School districts have relied on paper, printers, and traditional mail for years as the primary channels for communication with families. Those methods worked seamlessly for a long time, but the world is changing and becoming more digitally dependent every day. The way families communicate with schools is changing as well.
The term "digital divide" typically refers to the gap between people with access to digital technology and internet access and those without access. This still holds true today, particularly with internet access. However, a shift has occurred. Families across the country are gaining access to digital technology, and deprioritizing investing in paper-based technology like printers and fax machines.
In this article, we explore the causes of this divide. We’ll also provide strategies and solutions for district leaders to bridge the gap between schools and families.
Causes of the digital divide
When school districts use older, paper-based technology for records and enrollment, it creates a disconnect between families and the school or district administration. Access to digital technology has increased over the past decade. This has spilled into schools, as students are assigned devices for classroom activities and rely on them to complete their work.
In general, more Americans have access to mobile devices, computers, and the Internet than paper-based solutions. Over 90 percent of Americans have internet access, but less than half of online adults use a home printer. There’s a wide gap between the two, and home printing continues to shrink.
Paper-based technology includes printers, copy machines, fax machines, and scanners. These tech devices are more commonly found in offices than in homes, and as the world goes paperless, no one wants to be the not-so-proud owner of a printer, copy machine, or any other outdated and bulky device of the sort.
With more parents working remotely, access to printing is more limited in recent years. However, many schools still rely on paper to interact with families. The problem is parents don’t have access to those means of communication, the student is ultimately the one who suffers when required documents and records are not shared with schools and districts.
What are the main factors contributing to the digital divide?
One main factor contributing to the digital divide is inequity from processes that favor certain socioeconomic groups.
Our research shows people with a lower household income have less access to paper-based products or tools at home than those with a higher household income. Less than half of households making $34,000 a year or less have home access to stamps, a checkbook, or a printer. What’s more, less than 25 percent of households with the same income have access to a copy machine, fax machine, or scanner.
The same goes for families who do not speak English or Spanish. According to our study, they are more likely to not be able to remember the last time they used a fax machine, paid to use internet access, or borrowed a friend’s scanner if they didn’t have access at home—and miss work to conduct business with a school or education system.
We also found older generations have more access to all types of paper-based technology than younger generations. Therefore, young parents or guardians of students, and the student themselves, are at a disadvantage.
A large percentage of households are moving away from paper-based technologies. If school districts don't follow suit, communication between schools and parents will become increasingly difficult. Standard interactions like K-12 record requests and student enrollment become a problem when that happens.
Our latest research report shows more details about Americans’ perceptions and expectations of communication from the education system . Check it out to gather a better understanding of how to serve the community members in your district.
The impact of the pandemic on the digital divide
Another contributing factor was Covid-19. When people stayed home during the early stages of the pandemic, digital technology became a lifeline. Schooling could not have continued without digital solutions. For example, Zoom classrooms were the only way for students and teachers to continue with their regular activities.
The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated the use of digital technology in schools. It even showed teachers and administrative staff how digital tools and resources can enhance the educational experience for students.
Strategies and solutions for bridging the digital divide
While there's more work to be done, school districts across the country have made significant strides in digitizing their processes. For example, Fresno United School District reduced K-12 records processing times from days to minutes with a digital platform for records requests and processing—Scribbles Software's ScribOrder. This large district that services a wide range of families with different socioeconomic statuses improved its support for all students and families with this secure and streamlined solution.
If your school or district is looking to better serve your staff, students, and families, here are some necessary steps to start closing this technology gap.
Implement accessible technologies
When building processes that engage the community, consider what technologies the families have access to. Make accommodations so your principals, teachers, and administrative staff can communicate in the most available methods.
Foster two-direction communication
Communication is a two-way street. Your district is sending information to families and hoping to receive information in return.
Take this into account when building communication processes between schools and parents. Remember, if families struggle to communicate with you, they might not do it at all. What’s more, your staff may find your current paper processes cumbersome and time-consuming—so a digital process is preferable.
Guarantee mobile friendliness
The data shows more families have access to mobile phones than paper-based technology like printers, copy machines, and scanners. Pew Research Center states 97 percent of Americans own a cell phone. And some adults are “smartphone-only” internet users, meaning their phone is their only access to WiFi from home.
Make your district resources and communication channels mobile-friendly to ensure they are more accessible to those families.
Digitize your school district with Scribbles
Paper-based technologies are historically the primary tools for district communication, but our studies have shown they're no longer the choice for most families. Our recent report demonstrates how people are becoming less interested in cumbersome tasks like mailing documents and visiting offices. The preference is now to go paperless and digitize as much as possible.
It’s impossible to properly serve your students, their families, and your entire community if you do not meet them where they are at. If your district doesn't keep up with the digital demand, your schools will fall behind, and your students and staff will suffer.
Fill out this form to download our report about American perceptions and expectations for
paper-based and digital technology!