Building Robust Infrastructure as a Tool for Equity

At its most basic level, technological infrastructure means having the wires, switches, and access points necessary to get broadband connectivity to and throughout America’s schools. The kinds of transformational learning experiences outlined in the 2016 National Education Technology Plan and the equity of opportunity to succeed outlined as one of Secretary John King’s top priorities, though, require more than a basic infrastructure. Such vision and goals require a robust infrastructure that goes beyond connecting students to the internet and provides state-of-the-art digital learning resources, encourages responsible citizenship, and protects student data and privacy.

What’s more, such an infrastructure must be built to support exponential growth in the demand for internet capacity, ensure high reliability by avoiding key single points of failure, and provide ubiquitous access by students at any time and from any place.

Students with reliable, ubiquitous internet access in student-centric learning environments have the power to take ownership of their learning. They can set their own pace, follow their interests, and collaborate with experts and peers regardless of geography. Through such experiences they gain the skills and self-direction required by modern citizenship.

Learning with a personal, connected device any time, any place is different in kind, not just degree from having connectivity only at certain times or in certain places.

So long as access is merely occasional, students miss out on the full promise of teaching and learning with technology. So long as there is a single student who doesn’t have access at home, teachers are hamstrung from offering rich digital learning experiences to a full class. So long as there is one student who doesn’t have access outside of school and home the playing field for digital learning collaboration is uneven.

Teachers whose students have home access can spend more time in face-to-face work and small groups during instructional hours. They can allow students more time to work through new ideas, knowing that students can finish work at home if necessary. They can offer student-centric pedagogies, such as inquiry and project-based learning, that can continue beyond the brief instructional minutes the school day affords.

To help leaders develop and maintain robust infrastructure in their districts, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology recently released Personalized Professional Learning for Future Ready Leaders. This new set of tools supports superintendents as they develop plans to implement research-based digital learning strategies to provide equitable access to connectivity, devices, and digital content. The full set of policies and practices required to develop a Robust Infrastructure is provided on page 7 of the project’s research synthesis. For detailed information on developing a Smart Network that is scalable, reliable, and ubiquitous, also see the Future Ready Leader Coalition Partner, Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) Performance Design Guide.

Stories of Digital Equity through a Robust Infrastructure

Implementing a Robust Infrastructure

Access to high speed broadband internet for all students in all schools is a central goal in St. Vrain Valley Schools. District funding through a mill levy override and collaboration with the city of Longmont provides internet access at every district school and work site. The development of district high-speed public and private sites has provided equal access for all community members when working in or near all district facilities, so students without home access stay connected when schools are open and even when they are closed.

“We have a superintendent who’s said often, ‘Your zip code should not dictate your educational opportunity.’ And we all believe it. This leadership team believes it and we’ve done everything we can to support that equity. One way to get equity is access to technology.”
-Regina Renaldi, Area 3 Assistant Superintendent, St. Vrain Valley School District
St. Vrain Valley Schools , CO— Key Research-Based Dimensions: Connectivity and capacity; Digital devices; Technology personnel; Out-of-school access

Access to Devices and Digital Content

The promise of technology in education is to improve outcomes for all students, but technology by itself is not sufficient. Future Ready Leaders know how to change teaching and learning to support students’ cognitive and non-cognitive growth; to use technology to prepare students both for college and for the new demands of a modern workplace. The self-direction, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills that are needed in a digital society are most fully developed when students have ubiquitous access to devices, connectivity, and digital tools and content.

Ubiquitous access requires that students have personal devices wherever they need them and internet access in every classroom, home, and other places that students spend time. Many districts are now surveying their families to find out where there is a lack of internet access and finding ways to offer internet to those who don’t have it. This ubiquity also means selecting hardware and digital resources “born accessible” adhering to the principles of Universal Design for Learning to ensure all learners, no matter their abilities have equal access to all learning tools.

