What Delaware is Doing to Connect Kids

June 12th, 2020

Category: News, Student-Centered Learning

As any parent who’s helped a kid navigate through the bendy digital world of Schoology, DreamBox, or Khan Academy can tell you, digital learning in 2020 is serious business.

Thanks to COVID-19, most Delaware public schools shifted to exclusively remote, online learning for students this spring. And while stakeholders are currently working on ideas for the fall, we can pretty safely assume that remote learning will be a major piece of the back-to-school puzzle.

But can Delaware actually reach all of its students and families with digital learning? We may be closer than people realize—but how we follow up will be just as important.

In a survey conducted by Rodel, 859 Delawareans tagged “Wi-Fi/broadband infrastructure to support remote learning” (53 percent response) as their top short-term need in response to COVID-19. We heard about children having to do their homework from a library parking lot to access a free Wi-Fi because they didn’t have access in their homes.

On average, 17 percent of households in Delaware don’t have access to internet (with some pockets being as high as 30 percent); nine percent of households do not have a device such as a computer, smartphone, or tablet. Many don’t have enough devices for everyone in the household.

In the wake of COVID-19, state officials urged families to contact their district or charter school to discuss internet and computer access needs. Many schools and districts have been proactive about getting devices into the hands of students. Major internet providers like Verizon and Comcast—are offering low-cost options to customers who need help, but those deals won’t last forever.

Thankfully, even before COVID hit, Delaware was working to close the digital gap.

But experts note that internet access is just one of several steps needed to create a truly effective remote learning environment for students.

Access. Last May, Governor Carney and the Delaware Department of Technology and Information (DTI) announced an initiative to eliminate Wi-Fi deserts in rural parts of Kent and Sussex counties, thanks to a partnership with telecom company Bloosurf. It was the latest in a multi-phased, statewide effort undertaken by DTI, which has resulted in millions in investments and 700 miles of fiber-optic network infrastructure stretching from Wilmington to Georgetown. We’re making progress, but as Senator Nicole Poore recently, we still have work to do to get to universal broadband access.

Devices/Support. It’s also expected that state, district, and charter leaders will utilize some of the $43 million dollars in federal stimulus money from the CARES Act to increase internet access and device availability across the state. The Department of Education has committed a portion of its stimulus funding to accelerate the DTI plan. A public-private partnership, called the Delaware Digital Inclusion Partnership (funded by the Delaware Community Foundation‘s COVID Strategic Fund), is also working with DTI to support their efforts and to fill gaps where they can.

However—even if/when every kid in Delaware can hold an iPad and stream TikTok dances at lighting speed, that doesn’t guarantee quality digital learning will unfold. Content filtering, to keep kids safe online—conducted by DTI and the libraries—needs to be in place. Ongoing maintenance, tech support, and replacements need to be staffed and managed. We have some resources in this space: Groups like Nerd It Now and WhyFly are stepping up to help refurbishes computers and provide affordable access, and some have speculated that students studying IT through Delaware’s career pathways could fill this help function.

Districts and charter schools have developed remote learning plans that take into consideration students who may not have internet or computer access. A Delaware CAN analysis of district and charter distance learning plans showed that strategies were all over the map depending on the school.

Content. Assuming the infrastructure is there, we need to make sure the content shared is high quality. In 2019, members of the Rodel Teacher Council researched the state of Open Education Resources (or OER) in Delaware and found that while there are plenty of OER options out there (many teachers use websites like Pinterest or Teachers PayTeachers), they vary in quality and aren’t vetted by any official body to ensure alignment with standards. ​Quality instructional materials can have an impact as large as or larger than the impact of teacher quality on students, according to research from Brookings.

Given that the list of resources online is limitless, and educators’ time is not, why not get some great Delaware educators working this summer to build a curated pool of high quality content and tools?

In an RTC survey, Delaware teachers recommended a curated platform with lesson plans and assessment, as well as digitizing grading. Schoology, a statewide learning management system, could be a place to share what’s working. For example, years ago, the DDOE shared “Delaware Recommended Curriculum Units” created by teachers. In this new world of remote learning, it could be powerful to enlist our teachers to share their best work again.

Training. It’s part of why advocacy groups across the country like Tennessee SCORE are prioritizing professional development for educators with a focus on using technology for instruction in times of social distancing. While teachers are thoroughly trained at teaching their classes the same material at the same time and same place, SCORE says, they may be less familiar with teaching for “asynchronous learning,” which allows students to flexibly access content, assignments, and support at their own pace.

With some kids downloading class content at 10 p.m., and others wanting to engage “synchronously” in real time, educators are working to discern how much time on a screen makes sense and what formats will work. Building some shared tools and strategies statewide would seem to make sense so that individual teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel night after night.

As most things COVID-related, there remain more questions than answers. But it’s clear that closing the digital divide will require a layered approach—and just as much art as science. There are at least two collaborative groups working on the issue, and DDOE’s statewide working group will be sharing its research and recommendations over the summer, with some initial recommendations expected in early July.

This crisis has laid bare a set of deep inequities that not only have implications for education, but healthcare and economic development. Universal internet access is foundational to addressing all of them. If we keep talking and working together, Delaware has an opportunity to be a leader in providing this access.

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Paul Herdman




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