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.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
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.
studies have found, rural
and those who live in low-income
have it even harder.
the lack of tech "one of the cruelest parts of the digital
divide," a speaker at the recent CoSN
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
delays held up development other aspects of the project, such as
assessments to quantify how the program helped the participants.
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.
then coronavirus arrived on the scene, canceling in-person training
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.
1: Remove the Obstacles
in spite of a less-than smooth rollout, the program generated some
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.
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.
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
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
offered several tips for others who want to address the digital
divide in their own communities:
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.
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.
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,
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
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