Tagged: digital divide

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Even Google has trouble closing the digital divide

favicon An excellent article in today’s New York Times highlights the intractability of the digital divide, even for tech giants like Google.

It’s a pretty sad story, actually. Last year, Google promised to supply Kansas City, including its schools and hospitals, with very cheap high-speed Internet. The project is called Google Fiber.

The company wanted to make sure that communities demonstrated their interest in the program. To assess interest, Google required a certain percentage of residents in a neighborhood to put down a $10 deposit in order for the community to get wired.

Although this policy sounded reasonable, Google has found that mobilizing poor and largely African American communities to sign up has not worked well.

A few of the problems:

1. The program requires a credit card,
2. The program requires an email address,
3. Forty-six percent of Africans currently do not use the Internet.

Kevin Lo, the general manager of the project, said that closing the digital divide was “absolutely a core part of our mission,” but added that “it’s unrealistic to expect that we can, in six weeks’ time, close the gap.”

Although Mr. Lo’s sentiment may be true, I believe that Google should have known about the digital divide in Kansas City and done more preparation work before heading into town. It’s great that the company wants to help out, but it looks like Google Fiber wasn’t well thought out.

And shouldn’t the Internet be a public resource, anyway? favicon

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My students do their homework on their phones

favicon This is what happens in an urban public high school when I assign homework that involves technology.

Many of my students use their phones to do their homework.

Google is at the center of my writing program. Students draft, collaborate, revise, and proofread using Google Docs. It’s been great.

But as Google Docs gets better and migrates to mobile devices, and as my students remain stuck in poverty, the cell phone has become their de facto computer.

My students hold their phones close and focus on the tiny print. They tap away for hours. They squint their eyes to figure out whether they have one or two spaces between words.

It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a necessary one when their Internet at home is intermittent and when the library is closed or too far away.

Some teachers would argue that requiring students to do homework using technology is inequitable. After all, it places some students at an unfair disadvantage. But the answer to the digital divide is not to give up on the use of technology in learning. Schools must do better in addressing the needs of students and their families to ensure that all students have access.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, my students — despite my support in providing free computers this year — will continue tapping away on their phones, pretending they’re computers. favicon

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Getting computers into students’ hands

 We can’t expect students to graduate from a college-prep high school without a computer and Internet at home. It’s just not fair. One student goes home and hops on her laptop with wireless connection, and the other has to hop on two buses to compete for a workstation at the public library.

That’s why I’m giving out computers this year that students can keep.

They’re donations from friends or from strangers on Craigslist. I usually ask around every month or so. There are so many perfectly good, five-year-old computers out there that my students can use. (Note: The donor chooses whether the computer stays in the classroom or goes home with a student.)

The only trick is determining which student should get the computer. Right now, the criteria are (1) you don’t have a computer, (2) you do have Internet.

My colleagues may criticize me for not making this a larger, all-school program. Others argue that all donated computers should remain at the school (even though classroom space is tight). Indeed, perhaps the way I’m doing this is inequitable or wrongheaded. But at least I’m getting computers into students’ hands.

Besides, it’s not like this is a big part of my job. It’s just clear that some students are struggling in school because of the digital divide. Therefore, if I can find an easy way to erase that obstacle, I should go ahead and do it.

If you know someone who would like to donate a desktop or laptop computer to my students, please let me know! 

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What’s unfair about AP English, #2

 A week or so ago, I wrote about why AP English is unfair for my students. In short, my students might work harder than their privileged peers, yet pass the AP exam at a lower rate.

I’ve thought about inequities in education and society for a long time. After all, I’m a teacher. But there’s something about this year that’s making me angrier. Maybe it’s that I’m working with seniors right before they enter college. Or maybe it’s that I’m teaching AP, which offers a “stamp of approval” by dominant culture of academic excellence.

Whatever is it, my senses are heightened. Everywhere I look, there’s unfairness.

Here’s another one: the digital divide. Most of my students have computers with Internet access at home, but three do not. Two of those three are currently failing the class.

A decision: Lower my standards for these students? This happens too often. So that can’t work.

Yes, I can tell students to suck it up and deal. Go to the library — late at night, in a sketchy neighborhood, and only while it’s open, which varies day to day. Or go to a friend’s house — far away, on the bus, and once you’re there, be nice because you’re preventing your friend from finishing her homework. Or stay late at school — past the time teachers leave, instead of going to work or participating in sports.