Device Deployment from a Position of Equity

“Our vision really is about transforming outcomes for all kids. Kids with disabilities, kids that are second language learners, young people that are impacted by poverty and mobility.We’re absolutely committed to leveraging our digital vision in such a way that closes achievement gaps for all kids.”
-Steve T. Webb, Superintendent, Vancouver Public Schools
Vancouver Public Schools, WA — Key Research-Based Dimensions: Digital devices

Connectivity

Digital equity requires that all students have access 24/7 at home, at school, and at places in between. Although much progress has been as a result of the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program that invested $3.9 billion in funding year 2015 to improve internet access to schools, a digital divide will likely still remain. A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center indicates that 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. Low-income households, especially black and Hispanic homes make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million. In addition, 75% of school systems surveyed do not have any off campus strategies for providing connectivity to students at home and after school.

Providing 24/7 connectivity giving all students an equal advantage can be expensive, difficult, and often not considered the responsibility of school districts. Until every student has access outside of the traditional school day, a glaring homework gap will continue to exist. Leading districts are not deterred by these obstacles. Innovative leaders and students from schools are working with community leaders and organizations in an effort to narrow the access gap. The CoSN Digital Equity Toolkit shines a light onto their work by offering case studies, survey tools and strategies for establishing partnerships to create collaborative and creative solutions for out of school access for students. While E-rate focuses only on school and public library connectivity, the ConnectHOME, ConnectALL and modernization of the Lifeline program are all designed to assist in building an affordable means of home internet access for all.

Revere Public Schools has prioritized outside‐of-school digital equity, highlighted in the District’s 2013‐2016 Technology Plan. The high school is already a one‐to‐one device per student environment; the district is extending this to middle and elementary schools. Students take home iPads and Chromebooks, so outside‐of‐school access is key. Paul Dakin, Superintendent of Revere Public Schools teamed up with Mayor Daniel Rizzo to accomplish together what individual agencies might not been able to achieve alone. Strategies identified to address digital equity include: allowing computer labs access before and after school, working with the public library to provide community access and literacy programs, and working with community businesses to get their businesses online. Revere was recognized as one of three winning cities for their student-led effort in the Getting Your Business Online Competition. Another key strategy has been Wi‐Fi upgrades at school campuses and other public buildings that have high incidence of student use. The district also disseminates to students and staff a list of free after‐school internet access locations.

24/7 Connectivity

What started as a simple act of kindness in Davidson, North Carolina, has grown into a student-driven, community based effort with a big mission and growing reach!

E2D, Eliminate the Digital Divide, a non-profit organization, was founded due to two, simple questions that an enlightened 12-year-old girl asked her parents this past October:

  • How can all kids in our school do their homework and projects successfully if some of their families are too poor to own digital technology?
  • What can we do to help?

Through community engagement, activation and corporate generosity, E2D has been able to provide at-home access to computers, digital broadband, and the digital literacy training to help boost all families remaining behind the digital divide to an equal footing with the rest of the community.

Coachella Valley Unified School provides another story of meeting the goal of 24/7 connectivity in the face of multiple challenges. The district was in a difficult situation when the local cable company refused to run fiber through a tribal reservation and trailer parks. This lack of network infrastructure was keeping children from being connected — providing students with 24/7 connectivity and access to digital learning tools is a critical component of district learning model. Coachella solved this problem by using routers on buses charged with solar panels parked in the poorest neighborhoods in their district.

Coachella Valley Unified School District, CA — Key Research-Based Dimensions: Network hardware; Out-of-school access

This summer, CoSN, the organization Student Voice, and other partners will launch a National Student Leadership Challenge encouraging students to take an active role in increasing Digital Equity within their communities during the 2016–2017 school year. Students make for energetic and knowledgeable partners, and they will be working hard to increase out of school access, growing this Future Ready Dimension, and narrowing the Homework Gap within their communities!

Additional leadership resources for developing robust infrastructure are available from our other Future Ready Coalition Partners. Future Ready Tools, including a comprehensive interactive planning tool called the Planning Dashboard, a new one-stop Hub for district leaders’ ongoing professional learning activities, and in-person summits and workshops, are also available.


Bernadette Adams is Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

Keith Krueger is CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice of K-12 school system technology leaders in North America.