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