Category: Digital Divide

Observations From a (Social) Distance

Child working on computer.

Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/oQKmWhhQ2WG8mx957

Well, hasn’t this been an interesting couple of months? Little did we know when we left for spring break that we would not be returning to our campuses and classrooms for the remainder of the year! It has certainly been a strange, bewildering time. While we miss our kids, colleagues, our schools, and our normal routines, there have been some remarkable changes happening at a breakneck pace, and some real positives may come out of this when we are all back together again. Here are a few of my own, personal thoughts and observations:

  1. Teachers and administrators and support personnel have been amazingly resilient and adaptable. The immediacy of all of this has forced change on the fly and a great deal of professional learning to happen all at once. This has been a great opportunity for the world to see the dedication, talent, creativity, and hard work of educators everywhere. Undeniably, there have been bumps and a learning curve, but obstacles continue to fall. In a time when stories in the press about schools are overwhelmingly negative, this has been like a B-12 shot for education public relations and goodwill.
  2. Digital divide by income level

    Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/rd86LsbGfH1zfDKw5

    The digital divide continues to be a real barrier for our students. We now have a much larger body of evidence that many of our kids don’t have the kinds of technologies and connectivity to make learning outside of the classroom successful or even feasible. Additionally, many parents don’t have the technology knowledge or skills to adequately support their children in their online learning. Schools are being forced to address these inequities, which should be a good thing in the long run. Some are buying student devices to implement 1:1 programs. Others, like Seguin, are purchasing wireless hotspots or are even going so far as to install community wireless towers.  Along with the devices and infrastructure, schools will need to find ways to ensure students and their families have the necessary experiences during more normal times to succeed in times of crisis.

  3. For a variety of reasons, some students are thriving in this new reality. Perhaps learning via short videos, websites, and student-selected online tools provides better opportunities for on-time reteaching. Maybe it gives them multiple styles of presentation of information, allowing them to find what best speaks to them. I think some students can better focus on learning without the distractions of the complexities of the classroom social structures. It doesn’t matter how fluently they read out loud in front of their classmates, what they wear to school, or how disruptive the classmate next to them is. They can do the essential work without the negative, extra “stuff” that goes along with being a kid. For my own son, who generally finds football the only exciting part of the school day, it has been a chance to get the “boring” stuff out of the way of the things he’d rather be doing. He misses his friends, but he manages to keep connected via a variety of online games and networks.
  4. Sad teen

    Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/mjp1vCAccF3UQYxh7

    Some students are struggling mentally and emotionally during this time of physical isolation. Schools provide more than just access to knowledge and skills. They are places where kids can connect positively to other people. They can laugh, share secrets, complain, unload their painful thoughts, get support. Sadly, teachers are often the only positive, supportive, loving adults some of our students encounter on a day-to-day basis. School administrators and counselors provide invaluable support to kids with a range of mental and emotional issues. School lunches are the only reliable meals for many students. These kids, even the ones who are often the most challenging, miss the consistency and positivity that schools provide. The social distancing situation we find ourselves in has to force schools to think about ways to creatively and effectively take care of these kids.

