Conquering Access to Wifi and Digital Platform Issues
Much has been made of America’s so-called “Digital Divide”, the gap between those who have access to technology and networks and those who don’t - and for good reason. According to the Pew Research Center, significant numbers of school-age children in America do not have access to high-speed internet at home, with further gaps evident based on ethnicity and household income. Smartphone ownership and usage is increasing and helping, but is still not enough to bridge the high-speed internet chasm.
These concerns bleed into the school environment, with some student populations unable to access wireless connections and their school’s digital platform during the school day, whether due to their own access to personal devices, deficient school infrastructure, or poor strategic planning with regard to educational technology. The good news is that by being aware of these issues, you can take steps to help students, families, and educators alike conquer the problem.
Equality of Access
In the fall of 2014, the U.S. Department of Education was vocal that “…disparities exist regarding the number and quality of mobile devices in the classroom, speed of internet access, and the extent to which teachers and staff are adequately prepared to teach students using these technologies.” Many districts have implemented Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies to help bridge the gap, but some devices aren’t compatible with classroom technology or certain digital platforms or learning management systems (LMSs), so they aren’t the ultimate solution. BYOD also does not equal PD, and your plan must incorporate ways to bring all staff on board with digital platform implementation and device usage.
Beyond providing devices and access at school, some school districts, particularly in rural areas, aren’t waiting for commercial internet availability to better serve their families. They are engaged in massive projects to extend their existing school networks to the underserved. Your district might not have the need or ability to do this, but it’s a good lesson for all of us in terms of thinking outside the box to better serve our student population. A “Bring Your Own Device” policy isn’t enough to provide equal access. You must do more.
Instead of relying solely on BYOD initiatives, consider launching a take-home 1:1 program in which all learners are provided with take-home school technology. As an alternative to software that taxes the school’s wifi network, think about using cloud-based software that works in both online and offline formats. Some schools are working to develop a digital learning coaching structure to unleash educator creativity and connect more students to digital platforms with meaningful educational outcomes. The spirit of access to the digital commons should pervade all your decisions in this arena.
Playing Nice in the Sandbox
Digital platforms and/or learning management systems are at their best when they play nice in the sandbox together. In other words, the digital tools you use every day should be able to communicate with one another with minimal fuss, not requiring dozens of sign-ons, separate passwords, and more. EducationDive refers to this as interoperability, increasingly a priority as technology becomes more integrated in daily practice.
Does your learning management system integrate well with your existing student information system (SIS)? Does your LMS actively promote collaboration between staff members? What about hosting supplemental materials from textbook companies? Will your students be able to access the learning management system in multiple formats—desktop computer, laptop, tablet, mobile—both at home and at school? Mobile access is increasingly important and may be one of the most important digital platform issues to address when selecting a learning management system for your school/district.
Despite the various models of the change process - Lewin’s three phases of unfreezing, movement, and refreezing; Burke’s four phases of prelaunch, launch, post launch, and sustaining - change is not a “Point A to Point B” experience. It is non-linear and often messy. You are likely to encounter both blind and political resistance when moving forward with a device policy or new digital platform. Anticipating and deciding up front how you will deal with the pushback will be key to your success.
A recent report in higher education made a recommendation that is equally applicable to the K-12 world: For increased faculty buy-in, start with a focus on learning targets and strategies for student engagement before deciding what educational technology tools to implement and use. When people see that the selection of edtech products will be driven by the actual educational needs and goals, they are much less likely to resist than if they perceive that the tool itself is the purported reason for change.
Infrastructure is not, and cannot be, a one-shot event. Any upgrade to the district’s capital, whether it be a new school building, a school bus purchase, or a major technology project, must be implemented with sustainability of the investment in mind. Otherwise you’ll end up with a shiny new object with no plan to keep it shiny, or to eventually replace it down the line.
Thus, as a school leader, before you apply for that technology grant that commits the district to an expensive wireless network upgrade or new digital platform, ask yourself the following: What is our plan for the daily care and feeding of this investment? How will preventative maintenance, staff professional development, and outlays for future upgrades/replacement factor in? Given the supersonic speed with which technology improves and needs to be repaired or replaced, you must have a plan to address this need.
Unite and Conquer
Whether you are working to provide equality of wifi access to all students or deciding on a digital platform that best meets the learning needs of students and overarching educational goals of the school and district, the days of going it alone and expecting everyone to automatically follow are over. Build a community coalition to discuss equality of access issues. Work with your technology coordinator and district tech committee to secure edtech tools that align with data-driven learning needs. Don’t have such a committee? Form one! The best way to conquer these challenges and make a dent in the digital divide is to do it together.
Do you have any steps to help conquer digital platform issues? Tell us on Twitter at @Schoology