Arizona schools strive to bridge digital opportunity gap
Internet access issues have led Arizona’s public K-12 schools to find innovative solutions for their students to do research, work on group projects, find help for difficult homework and get in touch with their teachers quickly.
“In the digital age we live in, a student is unable to compete and learn at an equivalent level compared to their peers if they do not have the vital access needed to connect to the digital world,” said Andrea Katsenes, director of media and public relations for Cox Communications.
Vail Unified School District in Pima County was the first district in the nation to provide internet access on school buses, said Calvin Baker, superintendent of the district that serves more than 12,175 students, some living in rural and remote areas.
“We use our internet-equipped buses for our longer routes to more rural areas. We also use the internet buses for longer field trips and athletic trips,” Baker said.
“Students do use the access point on the buses for homework and research,” Baker said. “They may also use the access point for other activities such as games — which helps reduce behavior issues on those long bus routes.”
Students in Kayenta Unified School District in Navajo County can stay after school for two hours Monday through Thursday to receive tutoring or to use the library, school technology and access the Internet, then they can take a late bus home that leaves school at 5:30 p.m., said Dr. Bryce Anderson, superintendent of the rural district that serves more than 1,830 students in the Navajo Nation.
“The approach we’ve taken is to try to and upgrade the access to technologies within our schools,” Anderson said. “We added two 30-computer laptop carts at each of our schools. All of them had their labs replaced within the last two years with current technology.”
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Access issues in rural, remote areas
Internet access remains an issue for many K-12 students living in rural and remote areas in Arizona and across the United States.
In Arizona, about 76.2 percent of homes have access to broadband internet services, compared to 78.1 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau report “Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013.”
“This issue is a real challenge for us up here on the Navajo Nation,” Anderson said. “Some families don’t have electricity where they live, so having network access certainly is a challenge.”
Internet service in the area Kayenta Unified serves is often running over phone lines.
“We’re not dealing with fiber like they are in places like the Valley,” Anderson said.
About 5 U.S. million homes with school-aged kids don’t have access to broadband internet, according to WBUR 90.9 FM’s story “Bridging The Broadband ‘Homework Gap’ That Puts Some Kids At A Disadvantage.”
“Having internet is about as important and ubiquitous to people as television was 25 years ago,” Baker said. “Those who may not have service at home simply find a work around for access.”
Anderson said Kayenta Unified’s network and our infrastructure is “solid,” thanks to the district’s partnership with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
“We are able to meet all the benchmarks for online testing for both AzMERIT, and we use NWEA as our ongoing assessments over the course of the year,” Anderson said.
Related story: Program reduces cost for students’ at-home internet access
But getting used to the difference in internet speed in a rural area compared to an urban area can take a while.
“Moving from internet service in a metropolitan suburban area to here was an incredible shock,” Anderson said. “The fastest Internet I can get up here that isn’t metered, which means that you’re allowed so many megabytes and after that it throttles down to next to nothing, is 6 megabytes a second. With my previous provider, I was getting around 50 megabytes a second.”
While 67 percent of all Americans use broadband internet connections at home, about 77 percent use mobile connectors, said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research for Pew Research Center, in his presentation “Digital Divides 2016” in mid-July. But broadband use in rural areas is 11 percent less than in urban areas, and mobile use in rural areas is 15 percent less than in urban ones.
Anderson said cellular service in the Kayenta Unified’s rural area is considerably slower than in urban areas.
“Even if a student had a handheld device that picked up an Internet signal, there are places where they can’t even get that,” Anderson said.
Students who qualify for the National Student Lunch Program can get low-cost internet access at home through EveryoneOn’s Connect2Compete, which partners with leading internet service providers across the nation.
Connect2Compete requires student’s homes to be within an Internet provider’s service area, but “the more remote/rural areas of our 425-square-mile district are not served by Cox Communications,” Baker said.
That’s why other efforts like Vail Unified’s school buses with Internet access, a 1-to-1 student to device ratio in all the district high schools and extensive use of digital instructional materials, are so important, Baker said.
Vail Unified works with schools across Arizona with their Beyond Textbook partnership, which is based on the practice of sharing digital resources and requires Internet access.
“As the staff for Beyond Textbooks does training in the sharing and use of digital resources, they rarely hear teachers raise a concern about internet access,” Baker said. “The only exception is some of the schools on the reservations.”
Right now, Kayenta Unified is partnering with their Internet provider, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, “to look at adding hotspots to two of our school buses – or setting up Wi-Fi on the school buses – to see if that helps support student outcomes,” Anderson said.
The district also looked into “trying to provide Internet access to one of the chapter houses where we have a number of students,” Anderson said.
“The cost was over $15,000 a year to provide 10 Internet-connected computers up there. We just can’t justify that expense at this time,” Anderson said.
The next thing Kayenta Unified is looking into doing is finding ways to integrate technology into the classrooms, Anderson said.
“If we do a 1-to-1, it’s going to be absolutely critical that we find a learner management system that allows students to download the materials that they have, because we can’t rely on them having access at home,” Anderson said.