Digital Learning Threatens To Leave Some Students Behind

May 16, 2017

Fifth-graders at Mariam Boyd Elementary in Warrenton, North Carolina, use Chromebooks to answer questions about a story they’re reading. Their teacher, Charis Shattuck, says the technology allows her to review her students’ work in real-time and give them immediate feedback.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC

North Carolina lawmakers are banking on the benefits of digital learning. Four years ago they passed legislation requiring that state funding for textbooks be replaced by funds for digital materials.

The deadline is this summer. But educators and student advocates say the transition threatens to leave behind the many kids who can’t access high-speed internet at home.

Driving into Warrenton is like stepping back in time. The town of 800 or 900 is filled with centuries-old housing, churches, and storefronts. Step into its elementary school, and you’ll rejoin the present – or even catch a glimpse into the future.

In a back hallway, in a fifth-grade classroom, each student huddles over a Chromebook. They’re using the devices to answer questions about a story, with occasional help from their teacher, Charis Shattuck.

“A lot of people assume that when you take technology into the classroom, the teacher is out of the classroom, or that the teacher isn’t directly involved with the students,” Shattuck said.

Shattuck said this isn’t the case.

“A lot of the apps that I use or the programs that I use, allow me to go and see their work live,” she said. “And I can shoot them feedback, or as I’m walking around the room, I can help them.”

Monacon Harris is a manicurist at a salon in Warrenton. The mother of two says she used to have broadband at home, but had to cancel it for financial reasons. She’s hoping to get it back in the near future, because she believes her daughters need it to work on homework and projects for school.
Credit Lisa Philip / WUNC

But what about when Shattick’s students go home?

Some 40 percent of Warren County households lack high-speed internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“As we move more toward a digital age, and you know, the story with the digital textbooks, and digital resources. When students are at home, some have access, and some do not,” said Ernest Conner, Jr., director of technology for Warren County schools. “So all of our students are not on the same playing field.”

Educators worry lack of home broadband access in rural and low-income communities is widening learning gaps. That’s because online resources allow those students with access to deepen their knowledge of classroom material – even after they leave school.

“When students have access, there’s a certain amount of curiosity, there’s a certain amount of freedom to explore new and different things,” said Ray Spain, superintendent of Warren County schools. “And they need that.”

Monacon Harris is a manicurist in Warrenton. The mother of two said she used to subscribe to a broadband service.

“But the problem was that the bill got high, you know,” she said. “And it was a financial thing, for me to keep it up.”

Harris said the service cost $50 a month. Per capita income in Warren County is less than $30,000 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“It would make it a lot easier to have [broadband] at home, because me with my kids, I love to help them with their projects, especially when it comes to research,” Harris said. “I love doing that.”

Harris said she knows many Warren County residents who wouldn’t be able to get broadband, even if they could afford it. It’s not profitable for internet service providers to lay broadband cable in rural areas – like sections of Warren County – without many potential customers.

Superintendent Spain said this is where government needs to step in.

“Just as we have now that parents and families have a right to running water, and in many cases, have a right to telephone service, and have a right to electrical service,” Spain said. “They ought to have a right to internet service. It’s a basic utility. … It should be a basic right because so much depends on it.”

The map below lists the per capita personal income for each county, based on 2015 data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Warren County is currently surveying its residents to see who does and doesn’t have broadband access.

In the meantime, Monacon Harris is working on reconnecting her home, for the sake of her older and younger daughters.

“By her going to high school, she’s going to need it,” she said. “And you know, I have a four-year-old, so by her starting kindergarten, I know she’s going to need it. Because you know, they start kindergarteners out in the computer world. So I know she’s probably going to need it too.”