Digital divide leaves some 1-to-1 kids unconnected

Schoolchildren in many cities and rural areas have to crowd libraries or huddle just outside their school buildings for hours in order to complete regular homework assignments that require them to download material over the Internet, the New York Times reports.

Schools are on a technology push. That’s undeniable. Many school districts, such as the Baltimore County Public Schools, have started a 1-to-1 technology program, aimed at providing every single student with a tablet, a Chromebook, or, in some districts, a laptop computer.

In Baltimore County, the program is entitled S.T.A.T., which stands for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. Cool acronym. Not such a good idea.

The district says this program with the urgent-sounding name will be “the multi-year transformation of BCPS into a complete 21st century technology learning environment to prepare globally-competitive graduates.”

That sounds great, right? Except for the part about changing the word “school” into “learning environment” and well-prepared students into “globally-competitive graduates,” which is basically the entire tag line, it’s fine. BCPS has never been very good at communicating with the public. But it sure sounds like school officials are actually taking positive steps to enhance students’ “21st-century skills,” doesn’t it?

BCPS is first redesigning curriculum in the core content areas to redefine what instruction will look like in a blended learning environment, while placing a stronger emphasis on critical thinking and analytical skills.

From the sound of that, one could easily conclude that BCPS was using a substandard curriculum in some core content areas, a curriculum that apparently needs to be completely revamped. Here we go again. My point is that kids I’ve met from BCPS seem to have a very good handle on core content areas, among the best in the country that I’ve met and in whose classrooms I’ve sat. And that was with a curriculum that schools now say they need to “redesign.”

Look, giving kids tablets isn’t a bad idea. It’ll be millions of dollars spent on devices that’ll be obsolete in a few years, but if the school system wishes to spend its money on devices rather than on good books, chosen personally for students smart and not-so-smart or on a room full of resources that could accommodate the diverse needs of Baltimore County’s diverse student population, have fun, I say. If schools would rather buy the latest toy than guidance counselors, healthcare professionals, better buses, better meals, or smaller class sizes for more personalized face time with an actual human, there’s really no talking to them.

Just be aware that many districts are discovering that an appreciable minority of students don’t have broadband at home. That means either the district has to provide access or kids have to find it somewhere, somehow. If neither of those happens, some homework just isn’t going to get the attention it deserves in our 21st-century world.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is an offshoot from the Microsoft Corporation, famously said that one of the benefits of common standards, such as those Maryland has adopted in the Common Core, would be to “open the classroom to digital learning.”

Not even Microsoft calls it “personalized learning” all the time, since any teacher would be able to spot the treachery of language or obvious snow job a mile away. This is changing, though, as we gradually accept an actual connection between personalized learning and digital learning environments. It just wasn’t always this way in our classrooms; that only happened when for-profit corporations figured out that people wouldn’t buy “standardized” learning environments unless they could be highly “personalized.”

Calling it something doesn’t make it that thing

Digital learning means it’s easier for software developers like Microsoft (not teachers) to “develop new products for the country’s 15,000 school districts,” the Gates PR machine rejoiced, the Washington Post reported in June 2014.

Now Gates is tied to Pearson Education, the world’s largest education publisher and the maker of the PARCC tests used by Maryland schools. The partnership plans to see Common Core classroom materials from Pearson deployed on Microsoft’s tablet, the Surface.

Pearson also just happens to be a sponsor of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, although the link to BCPS may be completely coincidental and not tied to any conflict of interest.

Anyway, this activity between Pearson and BCPS, known in today’s lingo as a “partnership,” will be touted by both Microsoft and Pearson and will certainly put Microsoft in a better position, at least in schools, against Apple’s iPad, which now dominates the tablet-in-classroom market.

Microsoft gets to sell lots of computers, and Pearson gets to add to its client list of major schools (BCPS is the nation’s 26th-largest school district) that use its mediocre online course materials, which everybody, including Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, seems to hate, according to an article in Fortune. The only people or organizations that don’t get anything useful out of this arrangement are the students of Baltimore County.

“This transformation is necessary to provide personalized learning to our increasingly diverse student population at a time when the economy requires more from our students for future success,” BCPS says about its S.T.A.T. initiative.

That’s just not true. In fact, “personalized learning” doesn’t necessarily have any connection to a “blended learning environment.” But education officials corrupt the meaning of that term, probably in order to secure deals with technology providers. It once meant something so beautiful in our classrooms but today connotes something closer to “profits” than to “instruction.”

