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December 8, 2020

Investing in Digital Equity in Our Communities, A Conversation with Matt Heifield

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Investing in Digital Equity in Our Communities, A Conversation with Matt Heifield

In this interview, we sat down with Matt Heifield, who has been on the Digital Equity team in Beaverton School District, and a Digital Equity advisor at COSN. He talks about his background as a Social Studies teacher for 25 years, and how he realized that digital equity was an issue in our school communities and wanted to place this issue on a national stage to be able to accommodate students. 

By the way, this conversation was originally featured on our podcast K12ish, which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Importance of Digital Equity

What got you involved in digital equity work? 

Well, I don't want to say it's embarrassing, but it's was my own bias and shortcomings that got me involved. Just in the classroom, I was teaching 9th graders and 12th graders, and I saw that some of my ninth graders weren't completing some of their project homework. They were doing fine in class, but they were dropping the ball on getting stuff done for their work teams. I just made some assumptions that some students were lazy or maybe they didn't care. 

So finally, I was conferencing with a student after class, his name was Alex, and he looked at me and he goes, "Mr. Hiefield, you realize that I don't have access at home?" At that point, I got interested. I was humbled, yet a little ashamed of my ignorance, and I started serving my classes. I come from a suburban school district, and sure enough, there were three or four students in every class who didn't have access at home. 

I prided myself on integrating a lot of engaging technology. A lot of it in the classroom, but some of it outside the classroom. I realized that I, as a teacher, was punishing some of my students. It motivated me not to just say, "I'm not going to do technology," but motivated me to explore the problem, to see what was being done throughout the country, and see what we could do as a district to make sure that students had adequate access. 

Could you offer a definition of digital equity and some of the different facets you look at when talking about the term? 

Certainly, you'll get a slightly different definition depending on who you talk to. I'll start by saying that initially, people think of digital equity as devices, and then home access. I've noticed that a lot of districts have gone into emergency mode to get devices out to students, so that they can do distance learning, and work with hotspots, too. 

One of the things I've noticed is that underconnectivity is becoming a huge problem for our district - for districts all across the country. It's something that initially people don't focus on where it appears students might say, "I'm connected," maybe they have a hotspot with limited data, or they can use their parent’s phone. What it looks like, in our classrooms, is that some students can't access Zoom, or their data runs out. They can attend a short meeting in the morning, but they don't show up in the afternoon. 

So, although a district can say, "well, we have this number of students who are connected," a better question is to look at underconnectivity. So, in answer to your overarching question, a definition of digital equity, simply: do all students have the digital tools and access they need to be successful in a learning environment. It comes in the form of opportunities. Do all students have adequate opportunities to learn, to be successful, to grow, and at school? 


The Opportunity for Increased Digital Citizenship

The word 'opportunity' is really important, especially right now. Making sure that all students, because it's not just, obviously with COVID, about access and connectivity within the school, but now at home, and how much access and connectivity they have. 

Families with multiple students in multiple grade levels have a hotspot and a computer, but having to divide up that access among different students. Teachers might be meeting at the same time [if] you have an elementary, middle, and high school student. So, it's tough choices that families are making. It's impacting students and in a big way. 

Just to pick up on your idea of opportunity, we've been seeing across the country, different school districts in different classrooms, use technologies in different ways. In some classrooms, it's to the best of their ability. Teachers use it [technology] to engage students to provide opportunities for an authentic voice to amplify their cultural backgrounds in an affirming way. 

In some districts or classrooms, it [technology] can be just used for test prep, or reading PDFs. The more we can get students to have those engaging, authentic experiences, the better. So, opportunity gaps are related to access to technology and connectivity, but also access to really high-quality teaching. Teachers are working hard at learning. 

This is new for a lot of teachers this online all the time teaching. There's a lot that teachers can do to improve. Teachers are working hard, but there's still a long way to go. Some classrooms are a lot farther along than others. 

They're working hard to fill some of those gaps in their skillset, but it's also not like they had extensive training in this before this whole learning online thing that hit us like 7, 8 months ago... 

