Bridging the Digital Divide for Families Can Improve Student Outcomes

EdSource

By Delaine Eastin |May 23, 2016

California, once revered as a top school system, now ranks among the bottom in the nation. Despite being one of the most expensive states to live in, California is near the bottom in per-pupil spending. Inadequate funding has led to teacher training and retention problems, overly large classes and the fewest number of counselors, nurses and librarians per student of any state. Most disturbing, we are experiencing low achievement for too many students.

This comes at a time of historically high rates of poverty and income inequality.  Amidst all this bad news, however, there is an overlooked bright spot: parent engagement through educational technology. Not only are online teaching and learning aids transforming the learning potential for students, they are providing a revolutionary way for parents of all backgrounds to engage in their children’s education.

We’ve always known that parent engagement matters. And over the past decade, a ream of academic studies has confirmed that parent engagement – across income, ethnicity, race and geography – is a key to student learning and academic success.  Yet parent engagement tends to be higher at higher income schools – and that’s because wealthier parents generally have three things poorer parents don’t have: time, money and access.

Educators can’t solve parents’ time and money problems. But there is plenty we can do about access. One promising approach is an innovative program called School2Home that’s been adopted in 11 low-performing middle schools in five California districts. The program, where I’ve served as a coach for educators, is showing that Internet access and digital literacy training can provide significant benefits for students, teachers and parents.

School2Home is based on the simple recognition that around 30 to 40 percent of low-income California households do not have high-speed Internet and that this “digital divide” is widening the academic achievement divide. For that reason, School2Home has set out to: get students connected to the Internet at home through affordable broadband programs and low-cost computers; provide parents the digital literacy skills they need to engage with teachers, schools and their children’s learning; and train teachers to use the increasing abundance of hardware and software to the benefit of their students’ education.

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FCC Commissioners Visit School2Home Partner Schools in Los Angeles

May 2, 2014

 

At the invitation of School2Home, two commissioners representing the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai and Mignon Clyburn, separately visited two of Los Angeles-area partner schools: San Fernando Institute for Applied Media (SFIAM) and Muir Middle School.  Both congratulated the schools for their innovative use of technology to make a positive difference in their students’ lives, and used their visits to  advocate for expanded broadband in schools during an important gathering of FCC policy makers a few days later in Washington, D.C.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai sat in on Mr. Peña’s 8th grade class at SFIAM, which was studying world religions.  Mr. Peña introduced the concept of tessellation.   Commissioner Pai admitted, “I had never heard of the word, but that was soon to change.”   Mr. Peña asked the students to put the term into Google Images on their iPads.  He then asked them to describe what they saw and why they thought Islamic art and architecture used tessellation so extensively.  “In their own words—and I confess I did the exercise in my own mind!—the students described an infinitely recurring series of geometric shapes. They then surmised, correctly according to Mr. Peña, that it was used to exemplify the infinite power of God,” Commissioner Pai recounted at the D.C. hearing.  “I’m pretty confident that those kids did not just hear, but learned—that they will retain more knowledge thanks to a technology-based approach. After leaving Mr. Peña’s classroom, he met with SFIAM parents, along with Principal, Institute officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, the California Emerging Technology Fund and School2Home partner, the Youth Policy Institute.  “The parents told me that the school’s embrace of technology has had a huge and positive impact on their children. The others suggested that there was even more they could do with a modernized E-Rate program,“ he said.

 

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn visited Muir Middle School, where she toured three classrooms to observe how the middle school students were using tablet computers, providing real-world examples of the importance of broadband in learning.  Principal Kurt Lowry and Muir teachers described how the School2Home program improves student research skills and learning self-sufficiency, in addition to promoting student collaboration and student-teacher communication.  The Commissioner also visited with “Mouse Squad” students who meet after-school to learn how to troubleshoot basic IT problems to help their classmates and teachers when they encounter problems. 

The Commissioner participated in discussions with leaders from Los Angeles Unified School District, School2Home partner LA‘s Promise, and the California Emerging Technology Fund.  The leaders spoke about the critical need for affordable home broadband for low-income students so students can do their homework, collaborate with other students and ask questions of their teachers after school hours.  CETF said there are very few discount broadband offers available in low- income communities in Los Angeles, which greatly disadvantages students seeking to improve their academic performance.

During the FCC workshop examining broadband a few days later, the Commissioner described the enthusiasm of Muir teachers and students over the arrival of tablet computers for each student, and noted to the gathered policymakers that urban schools have as much need for access to affordable broadband as rural schools. 

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