The Problem With Expecting Student Access

California state map polygonal with spotlights placesI’ve lived in California all my life, from Southern California to the Central Coast to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Urban and suburban California: the home of Silicon Valley. Birthplace of Apple, Facebook, and everyone’s favorite edtech company, Google. Rural California provides an astonishing amount of food for the United States. Did you know that if you eat a fig, strawberry, or almond it was probably grown in California? The lifestyle and the infrastructure of these regions is vastly different from one another.

This wide variety of lifestyle, income, and infrastructure can get in the way of student access to learning or our assessment of our students. When flipping the classroom, for example, students gain knowledge away from the classroom through video, text selections, podcasts, etc., and engage in deeper thinking during the school day, when they have access to their peers and their teachers. Other classrooms provide instruction through Google Apps for Education. The variety of tools for collaboration and research is broad. Teachers can put together HyperDocs – linked apps with instruction, video, activities, ability to explore a topic on a Chromebook through curated web links. There is more and more pressure to eliminate as many non-digital learning activities as possible, both at home and in the classroom.

But what about those students who don’t have the ability to watch videos, listen to podcasts, or load a content-rich website at home? Teaching in a rural area opened my eyes to the students who don’t participate in the digital world when they are outside of school. In an increasingly digitized classroom, it’s important to consider these tech-less students. While their peers who have access to high speed internet and tech spend an awful lot of time practicing digital fluency in social media (and yes, that is definitely practice), the tech-less kids spend their free time away from a keyboard. With this awareness, I ask myself some questions when choosing instructional materials and assessments.

Do all of my families have computers? Do they have tablets or cell phones with data plans? A surprising number of families still don’t have computers or access to the internet at home. Many of my high schoolers didn’t have a device they could hook up to internet to look at websites or watch videos. Forget connectivity for a moment- Do all of my families even have a home? Homelessness doesn’t always look like sleeping on the street or in cars. Often it’s moving from couch to couch with few possessions. When your life is that stripped down a computer doesn’t always make the cut.

man with no network tabletDo all of my families live in an area that provides the infrastructure necessary to use technology? I worked with a family that had no access to e-mail at home because the only internet available in their area was dial up. It just isn’t worth the cost to the broadband providers in that area to set up broadband access. There are computer labs and public libraries, but again there needs to be infrastructure in place. For my most rural students, the public bus stop was miles from their home and ran each direction once per day: early morning and late at night, so using the library wasn’t really a practical choice for them. What alternatives to completing online assignments at home can I provide these students?

Does the family have the means or motivation to make educational use of technology at home a priority? I taught a student on home hospital for a couple of weeks not long ago. She had high speed internet, but it came with a data cap. I wanted her to look up a video, but first she had to check the family’s data usage for the month. Streaming videos and podcasts use up data really quickly. We hope that families would prioritize videos for instruction over The Walking Dead, but in the end that’s a family’s decision. If it’s the end of the billing cycle and a family has used up their data allotment, that instructional video isn’t going to get air time in the home. What sites can I direct these students to that eat up less data while providing the needed content?

In the end, unequal access to technology before kindergarten shows up as a deficit in skills by high school. When looking at my students’, the ones who had regular access to technology tended to have better typing skills: around 20-30 words per minute. Those without access at home typed much slower: often under 10 words per minute. This lack of familiarity with the keyboard makes the writing process harder: it doesn’t allow for continuity of thought if it takes one minute to type a simple sentence. It makes technology-based activities unpleasant and embarrassing for the student, killing engagement. When doing a homework assignment it can take these students twice or three times longer to complete a written assignment online than their more fluent peers. One solution some of my students found was to write shorter responses in simpler sentences when asked to submit an assignment online. Old fashioned pen and paper (or skits, or art projects, or welding projects, or…) gave me a better idea of what these students had learned.

Students do need to become fluent in computer and mobile technology use. Technology in the workforce and socially is only going to become more prevalent. We need to help students get access and practice using technology throughout the school day from a young age, and support programs that get technology and infrastructure into all homes. But our first job is to teach the student, not the technology. Can this child think deeply? What if they can show us their critical thinking through handwriting or some other means, but they aren’t able to do so (yet) using a computer? Are we assessing their thinking or are we assessing their privilege? We need to allow students to demonstrate their thinking in a variety of ways. Yes, use technology. Help these students improve their fluency with apps and keyboarding. But allow them other, “analog” ways to demonstrate their learning, too.

As we start this school year we should be thinking about equal and equitable access for all our kids, and we can no longer pretend that the internet is something they all share equally.

[Ed. Note- Dr Darryl Adams shared some of the ways his district got around the infrastructure problems in this talk from the CUE Super Symposium in 2015. It’s worth your fifteen minutes.]


Anne Lafferty is a special education teacher who has been working in schools for 15 years from pre-school to postsecondary. She has worked her way up the coast of California and to the east, currently living in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where she plans to stay put. She is about to start her tenth year teaching, this time in primary grades. She’s a big fan of getting kids out of their seats and playing, no matter the age. You can find her on Twitter @MsLafferty

1 thought on “The Problem With Expecting Student Access”

  1. I agree that there has to be a balance with digital and analog learning. I teach in an urban area and while the infrastructure for high-speed internet is available, many students to not access to the technology beyond the realms of the classroom. Not to mention there are not enough devices for daily student access.

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