Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) recently purchased 2,300 Google Chromebooks that are now available for students to check out through their school libraries.
In the most recent newsletter from December 2021, BUSD shared that approximately 2,300 students in Berkeley schools didn’t have access to a personal device for distance learning, which led them to apply for federal funding to purchase Chromebooks that students could check out of school libraries. Students can keep the devices at home until the end of the school year and use them for any number of things, including online research, digital schoolwork, and, if necessary, distance learning.
The technology divide in schools is a problem further exacerbated by the pandemic, and with the threat of distance learning looming over schools once again, making sure all students have access to technology is a pressing issue.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I think that distance learning brought into focus that this is something we needed,” said Matt Albinson, an instructional technology specialist for Berkeley High School (BHS). “If we go out of school again, we don’t want a situation where we have to take apart all of our [Chromebook] carts like we did last year and give those out. We want a separate supply of Chromebooks that can come and go from students’ homes, rather than disrupting our school supply.”
With the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreading across the country, cases are reaching record highs. Albinson has been concerned about the state of in-person schooling. He remarked on the added pressure that the virus wave has put on the project, and the ways it has hastened their process, as well as their goals.
“We hope that this program can help make sure that everybody has a computer at home, so they aren’t cut off from school altogether in the case of virtual learning,” Albinson said. “Inequality in the students who have access to technology and don’t have access to technology is definitely what we’re trying to address. We’re trying to close the digital divide, between students who have easy access to technology and the students who don’t.”
Bradley Hilton, the district’s technology supervisor, also commented on the impact a lack of access to technology can have on students.
“Students at BHS who don’t have a computer of their own to use are often left behind, forced to use a small cell phone screen or a library computer to write their Google doc or do online research,” Hilton explained. “This forces them to spend more time to achieve the same result, and can often create additional hurdles for students who may already be facing other obstacles.”
As technology becomes further incorporated into everyday schooling in general, the issue of technological inequity is spreading far beyond the setting of the pandemic and distance learning.
Keldon Clegg, the other instructional technology specialist at BHS, discussed the difficulties of regulating student-brought technology and finding ways to allow students to use the best resources available to them while still maintaining a fair environment. He also considers there to be many parts to technology inequality, making the problem extremely complex.
“WiFi … is a massive inequity, and schools can only go so far,” Clegg said. “Hotspots aren’t a great solution, especially in distance learning, where you have to do video conferencing, which takes up large amounts of data. This program is just a piece of what has to happen. A lot of other things need to happen in tandem with it.”
This is one of the reasons easy accessibility to the Chromebook checkout was one of the district’s priorities. Any student is able to go to the library and check out a Chromebook by filling out a simple form with parental consent. Students don’t have to be on free or reduced lunch, and the only documentation required is that showing they’re a student of the district.
“The Chromebooks are there and they’re available,” Clegg said. “It’s always good that students know that if they’re in need, the library is a place they can go to get access … We want to emphasize that if you don’t have a way to get technology, you can get it from us.”