Bridging the digital divideFor reasons of fairness, the lottery will reset each school term
Edmonds School Board had a challenging task before it Tuesday evening: bridging the ever-growing digital divide between students with and without Internet access at home, without further widening the gap or alienating those on the wrong side.
Board members carefully weighed the pros and cons of a district-wide e-mail system that would assign an e-mail account to every student from kindergarten through 12th grade, on an opt-out basis, and directed Kim Mathey, Manager of Instructional Technology, to research other issues that came up during Tuesday’s discussion.
Mathey and her staff have already gathered details, both pro and con, from neighboring districts that have student e-mail systems in place.
How to access those accounts with no computer or Internet at home? Next before the board Tuesday evening was the district’s notebook computer surplus program.
State law allows districts to surplus older notebook computers, no longer in use but still with some mileage left on them, for donation to students whose families cannot afford them, Stewart Mhyre, Executive Director of Business and Operations told the board.
Three hundred such models are available so far this year, with 150 to be ready for student use Dec. 14, and another 150 on Feb. 28.
The nonprofit Edmonds Public Schools Foundation will assist in readying the computers for student use, notifying potential recipient families, processing applications and organizing the program so all in need have an equal chance at the limited number available.
A recent informal survey by district personnel showed that around 86 percent of district students have both a computer in their homes, and regular Internet access for schoolwork details and communicating with teachers.
Pollsters estimate from those numbers, that about 2,000 district students would benefit from the notebook computer distribution program.
Even the informal survey highlighted potential unfairness in the computer allocations, as boardmember Ann McMurray pointed out: it was conducted in English and Spanish; however district students speak several different languages in their homes, putting some of those who could most benefit from the free computer at a distinct disadvantage in an English and Spanish-based first-come-first-served notification system.
Those students’ families may have to wait a few extra days for whomever helps them translate information from the district, she said.
Boardmembers discussed a lottery system in which those applying – and qualifying – before a specific deadline will be given equal weight in a randomly chosen lottery, so they know if or when they may receive a computer in the upcoming school year.
Students who qualify for free or reduced meals at school are eligible for the computer program. For reasons of fairness, the lottery will reset each school term, ensuring late arrivals and younger students aren’t shut out by a multi-year waiting list.
Hundreds of surplus notebook computers is an obvious asset to financially challenged families, but brings with it its own set of complex issues: District technology staff will sanitize them – wiping the hard drives clean of all data, and installing an operating system, virus protection and any software necessary to access the district’s email and teachers’ various Web sites for homework and other assignment information.
Volunteers will help the students and their families initially, showing them the basics and how to access the district’s web sites, Mhyre said.
Even those students whose families cannot afford Internet access at home can use their notebook computers at various public wi-fi locations, Mhyre said. Volunteers will help get that information out to any applying for the surplus computers, as well as information on a program to obtain notebook computers for a steep discount, for those not lucky enough to be in the first round of giveaways.
The e-mail system, while it brings its own set of complications, is essentially in place already as boardmember Gary Noble pointed out; many teachers already regularly communicate with students using the students’ private e-mail accounts.
Those tech-savvy teachers will have insight on how to not exclude the students without regular e-mail access at home, he said.
District instructional technology staff is already working out other potential problems.
For example, in a district-wide system the students’ e-mail addresses will have separate domains, with clearly different composition than those assigned to staff, to ensure sleepy fingers don’t accidentally select a student account to receive sensitive information.
Boardmembers also considered the reality that, for various reasons, some students will still not have online or e-mail access, whether for financial limitations, or due to parents who do not want their children accessing the Internet.
Helping those students not feel further isolated from their online peers will be key in ensuring a successful rollout, Noble said.
Boardmembers also said they want to see a detailed breakdown of cost and time estimates, to intelligently weight the e-mail system with other district needs.