Ensure Equitable Access to Technology and Online or Blended Instruction
This spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic grew and more schools and districts ceased in-person instruction, teachers, students and parents had to pivot quickly to remote learning — often without the technology tools, internet access or training they needed to do so. “One thing became abundantly clear: The internet is as necessary as electricity and plumbing for our daily lives; a connection to the world outside our homes is vital to our economy, our education system and our way of life,” noted Kentucky’s Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
States, districts and schools are creating calendars, schedules and reopening plans that anticipate the need to shift to online or blended instruction that meets the needs of students of different grade levels and students in special education.
Making the shift to online or blended instruction has implications beyond the use of edtech or access to 1:1 devices and the internet. States, districts and schools must consider issues of equity and access to technology resources in addition to pedagogy, instruction and training.
SREB offers the following five actions states, districts and schools can take to ensure that teachers, students and parents have the technology tools, services and training they need to engage in quality teaching and learning in any setting.
1. Inventory existing learning management systems or platforms, devices and access to broadband internet or Wi-Fi networks.
To gain a clear understanding of the technology resources needed to support online teaching and learning, districts and schools can begin by conducting a technology inventory. Districts should consider convening a technology committee composed of the district’s information technology director and representatives from each school in the district, including a cross-section of teachers and school leaders.
- Review available learning management systems or platforms first. Is there a common LMS used throughout the district, such as Blackboard, Canvas or Google Classroom, or are multiple LMSs used? Is the system used by all teachers or only a few? Do students access and use resources in the LMS, and if so, how often? Create a summary that illustrates which systems are used, by whom and to what extent. Use it to determine which LMSs are working well and should be maintained and which are not serving teachers and students well.
Members of SREB’s K-12 Education Recovery Task Force reported that in the earliest days of the pandemic, some district and school leaders found that teachers and students who used an LMS during the year made an easier transition to online learning. However, many families were frustrated by the need to use multiple platforms and log-in credentials for each of their children, especially with younger students.
- Identify how schools connect and communicate with students and families. Has the district validated contact information in its student information system? Is the system used to communicate with students and families, such as through mailed resources and automated calls? Which web-based resources — like Zoom, Facebook Meetups, Microsoft Teams or GoToMeeting — support video conferencing, real-time meetings or classroom instruction? How often were these tools used during spring school closures? Which students, families and teachers used them well? Are appropriate credentials, license agreements and security and privacy protections to use these tools in place?
- Take an access and equity approach to reviewing the number, location, age and functionality of available 1:1 devices, such as laptops, desktops and tablets. Create a spreadsheet that lists which devices are available, by school and grade level, and whether each staff member and student has a device they can use at home. Outline the potential costs of ongoing maintenance and replacement. Validate that devices for students meet E-rate guidelines for protection measures that filter and monitor inappropriate content. Review procedures for assigning devices to students and staff.
- Assess and catalogue the district’s broadband internet and Wi-Fi network capacity. The success of online or blended teaching and learning depends not only on the district’s capacity to support increased internet usage in and around schools, but also to support access to learning resources in students’ and staff members’ homes. How strong is the district’s network? Does existing bandwidth meet the needs of staff and students in remote rural communities or poor urban neighborhoods? If bandwidth is inadequate, does the district provide hotspots or mobile Wi-Fi devices to those who need them? How are devices distributed? Who is responsible for maintaining and troubleshooting the district’s network?
SREB’s task force members recommend that schools and districts consider extending Wi-Fi to locations outside the school, such as parking lots or football stadiums — by placing existing wireless access points closer to school windows or installing outdoor, lockable Wi-Fi hotspots in key locations. This may allow students and families to access the internet to complete schoolwork after hours or on weekends.
- Use the technology inventory process to create a set of findings and recommendations for district leaders that focuses on strengthening the use of technology in the school community and safeguarding existing technology funds. Consider recommendations for:
- Use a centralized mobile device management system for deploying, tracking, troubleshooting, managing the repair process for and protecting the 1:1 devices and the students and teachers who use them from malware, inappropriate sites and “bad actors”
- Re-imagining and rebuilding IT infrastructures in schools to address the need for more bandwidth and the greater reliability and resiliency demanded by the increasing requirements of 1:1 education technology programs
- Adopting and maintaining learning management systems or student information systems
- Identifying potential IT employees and instructional coaches
- Protecting student data
- Providing professional learning for teachers on online and hybrid learning pedagogies
- Supporting students and families using devices and learning online
Louisiana’s Technology for Continuous Learning Guide provides current device options and internet options for students who do not have access at home.
