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Home / Blog / CRUNCHED: Understanding Our Digital Divide and Pushing for Better Locally

CRUNCHED: Understanding Our Digital Divide and Pushing for Better Locally

CRUNCHED!, OUSD      May, 2020     

Part I: Understanding Our Digital Divide

We’ve known for ages that there is a digital equity issue in America, between those who have easy and stable access to computers and internet and those who do not — the digital divide. The federal E-Rate program has been around since 1996 to increase connectivity in schools and libraries in areas that were underserved, mainly low-income and/or rural. Although the E-Rate program has made some progress, there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done. It’s 2020, and this inequity has been thrust to the forefront for families since 90% of the U.S. has transitioned to online distance learning.

Internet Access in Oakland
Tech Exchange’s computer and broadband access in Oakland map shows how device and internet access in Oakland varies sharply by geographic regions, following historically under-invested areas.

Figure 1. Maps showing computer (top map) and broadband (bottom map) access distribution across Oakland.
Source: Tech Exchange

On the ground, we’re hearing from parents and teachers in Oakland that students are struggling to access the new world of distance learning due to physical barriers like driving to family members’ homes once a week to download homework (lack of internet) or because they are limited to doing all of their learning on cell phones (lack of compatible devices).  These impacted students, most of which are students of color or from lower-income households, are losing out on critical educational opportunities, potentially exacerbating the already significant proficiency gap (which can have a domino effect on how many students are academically ready by the end of high school).

Trends I’m Seeing
Here are five trends I’ve noticed while researching this issue and how it affects Oakland:

  • Broader awareness of the issue. EdTrust West’s statewide parent poll shows that “38% of low-income families and 29% of families of color are concerned about access to distance learning because they don’t have reliable internet at home.” As the majority of the country moves towards distance learning, the existing digital divide is gaining more attention and champions from national figures like Arne Duncan to local press.
      • What does this mean for Oakland? Because our communities’ digital gaps have received national and local attention, we’re seeing accelerated efforts to bring in long overdue funding that will support the most impacted students and families.
  • But do we even know the scope of the issue? When I first dipped into figuring out the percentage of Oakland students (estimated or projected) that lack adequate devices, I was shocked by how greatly estimates vary for Oakland (from 10% to 32% to local estimates of 50%). There’s also another layer of complexity considering the differing needs between students that are totally disconnected (no devices and/or no internet) and those that are under-connected (limited access to devices and/or internet).
      • What does this mean for Oakland? It’s hard to tackle the digital divide without accurate, shared information that the community can coalesce around to drive collective solutions.
  • Lack of substantial coordinated effort. Beyond the national call for FCC to make internet free for low-income families (sign the national petition here, and shout-out to Dirk from Great School Voices for leading Oakland’s win with Comcast), there isn’t a strong coordinated effort to bridge the digital divide. The California Department of Education (CDE) created Closing the Digital Divide Task Force to tackle this problem via coordination and raising resources, but they’ve only hosted their first hearing with internet providers last week.
      • What does this mean for Oakland? Absent a strong, coordinated statewide effort, it feels like every LEA for themselves, and whichever tech company/nonprofit/foundation they’ve been able to leverage through their networks. This lack of statewide leadership is problematic because it reinforces existing inequities. Just like smaller or less well-connected businesses have a harder time weathering uncertain economic times, districts with less social or single-site charters are left to their own devices (idiomatically and literally) to help families acclimate to distance learning. Thankfully, the #OaklandUndivided campaign is aiming to provide coordinated leadership.
  • Internet is the other half of the physical barrier. Hardware (i.e. electronic devices) is only half of the physical battle — strong, dependable internet is the other half. From local testimonies, we know there are many challenges low-income families face to access “free” internet offerings: many don’t know about the opportunities out there (knowledge gap), there’s a limited number of participating internet providers servicing different neighborhoods (low availability), there are long wait times for translated customer service (language barriers), and there are financial demands to provide payment information, like credit cards and social security numbers (socioeconomic and status barriers).
      • What does this mean for Oakland? We need more free hotspots  in the community, or we need universal free internet for all low-income families.
  • Yes, AND the conversation needs to focus beyond devices and internet. Right now, the conversations around the digital divide are hyper-focused on physical barriers, i.e. how to get devices and hotspots to parents. But, there are other barriers to participation, like changing family dynamics and responsibilities (everyone is now at home!), the growing feeling of isolation that makes many students feel disengaged, the need for technical assistance for families, and the need for professional development for teachers to redesign their lessons for distance learning.
      • What does this mean for Oakland? Professional development for teachers is ongoing for some schools, but there isn’t much data around other barriers, like the percentage of kids who feel disengaged. This suggests that it’s not a priority on folks’ radars or that we don’t have the internal data infrastructure to generate numbers to share with public.