  5. Inexperience or misguided priorities have been an issue for some schools or districts. As I have followed the news and the Twitter-sphere, I have seen some likely well-intended but hopelessly off-base policies and practices being advocated or implemented. For instance, some schools have sent full-day, detailed schedules for students to follow while learning at home. Such schedules reflect a complete disregard for the home life realities of students and parents, many of whom are either at work or working from home. Other schools have issued edicts that students continue to wear school uniforms, or that teachers wear “professional dress” while working from home. While certainly sensible during virtual meetings by video, it is dubious that a teacher is less effective in a t-shirt and pajama pants while grading essays at the breakfast room table. Still other schools have reminded staff that lunch breaks should be limited to a half hour. These kinds of administrative decisions are likely rooted in experiences limited only to normal, physical school, and we will, hopefully, learn better how to structure the schedules and environment of online learning, as we have no guarantees that we won’t be returning here next year or in the future.
  6. Now that we are mastering the basics, the next step is empowering online learning. The past few weeks have required on the fly learning and transitioning curricula into the online learning environment. Now, we need to work on the work. How can we move beyond viewing a video and completing an electronic worksheet? How do we make learning more relevant and meaningful and engaging? Can we use this opportunity to empower students to construct their own knowledge, with teachers serving to prompt and guide? I think there is a hesitancy among some educators thus far to give students more open-ended, student-driven tasks online. However, if the learning activities online would not have been good enough for the physical classroom, should they be acceptable in the virtual setting? The reality is, students have access to more diverse, powerful tools for learning and for creating, collaborating, and sharing online than in a typical classroom. We need to structure our online courses to take advantage of these.
  7. Professional development may be changed forever. This is not to say the face-to-face workshop or conference will become a thing of the past. However, more teachers are taking part in PD through book studies or Zoom or Google Meet. Having offered these types of professional learning for years, I know I have seen countless more participants joining in now. Will this be a positive experience that affects how they choose the grow as educators in the future? I think it is a real possibility, so long as they find it worthwhile in the present. A related benefit is that a lot of educators have become much more familiar and proficient with the use of technology tools that they might not take the time to learn in normal circustances..
  8. Teacher hugging student

    Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/QgqmiuUb1vQzr8Xd6

    The heart of the educator is all about the kids. Given an unprecedented time of separation from their students, teachers have shown time and again how their love for their students is at the heart of all the work they do. Teachers genuinely miss their students (and vice versa). I have read countless stories of teachers going out of their way to express how much they miss their students. Teachers in my own neighborhood and many others put together parades, honking, waving, shouting support. They have hand written personal letters to students. Others have read bedtime stories to their students at night. They have organized Zoom meetings just to catch up on the latest news from their students. They have worked to put together virtual proms and graduations. It has been a remarkable and touching display of the deep affection of educators for their students, and that is truly encouraging to me in such difficult and challenging times.

Something else just occurred to me. There will continue to be successes and stumbles in our new, virtual existence. We will learn from this in the most effective way there is, through real-life experience. I hope that may be the biggest takeaway for educators. Just like their teachers, students benefit from authentic learning experiences. It makes learning relevant to their real lives and makes it durable. After we return to the classroom, perhaps we can work harder to create these kinds of experiences.

Best wishes for success and continued good health all of my education peers.

Hang Up? Crawfishing (a Little) on BYOD

For years, I have been an avid supporter and advocate of BYOD. Specifically, I have argued that students’ smartphones were powerful, pocket-sized computers with high-speed internet capable of connecting, creating, engaging. They were a fabulous solution to the very significant problems of digital divide. Schools lacking in computers or infrastructure would no longer be shackled by the technologies they lacked–just get out your pocket PCs, kids!

Lately, though, I must admit that I wonder about this idea and really have been questioning the validity of my beliefs. I more and more frequently encounter news stories and blog posts about schools or even entire countries abandoning their phone-friendly policies. Policy makers have decided the competition for students’ attention, the distractions, the discipline problems, the effects on student emotions were all too high of a price to pay for any positives the devices might promise. Surprisingly, their arguments against the devices in the classroom are starting to resonate a lot more with me.

Some experts, such as the folks at Common Sense Media, have determined that teens spend an average of 9 hours per day looking at a digital screen. I will testify that at least seems pretty accurate in my own household, even if I haven’t put a timer to it. Life is intently focused on a screen of some sort the vast majority of waking hours, riding in the car, sitting in their rooms, eating a snack, etc. The majority of the time, my kids, wife, and I are thumbing robotically through Instagram, watching YouTube or Netflix videos, checking Snapchat, or something similar.

