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Digital Promise Report: An Introduction to the Data

Simply stated, equity begins with data. Data is a powerful tool that brings visibility into inequities. Over the past two years, we have seen a heightened awareness of the digital divide (also called the homework gap) and sweeping efforts to address it. Federal and state funding is finally available to school systems to purchase devices and find ways to provide internet access to all our underserved students. Progress is being made, but inequities linger and more needs to be done until we can claim victory over this long-standing problem.

While the emphasis on digital equity and closing the digital divide is critical, especially since so much of education is now digital, digital equity is just a first step in the journey to educational equity.

Once students are connected, the next step to educational equity is understanding how students are engaging with the digital tools and resources available to them. With data analytics insights, it is possible to see patterns of engagement and develop a personalized instruction plan for students to meet their academic needs. It is also possible to see the digital signals students provide as they do or do not engage with schoolwork. These signals can indicate if a student is struggling or is essentially absent. With insight into student engagement data, these warning signals can be readily addressed or mitigated.

The League of Innovative Schools is dedicated to advancing innovative teaching and learning practices using the power of technology. There are new ways technology can advance educational equity and the League is at the forefront of using new technologies and approaches to not only meet challenges but to design new and effective models of education and instruction that improve learning opportunities for all students. Participating in this pilot with Lightspeed Analytics™ demonstrated that data can be an accelerant to change. We can change the culture and delivery of education for the better, for all students, and for good. With data, we have the power to know better and do better.

Report Introduction by Digital Promise

Due to the pandemic, the K-12 education community faced the most challenging year on record. Widespread school closures led to a massive shift to online learning creating immeasurable pressure on our education system and all its essential educators, administrators, and workers as well as students, parents, and caregivers. Recognizing these pressures, Digital Promise conducted a survey of school systems in spring of 2020 to determine the most pressing challenges compared to previous surveys.

These top six challenges emerged:

  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching with Technology
  • Opportunity Gaps
  • Technology Access
  • Mental Health and Trauma
  • Personalized Learning

As a Digital Promise partner, Lightspeed Systems® recognized these challenges were prominent among schools across the nation. With that in mind, an initiative was launched in the spring of 2021, to engage districts from the League of Innovative Schools in a pilot program to determine how data analytics could help districts address these challenges using data—their data—all in real-time.

The League of Innovative Schools is a national network of forward-thinking education leaders who work together to do the following:

  • Improve outcomes for students and solve the challenges facing K-12 schools through powerful and smart use of learning technologies
  • Use their collective voice to advance positive change in public education ​
  • Partner with entrepreneurs, researchers, and leading education thinkers and serve as a testbed for new approaches to teaching and learning

Lightspeed Systems partnered with seven League of Innovative Schools, ranging in size and location:

  • Baldwin County Public Schools (Bay Minette, AL)
  • Chesapeake City Public Schools (Chesapeake, VA)
  • Lexington County School District One (Lexington, SC)
  • Lincoln Public Schools, (Lincoln, NE)
  • Morris School District (Morristown, NJ)
  • Piedmont City Schools (Piedmont, AL)
  • Portland Public Schools (Portland, OR)

This report includes aggregated data analysis and shares the stories of these seven districts as they utilized educational technology and data to address the urgent challenges in their school systems. Their stories—combined with the data analytics gleaned from the pilot program—highlight best practices and patterns of digital engagement and learning that have the potential to transform their pedagogy, technology purchases, and digital journeys.

The pandemic spotlighted long-standing inequities that have existed within our education system since its inception. During an unprecedented year, it is understandable why these challenges took on new urgency. Let’s dive a little deeper:

Student Engagement

While student engagement is always a challenging and critical element of learning, it is even more difficult to ascertain if students are engaged in digital learning environments. In the midst of the pandemic, one report from Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit that focuses on underserved communities, determined that “approximately 3 million of the most educationally marginalized students in the country” may have been missing from school after March 2020, when the pandemic forced school closures due to access issues or the inability to monitor or determine student engagement.

Another report, “Too Many Schools Leave Learning to Chance During the Pandemic,” published by the Center for Reinventing Public Education in May 2020, found that just one in three districts expected teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement, or monitor academic progress for all students. When students are learning online, they provide measurable engagement insights that can be used to assess learning and progress. Clearly, without tools to track engagement, students’ learning suffers.

Teaching with Technology

Across the United States, educators and staff displayed different levels of expertise in their ability to teach with technology, and very few teachers had experience in teaching exclusively online. As one elementary teacher who participated in the Digital Promise survey noted, “I was left to figure out how to use tools that I had heard of, but never had been taught how to use them effectively.” Teachers (and families for that matter) had to adjust almost immediately to teaching online. To teach effectively using technology in any modality (in person, hybrid, or remote), professional development and support is required.

Opportunity Gaps

Opportunity gaps are gaps in access and circumstances that limit student success, especially for underrepresented students. Opportunity gaps focus on students’ access to a full spectrum of course and curriculum choices. This includes access to AP classes, summer school, or even core curriculum subjects. The McKinsey & Company report, “COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help,” published in December 2020, notes, “While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

Technology Access

Likely the largest inequity exposed by the shift to online learning was technology. Technology access includes access to devices, learning applications, an Internet connection, and more. It was no secret that the digital divide remained an unsolved national problem; however, the abrupt transition to virtual learning revealed that as many as 30 percent of the student population—most of whom are students of color, students experiencing homelessness, or students from migrant backgrounds—were locked out of classrooms. Closing the digital divide has once again entered the national conversation, and schools remain hopeful for a long-term solution.

Mental Health and Trauma

School and district staff were already concerned about increased anxiety and depression among students, but feelings of isolation were also exacerbated for some students during the pandemic. Students who lacked technology access had no way to communicate with their peers or teachers.

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Personalized Learning

Digital Promise broadly defines personalized learning as adapting instruction to support learner variability. In a personalized learning approach, educators adapt instruction to support and engage students based on their learning continuum. Some school districts take this a step further by inviting students to co-create their own personal learning pathways, also called student agency.

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