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4 Ways to Improve Digital Equity in Your Classroom

When we consider students' perspectives, small changes can have a big impact.

Kaili Hwang | April 18, 2019

As a former middle school teacher who taught in a lower-income, majority-minority school equipped with lots of "high tech" tools, I often wondered about equity when it came to edtech. For me, students' access to tech at school wasn't the issue. However, I knew that things were a lot different once students left my classroom. Because the majority of my students lacked internet access at home, I never assigned homework that required technology.

But that was over 10 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Today, using tech for teaching and learning -- both in class and for homework -- is a lot more common than it was. Nevertheless, many teachers and students are struggling to adapt to a world where it seems like everyone is connected, yet not everyone has the same access.

While access to technology may be nearly universal today, using those same technologies for learning isn't always equitable.

A number of key findings in Common Sense's recently released research report, The Common Sense Census: Inside the 21st-Century Classroom, speak to this disconnect. According to the report, nearly a third of teachers said it would limit their students' learning "a great deal" or "quite a bit" if their students didn't have access to a computer or the internet. Yet, nearly a third of teachers also shared that they assigned homework online at least once a week -- although those teachers who said they did assign digital homework were more likely to teach in affluent, non-Title I schools. Together these findings highlight the importance of understanding that, while access to technology may be nearly universal today, using those same technologies for learning isn't always equitable.

Curious to learn more about digital equity and its implications today, I attended a local community roundtable focused on how digital inequity affects schools and their communities. I wanted to know more about what students, educators, and community leaders think about leveling the playing field when it comes to edtech. At one panel, a distinguished group of experts, from city officials to district tech leaders, discussed what they saw as the most pressing issues. Solutions they proposed ranged from providing free citywide broadband access to giving students cellphones with preloaded data plans.

I learned a lot, but it was all about digital equity at a district and citywide level. As a teacher, these technical and infrastructural issues felt so far outside of my control. Then, a group of seven high school seniors took the stage and brought a whole new perspective to the conversation.

From inconsistent homework policies to a perceived lack of empathy and understanding from their teachers, the students were coming at the digital equity issue from a whole different angle.

One after another, the students spoke about their challenges with technology and what a lack of access actually felt like to them. What surprised me was that the students didn't focus on the lack of hardware (one working printer for over 1,000 students) or lack of high-speed networks (having to sit in a dark parking lot to use the public library's internet). Instead, they shared a more down-to-earth perspective, centered on their teachers and the happenings within their classrooms. From inconsistent homework policies to a perceived lack of empathy and understanding from their teachers, the students were coming at the digital equity issue from a whole different angle.

Of course, issues of digital equity are multifaceted, multilevel, and, at times, technical. But hearing these students' perspectives inspired me to think about some small changes that we, as educators, can make in changing what digital equity looks like for our kids.

Here are four simple things you can do right now to bring more digital equity to your classroom:

1. Seek first to understand.

Recognize your students' current tech capabilities and their concerns. Consider using a survey at the beginning of the year to get a baseline understanding of your students' access to tech. Make sure to let your students know you'll use the results to inform your teaching (and that their answers will remain confidential to their peers). While you may have strong rapport with your students, don't assume too much -- it's important to ask questions to understand what tech use is really like in their homes so you have a clearer and more accurate understanding of needs and constraints. Try to learn from your students: How many have computers at home? How many of those computers have access to a high-speed network? Are there families who use only phones (or tablets) to access the internet? Where do students access the internet if they can't do it at home?

2. Try it out!

It may seem obvious, but before giving assignments on a new platform or app, try it out for yourself! A lot of times, things we'd never assume could go wrong actually do. But trying out the experience beforehand -- just as students will -- can help us catch some bugs before we turn students loose. And it gives us some valuable insight into what students will experience in our classes. From there, you can give kids ample time to complete their work and maybe even offer some pro tips in the process. Everything from log-in problems to having the right browser can affect how long it takes for students to get the work done.

3. Create a tech equity vision with your students.

What exactly is a "tech equity vision"? It's a fancy way to describe the act of involving your students in conversations about how tech use happens in your classroom (and beyond). What better way to elevate student voices and partner with students on how to use technology for teaching and learning? Ask questions like, "What do we use technology in the classroom for?"; "How do we want technology to help us learn?"; "What are some challenges you face using technology in and out of school?"; and "When does technology actually enhance our learning, and when can it get in the way?" Document and post responses on a tech equity vision so students feel (and see) accountability and ownership.

4. (Re)consider your homework policies.

One student on the panel shared that his teacher had an "Absolutely No Late Work" policy, and when he couldn't turn in an online assignment due to lack of access at home, he simply received a zero on the assignment. Another student shared that her teacher gave a week between assigning online homework and turning it in, which allowed for more flexibility in finding access to a network.

Consistency between classes can really help kids, too, so if you're working as part of a team, collaborate with your colleagues on creating consistent policies around homework and digital assignments. Don't be afraid to rethink how your team handles digital learning, and be mindful of the constraints students may face in how they access technology.