Sure, I’ve had students figure it out. One lived 20+ miles away, worked full-time, took care of her brother, crammed in homework on the train, and just graduated from Columbia.

But why do we require our students to take on Herculean tasks? Why must they be Superman? It’s much better if my students could go home and have access to a computer without so much stress.

That’s why today I posted on Facebook a request for old computers. Already, I have two leads, which makes me happy. But even if I get the computers, that’s only half the problem. Getting free or cheap Internet access is the much trickier part. Luckily, there are some internet service providers in San Francisco who might help me out.

But until that happens, my students will have to fend for themselves. 

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Technology in schools is not a panacea

 Yesterday, The New York Times ran an excellent article questioning technology’s impact on student achievement. Despite investing millions of dollars into technology, an Arizona district has found its test scores stagnant.

Writer Matt Richtel sums up what’s going on:

In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

Richtel’s reporting is sound. He describes school leaders doing their best but making shortsighted purchases. He highlights that technology can distract as much as engage. And he emphasizes that having technology alone does nothing to improve learning; rather, teachers need to know what to do with it.

Still, even if technology does not directly lead to gains in test scores, I think it’s crucial to advocate for it in schools.

1. Schools should look like the world around them. There’s WiFi at McDonald’s and at the public library. Why not in most schools?

2. Schools should challenge the digital divide. One student owns a computer while another doesn’t. The first student is completing her homework more easily and suffers from less stress.

3. Schools should teach students how to use technology, to interact with information, and to be respectful online. This is also why we shouldn’t cut school librarians.

4. Teachers should be treated as professionals. And professionals have access to technology to do their job.

While technology is important, it’s important to invest in the right technology. SMART Boards, which do little to disrupt traditional teaching, are not the same as laptops. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we have to get it.

But figuring out “the right technology” is not an easy puzzle. After all, what’s current one day is obsolete the next. By the time a school researches a product, puts in the order, and gets the equipment installed, the gadget is old. In addition, all devices have pros and cons. Kindles are great for English class, but they’re clunky for science. iPads look beautiful, but typing on them is horrible.

My school struggles with our very limited technology budget. Sometimes, I feel like we can’t get past fixing our current computers and printers. Maybe I should be happy that we have computers and printers in the first place.

Meanwhile, my students live in a scattered technology state. They’re comfortable on Facebook but have trouble fixing a printer jam. They snap pictures and listen to music but haven’t seen a library database. They text like crazy but balk at sending a professional e-mail.

Even if technology doesn’t mean higher test scores, there’s still a lot to learn from it. 


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Starting a student tech club on campus

faviconOne of my dreams is having a technology club on campus, but so far, I haven’t found the spark among students.

Starting anything new at my school is difficult. You would think a small school would make things easier. The opposite is true: When there are only 300 students,  getting even 10 students together is a major undertaking.

It doesn’t help that the stereotype of “young techie” doesn’t exactly match up with the stereotype of “urban youth.”

But the need is obvious. The interest, I believe, is just under the surface.

Recent breakthrough
Last week, a young woman approached me and asked, “Can I start a tech club?” This is the same girl I pitched the idea to a year ago. (See, it takes time.) Last year, she wanted to found the club so that students could practice their keyboarding skills using Mavis Beacon. (No, that’s not exactly what I hoping, but you have to start somewhere.)

I was happy to see her excitement, so I got her a club request form, which requires five students as founding members.

Today, she came up to me again. “I need one more, Mr. Isero. Can you help me?” We’re close. And now I have a homework assignment. Maybe this year, the student technology club will get off the ground, Mavis Beacon or not. favicon

(Note: Please, if you have ideas for how to grow the club, let me know in the comments. Thank you.)

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Staying in contact with parents

faviconIt’s the evening before Back to School Night, and I still haven’t reached five parents I want to invite.

Yes, you’re right: These are parents who don’t have an email account.

As teachers, we know the importance of establishing and maintaining contact with parents. But doing so is challenging and time-consuming, particularly across language and technological barriers.

The digital divide is huge for parents who don’t have computers at home or at work. For parents whose primary language is not English, computers are intimidating. Besides, email is impersonal and devoid of human contact.

For a long time, I’ve been looking for an easy way to share information — like a reminder to Back to School Night — with parents in an efficient way. I’m pleased to say that Phonevite is a good solution.

Up to 25 people twice a month
Phonevite lets you record a voice message and send it to up to 25 people, twice a month, for free. You type in the phone numbers you’d like to reach, schedule the time for your call, and then type in your own number. Phonevite then calls you to record your message, and you’re done.