I will say that the number and range of topics that my kids are learning about is sometimes really amazing. This is especially true for Reilly, my son, who watches videos on every topic under the sun. Also, I have much appreciation for the way that my kids are able to stay connected to their friends, particularly during the summer, as we live a half hour from most of them. I can completely understand my son’s penchant for gaming, as I enjoy an admittedly smaller variety of games almost as much. We ditched cable and satellite television a few years ago, too, so much of their phone time is a substitute for former television hours. All that to say I recognize there is considerable value, for sure.

On the other hand, though, it is unrealistic to deny that there are significant problems that come along with the devices’ constant presence. One that I think is most significant is the devices’ tendency to become the attention priority of the user. In other words, the user is so distracted by the device that he/she cannot maintain focus on anything or anyone else. Just try to count the number of times in a day when someone checks their phone while having a face-to-face interaction with someone. I’ve sure been guilty of it. Watch families/friends sitting together at restaurants. We see it (maybe take part) constantly–groups become zombies making idle chit-chat while staring at PewDiePie on their new iPhone or Galaxy. A 2018 study by Common Sense Media revealed more than half of teens acknowledged that phones distracted them in negative ways. Additional research by Common Sense shows that not only do a large number of kids check their social media feeds pretty much constantly, the negative outcomes (hateful comments, posts not being “liked” enough, etc.) more profoundly affect the kids already facing social/emotional problems.

For the teacher optimistic enough to try and use them in the classroom, a particular challenge I have heard about endlessly since basically the debut of the iPhone in 2007 is management. Even teachers who are still open-minded or enthusiastic about the possibilities struggle with ensuring that they are being used in purposeful, learning-focused ways. For a teacher who may not be experienced or especially skilled at general classroom management, this becomes an even bigger issue. I know that I and countless colleagues in the edtech world have attempted to share effective management strategies, but the dismal tales persist.

What’s the point to all of this then? Well, I suppose it is that I am probably less convinced of the power of student devices in the classroom than I was a decade ago, when my former superintendent abruptly declared our district to be a BYOD environment. Certainly, there have been some cool moments of real success, from creative student video productions to collaborative documents to engaging formal assessment and feedback apps and many more. I won’t begin to argue against those. I think, though, that more than a decade’s time passing should have ironed out many more of the wrinkles in the plan and the process. It hasn’t, and I still hear more negative feedback than positive (Okay, maybe complainers are just more…expressive.). I am currently running a Twitter survey to gauge my PLN’s feelings on student phones in the classroom and already seeing some interesting results.  My mind is far from made up, and reflection is critical to my own professional practice, so I’m going to keep mulling the pros and cons of this issue for awhile. As always, I would welcome and respect your thoughts and comments!

Student Internet Access in Seguin ISD

As a part of our ongoing process of self-evaluation and planning for the future of technology here in Seguin ISD, we recently conducted a quick, 4-question survey to determine patterns of students’ internet use outside of the school day. Over 1,700 students in grades 3-12 participated. The results are below.

A few initial observations:

  • The basically 9:1 ratio of student internet uses to non-users is pretty much what I would have expected. This tells me that we still need to be looking for options for our students without access, as they are certainly limited once they leave our buildings.  It also should be something teachers are aware of, and it should inform their decision-making when assigning homework that requires online resources. We have come far, but the divide still exists. How might we creatively close the gap outside of our buildings?
  • Slower internet speeds and data limits on cellular connections make accessing excessive amounts of video or other media online problematic. This is a potential issue for more than 40% of our students.
  • Fewer and fewer students are using traditional laptops or desktops as their home internet-access device. Mobile phones and tablets are much more common. Still, schools tend to focus budget dollars on desktops/laptops. That might be a practice we need to rethink. Might our technology dollars be better directed at non-traditional tools?
  • The “None of these” option under types of devices doesn’t just include kids with no internet at home–many kids use gaming consoles, devices such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, or a variety of other tools.

Other thoughts, reactions, or questions I might be missing? Happy to hear your comments.

 

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