Equity & IT Trends

States Follow Haphazard Standards to Collect Student Device and Internet Access Data

While a lot of districts and schools struggled on their own during the early months of the pandemic to come up with ways to figure out which of their students needed access to computing gear and broadband, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) has had a better idea: Why not come up with a standardized way to collect that information that local education agencies can turn to when the need arises?

To understand the scope of the problem, SETDA, in partnership with Dell, recently published the results of a survey among state education agencies that examined how states measure digital equity. The survey focused on the 2020-2021 school year and ran from December 2020 through January 2021. A total of 34 states and the territory of Guam responded.

Nearly 7 in 10 states (68%) reported collecting data of any type, with 92% of respondents reporting that they gathered information about device access and almost all asking for data about home broadband. Just 24% required that districts provide this data, while the others requested it. Three-quarters of states (73%) said they had received a high response rate (70% or higher) to data collections.

The survey participants noted a number of hurdles that prevent them from doing this kind of data collection: needing legislative approval; lacking agency capacity and/or infrastructure to store the data; and concerns over privacy and data security.

That said, more than half of state agencies noted that they have a timeline for collecting data, and another quarter plan to collect it but have not set specific deadlines. Of concern, the report's authors observed, 26% still have no plans to collect connectivity data.

During the same timeframe that schools and districts were sorting out their digital equity access needs, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) was developing a national standard for data collection, encompassed under its "DigitalBridgeK-12" program. While many states indicated that they plan to adopt the CCSSO standard, most said they would continue using their state-specific questions.

The data elements suggested for collection by the CCSSO included:

  • Device age;

  • School device replacement cycle;

  • Device appropriateness to learning needs;

  • Internet access data caps;

  • Upload and download speeds; and

  • The school's ability to support remote and blended learning models.

SETDA used the report to "strongly encourage" adoption of a common framework for gathering local device and connectivity metrics.

"Closing the digital divide requires committed teamwork among local and state leaders, private telecommunications carriers, families and communities," the report stated. "And the first step to ensure the targeting of solutions where we most need them is to have uniform data and collection practices across every state."

"Equitable Access Survey Report" offered a number of recommendations for state education leaders, among them:

  • Using the CCSSO tools to create a "uniformity of questions and response options";

  • Following "more consistent and frequent methods for collecting data"; and

  • Making sure there's some level of verification of the data, to confirm that the school or district is telling "the whole story" regarding its device and access status.

The report is openly available on the SETDA website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.