The Homework Gap—Latest Wrinkle for Resolving the Digital Divide

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on December 16, 2017

cartoon of a chasmHistorically, the term digital divide referred to a lack of access to hardware and Internet connectivity. Basic technology access is less of an issue today; however, as we have increased the numbers of available devices and Internet-connected schools, we are discovering that solving the digital divide challenge is more complex than making ‘stuff’ available. We are discovering that, in addition to connectivity issues on campus, we also must address students’ use of technology outside the traditional school day, especially as technology-supported homework activities become increasingly common. Failure to attend to this challenge results in a phenomenon called the Homework Gap—a situation where, for a variety of reasons, students lack sufficient connectivity to complete assignments and then, in some instances, are penalized for not getting their homework done. What do mindful educators need to think about as they consider the current status of the digital divide off-campus and how it might be impacting teaching and learning?

False assumptions

It’s not uncommon for educators to form false assumptions about students’ access to technology at home based on information provided by parents and students themselves. This often happens when students and/or parents are asked questions in surveys or other data collection activities that fail to get at the information educators actually need. For example, it’s not enough to know that a student has home access to a tablet device that is used 30 minutes daily. It’s also necessary to know what type and model of tablet, what operating system it is running, how it connects to the internet, its screen size, if there are peripherals (e.g., a keyboard) and if the student is sharing the device with one or more other people as well as what the student is doing while using the device. The same is true for laptops, desktop computers, and smartphones. These specifics are needed to fully understand the quality of students’ off-campus connectivity.

There are similar concerns related to Internet connectivity. If there’s home access, what type and how robust is the network? If there’s no home access, where do students need to be to get online and is it possible for them to get there? If they are relying on a data plan for connectivity, can the plan support the required work and what is the monthly data allowance? Is the plan shared with other devices?

Equity concerns off campus often result in students not being able to complete homework as assigned or in them having to go to extreme lengths to keep up with their work. Students who are sharing a device with other family members or who have limited or no Internet connectivity at home may want to do their work, but not be able to due to circumstances beyond their control. Not only does this hurt them academically, but may have detrimental impacts on family relationships.

Quick fixes aren’t the solution

What can educators do to resolve Homework Gap concerns? Arriving at solutions requires effort and flexibility along with a recognition that quick fixes may take care of problems in the short-term, but are not ongoing solutions. For example, you may have heard about schools that enter partnerships with companies that will provide tablets with free 3G or 4G connectivity for one year or some type of WiFi hot spot. This is a generous offer that may immediately address lack of Internet access at home, but what happens at the end of the year? Typically, schools that take advantage of this kind of donation cannot afford to assume the cost of these accounts at the end of the year. With no back-up plan, users are reduced to relying on limited WiFi connections resulting in little or no use of the devices off campus.

Ongoing solutions require a lot of work and ingenuity. One way to begin might be to seek out agencies, organizations, and schools within the community that might be willing to partner with you to design long-term solutions. For example, Next Century Cities supports mayors and city leaders who are willing to partner with local businesses and schools to bring affordable Internet to local residents. Another possibility may be to work with local your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to learn about affordable options for families that cannot afford expensive Internet packages. It may be necessary to negotiate short-term immediate connectivity solutions such as access to WiFi networks at the public library or an after-school program, but if this is the case, be clear from the beginning that it is a temporary solution and plan for how you will follow-up with a more permanent solution.

Given the information above, how does the Homework Gap impact your students and what permanent solutions can you identify that could help your student bridge this new aspect of the digital divide?

N.B. The information provided above originally appeared as part of a longer article on digital divide issues in Today’s Catholic Teacher Magazine (Winter 2017).




Future Ready Assessment: A head start towards personalized learning

Posted by Gabe Soumakian on July 19, 2016

The 7 gears of Future Ready Schools
The 7 gears of Future Ready schools

Often, we hear administrators tout their success with technology innovation by pointing to the number of 1-to-1 devices deployed in their schools.  At the same time, we hear it is “not about the technology” but rather it is changes in the teaching and learning process that transform our students as 21st century learners. Although there is a major shift toward digital transformation and innovation in our schools, administrators need to understand how to connect the dots and develop a comprehensive implementation plan that impacts student learning.

A good place to begin the process—or to validate that the district is headed in the right direction—is to have the leadership team collectively take the Future Ready (FR) assessment tool. The report from this tool will identify critical gaps as well as help guide you in the development of an effective implementation plan to fill those gaps.

