity

Before making any tech purchase, leaders should also consider how devices are going to solve specific problems, such as digital equity, says Eujon Anderson, technology director for Troy City Schools in Alabama, and a featured speaker at DA’s FETC 2020.

“Sometimes I get stuck on just wanting to purchase devices, and I have to take a step back and think: ‘Is this going to benefit my students right now? Are we going to increase student achievement?’” says Anderson.

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Giving students devices without having an ed tech plan also doesn’t help those students who have never used a device before.

“Any district leader who thinks about digital equity in terms of technology availability and broadband access is doing themselves a disservice,” says Anderson.

Digital equity means teachers also need to change their relationship with technology. For example, they can expand their classroom walls.

‘A huge home run’

In an effort to get administrators on board with digital equity issues, Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools regularly provides ed tech training for school leaders. During sessions, principals see the digital tools teachers use and learn about technology implementation issues.

“It’s been a huge home run,” says Zach Desjarlais, director of instructional technology. “We’ve seen a shift in the principals’ role from ‘Is it OK to do this?’ to more of ‘We’re going to do this, and this is how we’re going to do it.’ ”

“My husband is a middle school earth-science teacher—middle school earth science, maybe not the most interesting subject,” Doersch says. “But when they can use their devices to confer with a scientist who is standing on an ice field in Canada, that is opening the world to them.”

Using technology to create engaging and more personalized learning is a big step toward achieving digital equity. And that approach, of course, starts with professional development.

Educators at Troy City Schools are also striving to boost access to ed tech by increasing staff support in libraries and computer labs.

Educators at Troy City Schools are also striving to boost access to ed tech by increasing staff support in libraries and computer labs.

On districtwide training days in Troy City Schools, Anderson and guest instructors cover best practices for digital equity and ask teachers what technology is working in the classroom. Teachers can also receive extra assistance with ed tech through after-school training or during planning periods.

Moving the needle

Vancouver Public Schools in Washington offers individualized PD to improve teachers’ use of ed tech, says Zach Desjarlais, director of instructional technology.

“In an elementary school, for example, you may have 30 teachers, so you’re going to have 30 different readiness levels and experiences,” says Desjarlais. “So how do you set expectations in understanding a common goal with that group and move them forward?”

The PD’s skiing theme allows teachers to identify their ability level, from a beginner’s bunny hill to an advanced black diamond designation. All levels cover similar topics but at different speeds and depths.

Sessions on student learning variability directly address digital equity and the digital use gap by increasing awareness and providing new teaching approaches.

Data assists digital equity

To improve digital equity, district technology teams should continually use data to align apps, tools and services, and to determine return on investment, says Zach Desjarlais, director of instructional technology for Vancouver Public Schools in Washington.

“Often, we’ll look at a product that’s not being utilized; it may have been purchased year after year, but when we look at the data, it may have 7,000 licenses but only being accessed by 3,000 kids,” says Desjarlais.

Regardless of whether the lack of use is a training issue or a poor user interface, he advises, district leaders need to be proactive and either
encourage use or pull the plug and find a tool or practice that does work.

The hybrid program combines online courses with face-to-face collaboration sessions that allow for peer interaction and support.

Conference-style events, in which teachers can choose sessions based on ability level, boost participation in PD.

The district also develops its own technology coaches, says Desjarlais. Each is given extensive PD, including leadership training on digital equity.

Providing ed tech training for principals and other administrators has also helped move the digital equity needle, says Desjarlais.

“When a principal becomes an owner and a driver of a tech initiative, that’s really when we see some real change in building communities,” he says.

Empowering students

In 2012, Miami-Dade County Public Schools issued a $1.2 billion bond that allowed district leaders to purchase and deploy 154,000 devices to students, increase bandwidth, and make other tech-related infrastructure upgrades.

But in a 300,000-student district, getting sufficient instructional and technical support for ed tech implementation remains a challenge, says Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer.

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“We’re also really trying to shift the teacher mindset from more of a teacher-centered one to a student-centered one,” Izquierdo says. “So we’re focusing on how we can use technology to empower students—not how we can use technology to deliver a lesson.”

In addition to PD digital literacy days, the district stages “Synergy,” a three-day event at the start of the school year that’s designed for the instructional leadership teams of Miami-Dade’s more than 400 schools.

Educators learn about practical digital skill-building classroom activities, such as having students explore a location through Google Earth and interview local residents via Skype, or create an app or game that teaches counting with fractions and then share it through a learning management system.

The district also has six digital facilitators, who visit classrooms to help develop lesson plans, conduct demonstrations, and model and co-teach technology-driven instruction. Building competency allows teachers to support students’ innovative use of ed tech.

In addition, the district’s curriculum-pacing guides now include standards-aligned digital resources so that teachers don’t have to search for tools and can focus on digital equity and taking student learning to the next level, says Izquierdo.

“We’re empowering kids with skills that we know they’re going to need in the workplace of tomorrow, and how the four C’s—collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking—are facilitated through this huge investment we’ve made in technology,” says Izquierdo.

Educators at Troy City Schools are also striving to find as many opportunities as possible to provide boost digital equity with access to ed tech. Current efforts include trying to extend the hours for and increase staff support in the libraries and computer labs, says Anderson.

Solving digital equity is more about teaching than tech.

“Some things remain constant—relationships with students, the willingness to provide grace to others when maybe they don’t know everything about a subject, and the willingness to work together,” says Doersch, of the Verizon Innovative Learning School initiative. “Ultimately, those are the things that are going to get kids and our teachers moving forward.”

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Ray Bendici is managing editor.

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