Today’s NYTimes features an article by Natasha Singer entitled The Digital Disparities Facing Lower-Income Teenagers. This is a topic of concern where I work since it is increasingly taken for granted that students will be able to complete their assignments using a decent computer with a fast internet connection. As a boarding school with a very diverse population, we have to keep one eye trained on this issue as we integrate more and more technology into our lesson plans and assignments.
In the past we have supplied all of our academic buildings with carts full of laptops for students to borrow as needed, but this year we have shifted to a “bring your own laptop” policy. I would have preferred a full-on “bring your own device” policy, as has been implemented at many schools, but we took more of a baby step here. (The difference is in the mindset regarding mobile devices in the classroom, but I digress.) We still have the old laptop carts to augment what the students bring with them, and we can loan laptops to students for longer periods of time if needed. Still, we are expecting our students to be able to afford to bring a serviceable laptop to school with them. Once they get here, they will find that we have a strong wifi network that blankets the school, so our students have that advantage over many lower-income students who don’t attend boarding school.
One equity issue that we face is not the sort of thing that makes it into the NYTimes: namely, the disparity between wifi access at night for our boarders vs. day students. Our wifi network in the dorms cuts off late at night (about half an hour after “lights out” in each dorm, which is related to the age of the students in that dorm) in order to help the students resist the temptation to stay up all night staring at screens. However, some boarding students feel that this puts them at a disadvantage in relation to the day students who can stay up working on homework as late as they want with the wifi in their homes still on. This is oversimplification, of course, because many parents enforce stricter rules regarding technology in their homes than we enforce in our dorms. Also, many of our boarders use their own cellular connections to connect to the internet after the wifi cuts out. (That’s another equity issue, of course.) Speaking just for myself and not any other members of the faculty or Deans’ Office, I think that our evening wifi cutoff times are generous, and that students shouldn’t be up later than that working on homework. Is there some procrastination on the students’ part? I suspect so.
The NYTimes article also presents statistics regarding how much entertainment young people consume using their devices sorted by racial group. This data is a little perplexing; read the article and see for yourself. The author shies away from making causal arguments that explain why this group or that group might be consuming more screen-enabled entertainment per day than some other group, but that just leaves the reader to fill this lacuna with troubling stereotypes. I’d like some answers, please.
From the point of view of my work in our Deans’ Office, one repercussion of our “bring your own laptop” policy is that we need to be able to get boarding students to the Apple Store or Geek Squad when their laptops break. I was worried that this would be a major challenge this year, but it hasn’t been. Advisors may be stepping in to help their boarding advisees before they come looking for help from the deans. Or our IT department might be fixing more of the students’ hardware than I expected. Either way, it seems that our laptop policy is working and students are getting the help that they need. But we better not take our eye off the equity issues.