The core of really good teaching, for me, and for most teachers, I think, is relationships. If you build really strong relationships with students, good things are gonna happen. A lot of learning is gonna happen. Building relationships online is just really difficult. Everyone's trying to learn how to do that in ways that make sense. It's just hard... 


What is the Digital Equity program, and how has it evolved or shifted now under COVID? 

I think initially there were some schools in our district in highly impacted areas who went out to local businesses and asked them would it be okay if students after hours used your Wi-Fi. For businesses, who agreed, schools made a map and put the map out in English and Spanish, so there would be accent points. That was certainly a good, initial step. 

Then, our district moved on from there and a lot of libraries, especially in secondary schools, were staying open after school so that students could stay after and accomplish homework. Many of our schools had homework clubs where it [was] just a safe, dry place for students to come after school to get some help, or just to stick around and have that high-speed connectivity. So, those were some of the things within the district. 

In addition to writing grants for hotspot programs, we knew right away, several years back before there were grant monies available, we piloted some hotspot checkouts in our library at a high school. What we found out is those hotspots were always checked out. It was frustrating for some students because they couldn't plan [asking] "when's a hotspot's going to be available because I have my term paper or I have this big project due." So, we knew that there was a need, and that drove us to expand our hotspot purchases. 

We were a Sprint and 1Million grant winner, and we just expanded from there. We're still on that grant. We're working with other grants. The Sprint and 1Million were just for high schoolers, but we soon realized that our middle schoolers need access and our elementary schoolers need access, too. So, we have just continued to expand those programs. 

I would say information is key for districts. In our annual surveys, we started putting questions about connectivity, and under-connectivity, to find out where we were serving parents at the school level to get a better idea. Because I would say, six, seven years ago, it was just kind of hope for the best. Like we're educating your students, we don't worry about what happens outside of school. As districts, including ours, moved to one-to-one devices, that was no longer a rational approach, if we were going to be focused on equity.

Access To Digital Citizenship

Explain to our listeners about what was the impetus behind the Digital Equity program. 

Well, I was partnering with our community liaison for the Latino community in one of our high schools, we would have monthly meetings with our Latino parent community. What we realized early on is it wasn't just enough to invite parents into school to say, "we're glad you're here," - parents needed a value-added.

They wanted to learn, they were hungry to learn. They saw their kids were learning, and their kids had devices. So, our impetus was to teach parents how to be full partners in their kid’s education. We had Latino students come in to help with this. We had a translator as well for those who didn't speak English. A lot of it was done in Spanish, but we had guests who didn't speak Spanish as well. 

So, some of the main goals were pretty simple: can a parent login to check attendance?; can a parent login check homework assignments and grades? That was the initial [thought] that was pretty powerful. Many parents have phones, smartphones, and so showing them how to put our district's app so they can check those things was important. 

Later, as we progress meeting monthly, we started getting into digital citizenship issues as well. Every family has to deal with personal decisions around technology, and digital citizenship issues with their kids. There's a lot of nervousness about the bad things that happen on the internet. 

Of course, as educators, we know that there's a lot of great things that can happen on the Internet, but, just to start those conversations about what a healthy digital citizenship plan is for your family. So, the monthly meetings we've been doing for three years now. Of course, they stopped during COVID, but we do, on our district website, have a digital citizenship page with English and Spanish resources. 

It was just digital citizenship week last week, and so we got the word out. We got lessons out to teachers, K through 12, if they wanted to integrate some of that in their work. So, in answer to your question, as soon as COVID is over, we will continue our work because there are always parents - and it's concerning Latino parents - throughout the district schools [that] have been working in the evening time, to educate parents and they want to know, they want to be full partners. 

Sometimes it's difficult, especially for those that don't speak English. So, lining up the resources, having some resources in Spanish and English, having translators, and having kid volunteers, too - that was powerful - because kids can demonstrate how to check for attendance. 

We happen to use Canvas as our learning management system and getting familiar with that. So, it's been a great thing for us. We just know that we'll continue it, after COVID. It's been hard to continue during COVID, but we've been trying to get resources out in English and Spanish. 