In the second part of this blog, I share a few ideas for how we can advocate for better local digital systems.


Part II: Pushing for Better Locally

Since the traditional CA School Dashboard indicators have been thrown out the window for 2019-20 thanks to COVID-19, we need new indicators to provide insight into students’ academic and culture/climate progress while at home. As referenced above in Part I, there’s no definitive number or estimate for the percentage of Oakland students who lack adequate access to the internet or technology (ranges from 10% to 32%).

That said, the digital divide is an issue that goes beyond who does or who doesn’t have devices and internet access (despite Oxford Dictionary’s definition as a largely physical issue). It’s a multi-layer challenge, one that needs different levels of metrics to capture engagement and progress, like:

1. How many students have regular, consistent access to adequate devices and internet?
2. How many students are logging on?
3. How many students are logging on at least a couple times a week?
4. How many students are actively participating in lessons and materials?
5. How many students are handing in work on-time?
6. How many students are making academic progress during this transition period, preferably gap-closing progress?

Right now, we’re mainly getting information around the first layer of the question: physical access. The data nerd in me wanted to know metrics for the next layers down. You can’t pinpoint the barriers for students at each level if you’re not tracking data to get detailed insight into the struggles they’re facing every day!

My colleague, Daneen Keaton, pointed out in a recent email that school systems in their pre-corona state haven’t historically worked for our students of color and those living in poverty. This is evident in recent SBAC data, which shows that less than 30% of black and brown students are reading at grade level and less than 20% are doing math at grade level.

In many ways, we’re living in a moment of radical reframing and restructuring for our education system, and we now have the opportunity to close long-existing learning gaps by better serving the most vulnerable students and families in our communities. That said, we can’t measure our progress unless 1) we have data systems set up to provide more information about the extent of the digital divide (answering the above questions on multi-layers of access) and 2) we provide this data publicly so that we’re working together as community instead of working on these efforts in silos (in contrast to the statewide trend we’re currently seeing).

Given the absence of coordinated statewide efforts and the massive needs facing our education ecosystem, numerous local initiatives are stepping in to assist Oakland students. Here are some ways you can help support these causes:

  • OPEF/OUSD/City of Oakland’s joint #OaklandUndivided campaign: An example of local coordination to close the digital divide in Oakland
  • Tech Exchange’s Tech for All fundraiser: Raising funds to refurbish computers and distribute to Oakland families; they are also looking for tech donations.
  • Change.org National Petition for Free Internet: Strong, dependable internet is the other half of the physical tech divide (especially given the barriers low-income families face to access free internet offers
  • Basic needs: Don’t forget, serving the basic needs of students (i.e. food, rent for shelter, etc.) is still a looming challenge that’s lurking in the background behind this entire digital divide issue. Worrying about internet access decreases when you’re busy stressing out over shelter stability and where tonight’s meal comes from.

In doing my part to help my Oakland community bridge the digital divide and beyond, I’ve donated my old laptops to Tech Exchange and 1/3 of my stimulus check — will you join me?


My name is Carrie Chan, and I’m Educate78’s data analyst (aka resident data nerd and cruncher). As a former OUSD student, I care a lot about Oakland public schools. This blog series, “Crunched!”, takes a data-driven approach to important, relevant questions facing Oakland public schools, sharing out easily digestible data takeaways. Please email me with ideas, requests, or feedback.


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