Arkansas has made strong efforts to bring high-speed broadband to all districts. The state also expanded access to alternative methods of instruction by working with Arkansas PBS to create and air educational programs that align with learning guides for grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8.
In a survey of school systems’ chief information officers, Maryland found that providing students with equitable access to devices and the internet must be a top priority. The state’s recovery plan for education includes suggestions for leveraging low-cost remote learning systems and existing devices bought by families to reduce the impact on tight education budgets.
2. Engage state or regional technology advisory committees in developing comprehensive technology plans.
As districts work to expand access to learning management systems, devices and broadband internet for staff, students and families, community shareholders can help district leaders develop comprehensive technology plans that maximize tech use while minimizing expenses.
State or regional technology advisory committees can advocate for expanding access to technology and help identify potential federal or state funding sources. Committees may also serve as collective purchasing agents for schools and districts, creating economies of scale.
- Ensure that state or regional technology advisory committees include students, parents, representatives of government agencies, librarians, civic and faith-based leaders, postsecondary partners, device vendors and leaders of a broad range of utility, telecom, internet, radio, TV and media companies.
- Review district inventories with the state or regional technology advisory committee, using results to spark discussions about expanding access to online or blended learning resources and the internet to families. Identify areas where staff, students and families lack access to free or low-cost broadband internet service and/or cellular data plans. Use the conversation to develop a heat map of free Wi-Fi access points at local businesses or libraries in the community. Ask internet and telecom service providers to add to the map. Consider organizations like Mobile Beacon, which helps schools, libraries, and nonprofits secure affordable, mobile, high-speed internet.
- Tap into the buying power of the state purchasing agreement made possible by SREB’s partnership with the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. States and districts in SREB’s 16-state compact can take advantage of discounted contracts with selected technology vendors. These single-source agreements have been vetted and do not require a bidding process.
- Use data to engage the committee in developing a regional technology expansion plan to:
- Expand regional access to broadband internet service and Wi-Fi, including placing new towers and expanding access options for rural areas
- Identify local businesses offering free public Wi-Fi that can serve as access points for staff, students and families in need
- Provide training and support to families in efficiently using technology tools
- Partner with regional service providers to offer free or low-cost internet to families
- Use advisory committee conversations to determine if districts and internet providers can partner to offer free or low-cost service to families. Review state guidelines for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to determine if they can be used to expand internet access. Some states have invested a portion of their ESSER funds to provide districts with Wi-Fi hotspots at no cost. E-rate funds could also potentially be used to offset costs. Consideration should also be given to using CARES Act funds to expand access to learning management systems, devices and broadband or Wi-Fi access.
- Consider partnering with technology vendors to deploy tech bundles that include a broad range of necessary services — such as training, repair, updates and helpdesk functions — as a combined, sustainable and ongoing IT utility expense per student, per year.
- Coordinate the logistical elements of the district’s comprehensive technology plan as a partnership between district IT staff and tech vendors. Plans should include schedules for prepping and testing equipment, software and configurations and offering just-in-time training as devices are being deployed to teachers and students.
Consider contracting with outsourced helpdesk services to support teachers, students and parents. An outsourced helpdesk may be less expensive than hiring and training in-house helpdesk staff as well as more likely to include multi-lingual support. Connectivity and initial sign-on issues prevent many students from completing online assignments. Outsourced helpdesks can work together with district IT staff to solve systemic issues like these more efficiently and at lower cost.
The University of Arkansas hosts a crowd-sourced map of open or public Wi-Fi locations across the state that illustrates areas of no, low or high coverage around school communities.
Florida’s Distance Learning Guide includes a list of free and low-cost internet and communications providers.
Delaware has applied for a waiver to use CARES Act funds to invest in the technology infrastructure needed to support online learning.
3. Engage an online and blended learning committee in assessing available edtech tools and online learning resources and safeguarding students and staff.
Learning management systems, software applications and web-based apps like Linoit, Padlet, Desmos, BrainPOP, Google Earth and Google Translate are all useful tools for engaging students in or out of the classroom, but only if teachers and students have access to and know how to use them. District personnel can help school leaders and teachers identify the edtech tools and online learning resources available to them and spotlight areas of need.