This collaborative process of taking the FR assessment provides a professional learning opportunity to build the leadership capacity within your team. Your leadership team will benefit from this process and understand the major implementation shifts and design elements for appropriate technology solutions.  Through the assessment dashboard, your team will discover where your district is on the continuum for digital conversion, identify gaps, access strategies, and review your progress toward the development of a robust technical and human infrastructure.

What innovative leaders will learn from this process is the need to move beyond 21st century learning skills toward a personalized learning environment that prepares students for college, career, and life readiness.  Linking learning in the classroom to a real world setting makes the learning relevant and brings life to the curriculum so that students are engaged and feel connected to their future career paths.

Begin the process at!  First, the district superintendent must take the Future Ready pledge.  Then, take the FR assessment.  Review the report as a team, then move your efforts to the next level by taking advantage of the resources available at the Future Ready Hub, especially the regional workshops.  Using this model will bring administrators in your region together to examine the data and connect your district with other leadership teams who can collectively move forward on the personalized learning continuum.


Future Ready Learning: The new national ed tech plan

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on June 24, 2016

Cover of Future Ready Learning planThe first National Education Technology Plan, Getting American Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, was published in 1996. This is noteworthy because prior to the release of this plan, there was little incentive for schools or other education-related institutions to invest much in the way of time or resources into developing instructional technology plans. The first national plan was built on four goals:

  1. Professional development for teachers
  2. Teacher and student classroom access to up-to-date hardware
  3. Internet connectivity for every classroom
  4. Access to digital learning materials

This early document became a catalyst for the American public to change its thinking regarding the impact technology might have on instruction. The next three plans—published in 2000, 2004, and 2010—incorporated these goals and introduced additional topics including assessment, leadership, integrated data systems, productivity, and funding. However, the 1996 plan is held up as having had the greatest impact on K-12 education—probably because federal funding for education technology was made available in conjunction with the plan’s release. Now, twenty year later, the US Department of Education has released the fifth National Educational Technology Plan.

Entitled Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education, this latest plan incorporates five focus areas. They are:

  1. Learning—Engaging and Empowering Learning through Technology
  2. Teaching—Teaching With Technology
  3. Leadership—Creating a Culture and Conditions for Innovation and Change
  4. Assessment—Measuring for Learning
  5. Infrastructure—Enabling Access and Effective Use

These five areas support expansion of topics included in previous plans, but also allow for conversations not included in earlier documents. For example, the first focus area (Learning) features a discussion about something called the digital use divide. This is an access gap that’s created when some students’ use of technology is limited to consuming existing content while others are encouraged to use technology to support their own learning by creating content. The digital use divide has been recognized for quite some time, but not referred to specifically in prior plans.

A new twist on digital divide issues is broached in the fifth focus area (Infrastructure). In this case, it’s the need for students to have access to high-speed Internet at school and at home. Educators know that schools often struggle to provide reliable high-speed connectivity, but it’s important to remember that more than one-half of low-income students under the age of 10 don’t have any Internet access at home and even more have inadequate access. We’ve told ourselves that these students can use smartphones or get online at a friend’s home or the local library, but it’s just not the same as high-speed connectivity in every home.

And finally, the importance of leadership is heavily emphasized in this plan. This emphasis is tied directly to a related national initiative called Future Ready Schools, which promotes transformation of teaching and learning through access to—and effective use of—technology. In order to provide these kinds of teaching and learning environments, district (and site) leaders must be fully engaged in their planning and implementation. The TICAL project is a regional partner of Future Ready Schools, providing assistance to education leaders in and outside of California.

Based on the fact that previous plans have impacted design and implementation of instructional technology programs throughout the U.S. and it’s likely that this new plan will also influence future developments in education technology.  I urge you to read and use the ideas presented in the plan to broaden and update the discussion about the role of technology in education, specifically within your school or district. You may also want to watch TICAL’s Quick Take on the 2016 National Education Technology Plan.


OER—What’s this all about?

Posted by Geoff Belleau on December 20, 2015

A bunch of pennies“A Penny saved is a penny earned”…or something like that is what my grandma used to tell me. In life, it’s conventional wisdom to make your funds stretch as far a possible. Businesses get it.  People eating peanut butter or ramen right before payday get it. Schools get it too. Even now, as resources are starting to flow back into schools, we’re trying to stretch our funds, and one way that global education has been doing that is with Open Educational Resources.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.” (

Education stateside is starting to take notice. In the fall of 2015, the US Department of Education released it’s #GoOpen campaign to encourage acceptance of OER. Many States have invested resources in platforms to help educators curate OER. In the ESSA update, Title IV can be used, among other things, to increase access to personalized learning experience supported by technology making instructional content available through OER. This can include providing tools and processes to support local educational agencies in making such resources widely available.

