Closing the digital divide

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Staff Writer

COEUR d’ALENE ­— School just isn’t the same as it was in the 1950s or 1980s, when assignments required paper and pencil and students toted stacks of textbooks from class to class.

Today, many assignments are completed on computers and submitted to teachers over the internet, Coeur d’Alene School District technology director Seth Deniston said Friday.

In recent curriculum adoption cycles, the district has opted for some digital curricula based on open source, digital textbooks, Deniston said. Digital textbooks provide the school district with less expensive, more relevant curricula that can be updated and customized by the school district, he said.

“More and more of our work is going to be digital,” Deniston predicted.

As the district shifts to digital curricula, some students stand to be left behind. A 2016 district study found that 10 percent of its approximately 11,000 students do not have access to the internet at home, or they can access it only on a smartphone, he said. The local numbers reflect broader trends.

According to 2015 U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates, 46 percent of Idaho households earning less than $20,000 per year did not have broadband internet subscriptions. A November 2016 Pew Research Center study found that almost half of U.S. households with an income below $30,000 per year did not own a smartphone, computer, or have broadband internet access. In 2017, the International Telecommunications Union revealed that in the Western Hemisphere, women had 2.6 percent more access to the internet than men, an even greater gap than in 2013 when ITU reported a 0.4 percent female advantage.

The amount of work students do online varies from class to class, but since so much coursework requires typing on a computer or device connected to the internet, Deniston said the school district wants to accommodate students who lack such resources. In response, the school board approved a pilot program at Coeur d’Alene High School last year to allow students to check out hot spots that provide internet access, and devices to facilitate online homework assignments. The program was so successful, said Deniston, that it has now been expanded to Lake City High School, Venture High School, and Lakes Middle School.

“For the students that need it, it’s something that is a lifeline,” Deniston said. “It helps them keep up with their peers. The hot spots that we have are filtered so that they allow education sites only.”

He cited a University of Washington study concluding that without adequate instruction and adult supervision, online access alone distracted lower-income students more than it helped them. The Coeur d’Alene School District makes efforts to teach parents and students about how to appropriately use technology, he said.

Students here typically get loaned equipment thanks to observant teachers who give students a referral to the school’s library, he said. Some students check equipment out only once in a while for certain assignments, he added. The amount of loaner hardware is not very large, but to the students who need it, the equipment can make a big difference.

“Definitely if there’s a need that we know of from our students, we try to address it as quickly as we can,” Deniston said.

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