It's giving parents the ability to be involved in what their kids are doing in their online lives, whether that's their social lives or their school and education lives, it's giving them the tool to be involved in it and to play that parental role. 

That's exactly right! You mentioned your connection with Arabic - Beaverton, our school district, has close to 100 languages spoken. We have a large Spanish-speaking population, but we have a lot of other populations out there too. 

We have a really strong multilingual department. Sometimes we have to get involved - our technologists and our multilingual department too - to get parents involved and to explain because, for some of the pretty small language groups, it's hard and confusing. 

When districts consider reaching out [and] trying to have a holistic plan that involves all the speakers of different languages. It's hard to do because some of our languages are only spoken by a couple of people, and there might not be a translator, but just keep that in mind. 

[It's] especially important during COVID because some of our English language speakers are having some lower attendance rates. We're trying to figure out why that is. I think part of it is communication. So, yes, there's a lot of challenges. Being aware of that, and trying to involve parents realizing that parents are key to the success of their children. 

I guess everyone has always known that, but in the past, especially at the high school level, the parents have been more on the outside a little bit. Maybe some parents get involved. Especially with the introduction of technology, more parental involvement in education is just as important. 

Why Invest in Digital Equity?

What prompted you all to put in place these massive projects? What was your calling to some of these projects? 

Well, to be honest, I wish I could say that I was a brilliant mastermind, but the reality is we have a lot of thoughtful, talented people in the district. I keep my ear to the ground to hear what people are doing. It just turned out that our IT department, concerning our Student Help Desk, realized that we were getting thousands of devices out to our students, but some students were having problems. 

They weren't able to connect, or they weren't able to log in. Schools were closed. Normally, if a student has a problem, the next day at school, they talk to someone, but schools are closed. So, some of our thinkers in IT said, "we have to get students connected." 

So, when we say a Student Help Desk, initially some people think that "oh, so it's a help desk run by students," but actually, it's a help desk run by our IT department for students, so they can call in. It was really busy initially, and then things settled in for summer. Then, it got really busy again in the fall. 

One of the things we realized pretty quickly is that we needed more Spanish speaking help, desk people. So, part of it was having technical knowledge and language knowledge. Our IT department improvised. 

I think we even got some bus drivers involved because bus drivers - buses aren't being driven right now - so we got some of our Spanish-speaking bus drivers who had some technical background and did some training with them to make sure that there was that Spanish speaking option. 

It's been pretty successful and really helpful to know that if you're a student - if you're having problems with your computer, your device - that there's someplace you can go for help. It's magnified during COVID because our district is moved to a schedule called a four-by-four schedule meaning you do a year's worth of academic work in a semester. 

So, you have fewer classes, but each class you have you do a year's [worth of] work in that semester. So, if you miss one or two days, it's like missing a week. If you have a tech problem, it needs to be taken care of quickly. Otherwise, the student falls behind quickly. So, I’m proud of that effort of our IT department and reaching out to the multilingual department. 

So, a lot of times, districts operate in separate spheres. There are different departments. They just kind of come along doing their thing. This crisis is necessitated working together even more. So, having the multilingual department, IT department, and teaching and learning - trying to help out where possible - it's been really important. The Student Help Desk will be continuing that. It's just been a lot of dedicated folks making sure that students have access. 

What’s a short message you can offer to listeners in terms of why they should invest their time and energy into focusing on digital equity? 

Well, I'll say if you're an educational leader, or someone interested in education, you probably think: Why is education important?  - when people start answering that we start talking about learning and personal growth. 

They don't necessarily talk exclusively about content. Skills are developing over time. If you don't invest in digital equity, you're abandoning some of the cornerstones of what it means to have a strong education. 

Like it or not, that's where education has moved, and there's a lot of great things that happen with technology. If we don't invest in professional development, if we don't invest in access, if we don't ensure that students are getting adequate opportunities - from one school to the next - we're abandoning our educational mission. 

I would say that digital equity is one of the first things we should be looking at, not only during the pandemic but as we transition out of this pandemic. Our school systems are going to adapt, change, hopefully, innovate, and digital equity should be the cornerstone of that, as we move forward - if we want opportunities for all students.