Wikipedia says personalized learning is “the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum, and learning environments by learners or for learners in order to meet their different learning needs and aspirations. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments.”

However, tailoring learning in this way is the bipolar opposite of standardization. Computer programs are standardized in that a flowchart is pre-programmed, and before any student makes a single choice about the direction he wants his pedagogy, curriculum, or learning environment to take, long before any teacher—human or otherwise—gets to know the first thing about a student’s life, his path through the educational module is pre-determined.

By limiting the options available to students to a pre-programmed set, software developers have suppressed innovation in classrooms and created massive impediments to the ability of students to express themselves creatively. Corporations, by giving us digital learning, are leading schools, teachers, and students down a path that limits their futures, not one that expands their futures. Yet the beat of corporate reform plays on.

This type of personalized learning, in other words, isn’t the same “personalized learning” your grandmother’s teacher thought it was. It could, at best, be called “digital” or “blended” learning. And it requires an Internet connection for all students equally.

Feds could help schools reach, and sell to, the masses

What computers do, however, is enable teachers to provide access to those standardized lessons, with multiple paths in the flowchart, to hundreds, nay thousands, of students at once, while employing very few assistants or other teachers.

It provides access to those learning environments, that is, unless some kids don’t have access to a high-speed Internet connection.

That’s why, the Times reports, a brother and sister in McAllen, Texas, were standing on a crumpled sidewalk outside an elementary school, hooking up to the WiFi: Their mother’s out of work, money’s tight, and they had to cut their data plan.

In cities like Detroit, Miami, and New Orleans, where as many as one-third of homes don’t have broadband, kids jam-pack into public libraries or a local Panera or McDonald’s, which offer free WiFi to customers but don’t usually shoo kids out, even if they don’t buy anything.

Others tend to do their homework while they’re riding on school buses that are equipped with WiFi. Some districts have drivers park the buses in residential neighborhoods so kids can huddle around them to get the WiFi connection.

An estimated 5 million families don’t have a high-speed Internet connection, according to the Pew Research Center, and according to the article, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote next month on a new purpose for roughly $2 billion a year in the “Lifeline” program, which includes subsidies for broadband services in low-income homes.

“This is what I call the homework gap, and it is the cruelest part of the digital divide,” the paper quoted Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the commission who has pushed to overhaul the Lifeline program, as saying.

But repurposing federal funds will take time, and in the meantime, all of Baltimore County’s diverse students need to do their homework in order to be prepared for the 21st century. Requiring them to do that on computer, I’m afraid the school system will soon discover, takes much more than providing each student with a mobile computing device.

Business leaders know: Don’t outsource your core products

Having companies like Microsoft or Pearson create curricular materials that were once and most appropriately in the domain of K-12 educators is like outsourcing the assembly of an entire automobile to the supplier of the steel.

Candace M Thille helped bring big data to college teaching, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, but the Stanford University professor has, since the early days, tempered her support for the industry a little.

The proprietary “black boxes” in S.T.A.T.—the software programs with flowcharts—might be able to take students through an extra lesson on quadratic equations, say, when quizzes indicate they need a little extra help. This has come to be known as “personalized learning,” but it’s really just a black box with no understanding of the students it purports to personally serve.

Capitalists seeking astronomical profits will be able to pressure schools, she suggests, in ways that will tend to inhibit innovation rather than foster it. Even if companies have the best intentions, they won’t share any innovations in those algorithms with teachers, guarding them as trade secrets that masquerade as “secure” test questions.

About that trusted “black box,” she says, “That’s alchemy, that’s not science. … They make very bold claims, but they aren’t involved in the research community at all. That means we can’t validate their algorithms.”

A successful business wouldn’t even consider a move like this, so in this case, schools should take a lesson from business: Don’t outsource your core competency.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

1 Comment on "Digital divide leaves some 1-to-1 kids unconnected"

  1. Top-notch commentary on what’s being rolled in BCPS, which has been called a “laboratory.” MD is a digital learning leader. Once the products are perfected on our students (and, unlike other districts across the country, the rollout has started with elementary schools), watch out; a S.T.A.T. clone will be rolling into YOUR district. Learn more here: http://www.statusbcps.wordpress.com

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