When the COVID-19 pandemic thrust students and teachers into virtual learning (literally overnight), existing digital inequities were quickly exposed. Matthew Hiefield, a teacher for Beaverton School District, and a member of their Digital Equity and Inclusion Team, shares how their district is addressing these challenges while also seeking out new opportunities to improve learning during the pandemic.
Access to the internet in Beaverton School District was an issue before the pandemic, but once district-wide virtual learning was a reality, connectivity issues were exacerbated. To close this gap, the district mobilized its IT department to put hot spots in the hands of as many students as possible to increase data limits so students could attend Zoom meetings with their teachers. The IT department also expanded the help desk, fielding hundreds of calls from students—in both English and Spanish—to get as many students online as quickly as possible.
The district quickly realized that they needed to reach out to parents and provide foundational training on the basics of digital learning. When they uncovered a geographic area with the highest concentration of connectivity problems, they got creative.
They decided they were not going to let these connectivity issues deter students from learning. They established an outdoor common area at an apartment complex, setting up a projector that displayed lessons on how to connect to and navigate the learning management systems.
Identifying Opportunity Gaps
Several years ago, Beaverton School District started a digital equity brown bag lunch where teachers, administrators, librarians, and others could meet from around the district to discuss the issues their students were facing. Through these meetings, they learned to not just ask if their students had access to the internet, but also what kind of access they have. For some students, their only access was through their parents’ phones, which didn’t provide enough connectivity for them to fully participate in their classes.
This led to another shift of moving away from the term “achievement gap” to talking about “opportunity gaps.” Do students have access to good connectivity and the right technology? And when they do, are they receiving high-quality, engaging curriculum? Beaverton School District has sustained a district focus on using engaging digital curriculum that promotes student collaboration with their teachers and peers. Learn more about Apex Learning digital curriculum in this post.
One school in Beaverton School District hosts a museum on the Civil War and Reconstruction each year within its library. Students work together to create detailed, in-depth presentations, many of which are technology-driven. Normally, at the end of the project, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members visit the museum and ask students questions about their projects.
When schools closed due to the pandemic, there was concern that this project—a great example of promoting collaboration and implementing technology into the classroom—might not happen. Instead, the school successfully converted the project to a virtual museum that maintained the important elements of collaboration and presentation while also engaging with the community.
Among the fundamentals of good teaching is the ability to build strong relationships with students and to create a positive classroom culture—things that can be more difficult in virtual context. Beaverton works closely with its teachers to ensure they can efficiently use tools like Zoom. They also welcome feedback from students to drive adjustments in how they use these tools.
There are many learning management systems and even more ways to use them, but students (and their families) are more likely to succeed if all of their teachers are using the same platforms in a similar way to keep communications and assignments in one organized place. For example, in a previous blog post, we shared how Tucson Unified School District has implemented a district-wide curriculum to streamline their implementation process.
After nearly a year of virtual learning, Matthew shared a few silver linings. They’ve learned that many students actually do much better in virtual environment, and many teachers have upped their digital game.
Although the pandemic has exposed and magnified inequities in education, districts like Beaverton School District are now more aware of these challenges and are pursuing creative ways to close the digital divide to keep students learning – however that looks moving forward.
To listen to the full podcast, visit: https://opportunitythrives.com/.