- Create an online and blended learning committee composed of teachers, school leaders and district IT and content experts. Consider including postsecondary partners with expertise in online teaching and learning. Survey teachers and students about which systems, tools and resources they used in the spring. Consider these questions:
Sample Survey Questions
|What professional development did you receive to support you in developing and delivering lessons online this spring?||How frequently did you participate in lessons or discussions or review instructional videos online this spring?|
|How did you facilitate lessons? Did you use a state or district learning management system or a platform like Zoom, Google Classroom, EdModo, Moodle or Canvas?||How did you access online lessons or videos? Did you use an online learning system or platform like Google Classroom? Did you use this system before this spring?|
|Were podcasts, screencasts, video conferencing platforms or public TV broadcasts available to you as a resource?||What online tools or applications helped you learn the most? Examples include Flipgrid, BrainPOP, Kahoot! or Google Translate.|
|What edtech resources or web-based apps did you use to engage students?||Did you have opportunities to work in a group with other students?|
|How did you collect and provide feedback on student work?||How did you receive feedback on your work?|
|Describe the online lessons that were the most successful.||Describe the online lessons that were the most successful.|
|List the three biggest obstacles to teaching in an online or blended environment.||List the three biggest obstacles to learning online.|
- Use survey results to outline the platforms, tools and online resources used most often by teachers and students. SREB created a simple summary table that districts or schools can use to chart available tools and resources, noting their availability, frequency of use, strengths and challenges. District IT leaders and online and blended learning committee members should probe whether these tools and resources are available and accessible to all, including students with special needs, English language learners and students who require Tier 2 or Tier 3 instructional supports. Do tools and resources foster discussion, teamwork and feedback? Do 1:1 devices support the use of these tools? Do teachers have appropriate licenses and authorization to use them?
- Use the survey and summary table to identify the top three to five online tools and resources that supported instruction and collaboration in the spring, as well as potential best practices for using these tools to enhance online or blended learning for different grade bands and student populations. Which tools had the biggest impact on engagement and learning, especially students with special needs, English language learners and students who require Tier 2 or Tier 3 instructional support?
- Cross-check the list of top tools and resources against federal, state and district data security policies and privacy laws to ensure staff and student safety and guard against cyber-attacks.
- Review the process for offering IT support to teachers, students and parents. Can teachers, students and parents access IT support to solve technology challenges while not in school? How are routine maintenance checks and software updates made when schools are closed?
- Provide time and resources for IT leaders to train all teachers about cybersecurity and safeguarding student information. Use trainings as a time to review and check antivirus software and enable multi-factor authentication on teachers’ devices and accounts. Share instructions for strengthening password protections on teachers’ home networks. Review data privacy laws and highlight the importance of safeguarding student information in online or blended learning settings, in emails or in text or video chats.
Virginia received $238.6 million in CARES Act funding — $23.9 million will be used to expand online learning, increase access to technology and develop resources for students, families and schools. Use of the state’s Virtual Virginia learning management system has grown to several hundred thousand students since the start of the pandemic. Students in grades 6–12 can enroll in more than 100 online courses, including AP, world languages, core academics and electives. The system’s outreach program also offers free online learning modules for K-12 educators.
4. Design and implement a professional development plan to support teachers in using technology tools and resources and offering online or blended instruction.
During school closures, some teachers thrived in the quick shift to online instruction while others struggled. Schools and districts have an opportunity to proactively improve the quality of the online and blended instruction they provide next year by analyzing the tools and strategies that worked well in the spring and creating professional development plans that help teachers offer engaging instruction in in-person, online or blended learning settings.
- Ask the district’s online and blended learning committee to design a comprehensive professional development plan based on best practices for using edtech tools and resources. The committee can use the surveys and summary table from Action 3 above to outline what professional learning is needed and identify tech-savvy teachers and leaders who can co-deliver professional learning and serve as edtech expert coaches during the year. Plans should emphasize supports for students with special needs, English language learners and students who require Tier 2 and Tier 3 instructional support.
- Create a professional development calendar with activities by month. Consider this sample:
June: Provide training and support for district and school-based edtech experts. Support experts in developing online and in-person trainings for teachers.
