Remote Learning & Equity

Closing the Digital Divide

A project in North Carolina offers lessons worth learning for your efforts to help students get the technology they need for internet access.

Digital equity is no longer a theoretical problem in these days of at-home learning. If students don't have computing devices or internet access at home, they won't be getting the same education as their classmates who do. They can't hand in assignments to the LMS; they won't be taking the latest gaming or flashcard challenge; and they certainly won't be attending web class.

As studies have found, rural students and those who live in low-income areas have it even harder.

Calling the lack of tech "one of the cruelest parts of the digital divide," a speaker at the recent CoSN virtual conference shared how her organization has tackled the problem in the state of North Carolina. Erin Huggins is a research associate at the Friday Institute for Educational innovation at North Carolina State University.

In 2017, the Friday Institute conducted a broadband study to determine how many families in the state lacked internet access and why. The results weren't entirely satisfying. For one, the survey was distributed online, which eliminated a "big chunk of our target population," Huggins noted. And the demographics of those who did participate didn't necessarily match up with the demographics for the whole state. For instance, the average income for respondents was $75,000, whereas the average North Carolinian income was closer to $50,000.

Even in spite of those survey limitations, the project identified that about 10 percent of respondents didn't have internet access, primarily due to lack of money but also frequently because it wasn't available.

Based on the results of the survey, the Institute convened experts locally and from across the country to brainstorm ways to bridge the digital divide. Armed with ideas, Huggins and colleague LaTricia Walker Townsend, a senior research scholar for Friday, joined in on a two-year "homework gap grant" from the Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded to the State Library of North Carolina and the state's Broadband infrastructure Office.

The idea was this: to work with local libraries in providing hotspot technology provided by Kajeet and a service plan to families in rural areas to increase their internet access and address the digital divide.

This was pre-pandemic. The group focused on schools that had 1-to-1 programs, so students had computing devices, usually Chromebooks, but also MacBooks in some cases. While some schools allowed students to take the devices home at night, others didn't.

To participate, students needed to declare that they didn't already have easy internet access. And they and their families separately had to agree to attend training provided through their library, at least four of six sessions in each case (one set for the students and another set of the adults). The lessons were to be delivered in person by a "digital inclusion librarian," an employee of the state library. This individual, hired through the grant, would develop a digital toolkit to enable the libraries themselves eventually to conduct training in their communities and resources that could be shared with patrons to help them increase their digital literacy skills. Topics in the training covered computer basics, internet safety, communicating online, interacting with the school and a recap session.

Challenges Galore

For the first year, the project zeroed in on Robeson County, NC, a rural area in the southeastern part of the state where a 1-to-1 program existed and a large share of the population didn't have internet access. While the researchers originally set out to focus just on grade 8 students, the group expanded to include all middle school students and their families.

Launch was planned for September 2018, just in time for Hurricane Florence to slam the state, closing schools in the region for over a month and displacing numerous students, many of whom were identified as possible participants.

Then funding was held up, and the digital inclusion librarian couldn't start working until January 2019. As a result, a program that was supposed to unfold over six or seven months was crammed into two or three months. That new hire had to build the training as she needed to deliver it.

Those delays held up development other aspects of the project, such as assessments to quantify how the program helped the participants.

By year two, the project had expanded to three other counties around the state. Attendance to the individual training sessions varied between 14 and 50 families. On the student side, while the project hoped to draw 140 students in year one, it ended up with 96. No more than 50 ever participated in any one of the workshops.

And then coronavirus arrived on the scene, canceling in-person training altogether.

When COVID-19 forced the closure of school facilities, use of the hotspots during the day picked up immeasurably, Huggins said. Now, they were serving as family hubs to allow the adults to get online too for doing their own work, though, with the data limitations they imposed and the inability to visit certain sites (covered shortly), most parents reported that their smartphones were the primary way they'd access internet from home.

Lesson 1: Remove the Obstacles

Yet, in spite of a less-than smooth rollout, the program generated some worthy lessons.

A biggie was this: Mandating in-person training on a tight schedule creates an obstacle for the families involved, whether because of lack of childcare, lack of transportation, snowstorms or work scheduling conflicts. When they did attend, however, participants considered the training "high-quality" and relevant. Project organizers figured out that by handing off the training materials to the local librarians, they were better suited to coming up with options to fit their own communities.

A second lesson was this: One training pathway won't serve all needs. Some people came who had never turned on a PC. Others arrived with ample experience. In the future, the researchers advised, it would be better to offer modules that participants can pick and choose from, depending on their level of expertise.

Third, giving access to the internet helps. Based on data provided by Kajeet and generated by the hotspot devices handed out, the researchers found that students were "actively using their hotspots throughout the course of the program in both years to access academic websites." As a result, they experienced improvements in their digital literacy skills. However, nearly three-quarters of the sites (73 percent) that students wanted to visit were blocked because of the existence of advertisements or the presence of streaming music or video. Why block social media sites? Because the hotspots came with limited data, Huggins explained, "and if students were watching videos, then they would use up their daily amount of data pretty quickly." Rarely did students attempt to visit truly inappropriate sites.

Fourth, local libraries can play a major role in helping fill the digital divide. The partnership boosted awareness of library resources for the residents and educators. For example, said Huggins, one principal told her that as a result of the program, she'll begin using the library more often, recommend it to her students and view it as a "potential partner."

A Tip List

Huggins offered several tips for others who want to address the digital divide in their own communities:

  • Make sure you understand the area and the population you serve, including the barriers they face and the value they'd see in the programs you might want to offer.

  • Identify the community resources and partners available to help you address the problems. This will help with sustainability, Huggins pointed out, and will increase buy-in for your efforts among the participants.

  • Identify possible service providers and their coverage upfront. Understand where the gaps in coverage exist, whether by driving to each location and checking it out for yourself or scrutinizing coverage maps.

  • Advertise the program in ways that will reach the target audience. Attend back-to-school nights and health fairs, place posters in doctors' offices, preschools and other local businesses. Send information home with students, via flyers, texts and emails.

  • Never give up on delivering high-speed internet. The project found that 77 percent of families would adopt broadband in their homes if the cost were less than $35 per month.

  • Use your libraries. Not only do they already have systems and processes in place to check out digital devices, but they also have staff that are used to providing community outreach and training and are "already seen as a source of community support." Plus, the relationship you build with the library is a reciprocal one. "In the digital age public libraries are really trying to find ways to keep themselves relevant and so providing programs like this helps to ensure that they're staying connected in their communities," said Huggins,

  • Go in with a sustainability mindset. Make sure there are alternatives waiting in the wings to ensure continuity, whether that's new sources of funding or new partners to pick up the slack. That could be libraries or Boys and Girls Clubs or other organizations that want to address the needs of underserved communities.

"The digital divide is one of the greatest equity issues that we're facing today," Huggins asserted. "Internet is no longer a luxury for families. It's really needed for a multitude of tasks every day beyond just school work. Families need to access their health information and health services; they need community services; they get their news; they access work-related resources for working from home. And if you're applying a job now, you have to apply for them online. We connect with our family and our friends online. We do banking. We do shopping. There are very few activities that we do on a daily basis that do not now require access to the internet. And so those that lack access to high speed internet are automatically at a disadvantage."