Internationally OER has gained traction. In 2012, two teachers “wrote” an algebra book one weekend. The effort expanded to include other complete textbooks. One of the strongest testimonies to the effectiveness of OER came from Italy where students were forbidden from starting their courses early using the OER course materials for fear that they would finish the course before it started.

Also in 2012, California passed landmark legislation, Senate Bills 1052 and 1053, which provides for developing a list of 50 lower  division courses for which digital open source text books and related material shall be developed and/or acquired, as well as creating a process in which faculty, publishers, and other interested parties may apply for funds to develop open source textbooks. (See examples.)

One of the premier teacher training programs on integration of technology for teachers, admin, and professional developers is Leading Edge Certification. LEC is complete built and shared on the Creative Commons Platform and a great example of OER.

For educators, OER can have an impact on instructional delivery and student learning immediately in at least two ways.

  •  When looking for supplemental instructional resources. Teachers often need additional strategies and resources for “find another way for a student to learn.” They might have already tried the traditional way, the way the curriculum suggested, the way the grade level team or other department teachers suggested, or even the way they learned the particular topic themselves, but the students still don’t “have it”. Instead of just googling it, a well curated OER process/system can help filter them to what they need to help their students. Maybe it’s a course half way around the globe that has what they need!
  • When searching for appropriate non-fiction text. Current text is hard to come by. OER allows teachers to access what they need for their students. One note of consideration, however, is how OER will be reviewed and vetted.  The traditional material review process is slow at best. After submitting the resource, waiting for it to go on an agenda, go through review committee and then onto the board agenda and approval after discussion, the currency of the material may well be gone. By the same token, if inappropriate resources are used with students, even with the best of intentions, serious consequences may result. No one likes explaining that to CNN. Reviewing your process and procedures for selecting and using open educational resources time well spent.

Yes grandma, a penny saved is, indeed, a penny earned. Saving or redirecting funds saved by using OER truly does help students live in the rapidly changing world!


What can BYOD programs learn from cycling events?

Posted by Geoff Belleau on October 31, 2015

“No child left offline.”Smart phone on bicycle handlebars

That is the challenge California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction has put to schools in our state. All students and teachers should have access to an electronic device that will connect them to the Internet. How in the world can this happen? One possible solution is “bring your own device”—or BYOD as it’s commonly known.

Over the past few months I have participated in several organized cycling events. One was to raise money for diabetes. The other, the “Tour de Tahoe,” was for a similar purpose and took us all the way around Lake Tahoe. In both events, a group of people got together and rode for a cause, for fitness and for fun.

Parallels abound

I see parallels between BYOD for computing and for cycling. Obviously, in both cases you bring your own equipment! But more importantly, BYOD is about the experience and not about the device. In the Tour de Tahoe, there were expensive bikes and cheap bikes. There were people with lots of experience and expertise and others who looked like they had just jumped on their bikes for the first time. Those who are novices have a harder time than those who are “in-shape.”

In both situations, lots of things are assumed. In the cycling event, there were no directions on how to get around the lake, how to ride a bike, or how to put your helmet on.  Similar expectations tend to apply when we ask students to bring their own computing devices to school. We assume that if they own them, they know how to use them.

Both involve issues of equity. Like bicycles, computing devices vary in features, style, power, and capabilities. Users vary in their own abilities which may dictate specialized equipment; in our Tahoe event,  one gentlemen “pedaled” around the lake with his arms, rather than of his legs, and had a partner who rode with him to make sure he was always seen, since he was only about six inches off the road surface! Equity also suggests we need to provide devices for those participants who do not, in fact, own their own.

Planning is key to success

Finally, BYOD in either case needs planning, organization and coordination to succeed. In the Tour de Tahoe, everyone knew the cyclists would be out there. There were rest stops and Support and Gear (SAG) vehicles to help give worn out cyclists a ride when needed. BYOD in schools requires similar advance planning and special arrangements such as solid WiFi and good policy to keep everyone safe and allow students and educators to communicate, create, and collaborate in school as effectively as they do when they are outside the doors of their school.

Remember it is about the journey, not the device, and the trip around the lake is always more fun and safer with a friend.