Early July: Offer an initial series of online trainings as a soft launch of the professional development plan. Limit sessions to an hour and engage teachers in using tech through a student lens, identifying when to use tools and any obstacles students may encounter.
Late July/Early August: Begin scheduling in-person and online professional development days and give teachers a formal calendar. Use district and school-based experts as co-facilitators. Consider building sessions around this training sequence:
- Introduce the tool using an authentic classroom topic and aligned standards.
- Unpack a lesson plan that showcases the tool. Address issues students may face.
- Use breakout rooms to engage teacher teams in exploring how to use the tool to support online or face-to-face instruction.
- Ask teacher teams to begin creating a lesson plan using the tool. Schedule follow-up time for teachers to co-plan lessons with an edtech expert.
- Collect feedback on teachers’ understanding and initial use of the tool as well as their technology strengths and weaknesses.
- Use feedback to group teachers in teams. Adopt a tiered approach to providing teams with support and training in the first six weeks of school. Position tech-savvy teachers as an additional source of support. Create a buddy system or weekly co-planning sessions with edtech experts to provide help to struggling teachers.
August/September: Create a weekly schedule of collaborative team meetings — by grade level, department or professional learning community — to plan lessons, review student work and share successes and struggles. Consider alternating face-to-face and online meetings using video conferencing tools, if possible.
Fall and Spring: Continue offering team meetings. Hold monthly best practice showcases in which teachers share how they are using tech tools. Conduct brief student and teacher surveys to gather feedback and use it to design monthly training sessions.
- Design a professional development plan to support high-risk teachers whose health concerns require them to offer instruction online. These teachers need opportunities to engage in professional development, map their progress on curriculum maps or calendars, collaborate in communities of practice and receive support. Determine how training and ongoing support will be provided on the district’s learning management system, video conferencing tools and online curricular resources, tools, software and web apps.
- Create a communication and work plan for all teachers who teach remotely, whether they are at high risk or because schools are required to close due to a recurrence of COVID-19. Set expectations for daily and weekly work schedules, including days and times for:
- Delivering instruction during regular class times
- Offering extra help to individuals or small groups of students
- Collaborating with peers on or off campus
- Participating in professional development
- Connecting regularly with school leaders
The Tennessee Department of Education received almost $260 million in emergency school funds through the CARES Act. Districts like Hamilton County hope to apply some of their share of these funds to technology purchases. Tennessee also partnered with the state’s PBS stations to create over 200 instructional videos for grades K-8. Starting June 6, all six Tennessee PBS stations will offer a Summer Learning Series that brings daily content to students in grades K-3.
5. Provide technology training and support to students and parents.
Task force members report that the transition to online learning this spring was abrupt and stressful for many students and parents. When the new school year begins, schools and districts will need to invest time and resources in helping students and parents use devices, tools and resources effectively.
- Use the district’s professional development plan for teachers as a starting point for a training and support plan for students and parents. Consider conducting a parent survey like the one outlined in Action 3. Student and parent trainings should focus on the top tools and resources identified by the district’s online and blended instruction committee.
- Create a set of five- to seven-minute videos that show parents and students how to use tools, housing them on YouTube and school and district websites and including links in emails, newsletters, on social media and in other communications with the community.
- Deliver training in smaller groups, both online and face-to-face, taking a thoughtful approach to providing new technology experiences that strengthens students’ and parents’ connections to school. Consider following this training sequence:
Sample Five-Session Training Sequence
|How do we connect?||Showcase how students and parents can use their own or district-provided devices to access online resources. Address student privacy and security measures and provide families with instructions on safeguarding against cybersecurity threats. Use this session to introduce students and parents to school administrators, teachers, counselors and special service providers.|
|How do we learn?||Preview the school’s learning management system. Provide instructions and help students and parents log in. Ask teachers to demo key elements of the system and show how to access resources and submit assignments.|
|How do we collaborate?||Demonstrate the school’s video conferencing platform, giving students and parents a chance to log in and explore chat or Q&A functions, how to raise a hand or interact in breakout rooms. Share the school’s commitment to communicating and collaborating online and in person with parents.|
|How do we engage?||Spotlight the tools and resources being used in the classroom or online and how they support learning and engagement.|
|How do we support?||Highlight tools that support struggling students, such as immersive readers or translation software, as well as online and in-person tutoring options.|