No, it’s not the same as a real call, but I like Phonevite because I can get across a lot of information without devoting hours to get through my phone list. In addition, I can record my message in English and Spanish without worrying about my Spanish speaking fluency. (I really should take more Spanish classes.)

Unlike other free voicemail services, the advertisement comes after your message, not before. There are other features — like RSVP capability — that are pretty neat, too.

If you want to send messages more often, there is a paid version, where each call costs 5 cents.

A possible solution?
It got me thinking: This year, perhaps I should require parents either to check an email account regularly or donate $1 to receive phone messages throughout the year. Of course, parents with email will still get much more information, but at least I’ll know that everyone is covered. favicon

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Why are teachers scared of technology?

faviconToday, I went back to school for professional development.

It was great to see my colleagues again, but I have to say, I wasn’t looking forward to hearing them yell, “My computer’s not hooked up!”

Yes, this happens every year. The custodians wax the floors during the summer, which means the computers get moved, wires get mixed up, and teachers go a little crazy.

Because our school is small, and because we don’t have a full-time tech person, I’m the guy who ends up trying to allay my colleagues’ fears.

But I just don’t get it. Most of my colleagues are in their 20s and 30s, live in the Bay area, change their Facebook statuses regularly, and use their iPhone to text their students. Can’t they hook up a desktop computer?

Apparently, not all of them can. There’s a difference between using a computer and setting one up, and hardware gets adults nervous. In fact, last year, I did a workshop called “Computer Troubleshooting 101.” It was fun seeing how my colleagues interacted with the machines. It reminded me of the time in second grade when I inadvertently pressed the Break button on the school’s Apple IIe and thought I had destroyed the computer.

Another problem is that technology is still not an integral part of the classroom. It doesn’t help that we just got rid of our Pentium IIs. Students still use pencils and markers, and teachers get praise when they assign a PowerPoint project.

So it’s going to take a while. It reminds me that focusing on getting the students excited about technology won’t do it all. We have to have teachers willing to try, too. Wish me luck on my presentation next Monday, when I challenge my colleagues to do at least one project this year that involves technology. Is it possible? I hope so. favicon

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Encouraging students to use email

faviconIn my experience, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest indicators of the digital divide is how often and how (un)comfortably students use email.

Show me a urban ninth grader of color who has an email account and checks email more than once a week, and I’ll show you a college-bound student.

(One condition: The student’s inbox must include messages other than hundreds of MySpace notifications.)

At my school, the opposite is true. The majority of my students, particularly those who struggle academically, look at me weird when I tell them to check their email.

I worry about the email gap because it correlates with academic achievement, job opportunities, and college acceptance rates.

Part of the problem, of course, is access. Students without computers at home have less chance of having an email account.

But at my school, despite racial and socioeconomic demographics, most students have Internet at home. So what’s the real problem?

Email is passe
In my opinion, for my students, email is passe. When you have a cell phone, Facebook, texting and instant messaging, the medium has become too slow for my never-at-home students.

Although shocking to 30-somethings like me, it’s entirely possible that my students have never heard of email because it’s too old.

In addition, email is just too formal for my students. There’s a big blank page where you can write real sentences and paragraphs. It’s like a block paragraph formal business letter. Might as well write an essay.

That’s the point, though. Email has become the standard communication method of dominant culture, business culture, college-educated culture, and that’s precisely why I need to teach email to my students.

In previous years, I made sure all my students had an email account on Yahoo. Then last year, when we moved to Google Apps, all students got a professional, slick-sounding account at our domain. I could rest assured that students would represent themselves well on a resume.

But despite those advances, students still are not using their email accounts very much except to notify their friends that they’ve shared a Google Doc.

Therefore, I must do a better job this year at incorporating email into my curriculum. And it can’t be how I’ve done it before. I have to figure out ways to engage my students and encourage them to use email. I need to figure out why email would be useful to my students, why they would care. I’ll keep you posted about my attempts, and please let me know if you have ideas. favicon

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My Google Apps Journey: The Beginning

I promised you stories, so here’s one. It all started about a year ago when a student tried to print an essay on a school computer using his flash drive. The problem was, the drive had the virus Disk Knight on it.

And then things went crazy.

Pretty soon Disk Knight had infected the majority of computers on campus. While we dealt with the problem, I started thinking that it might be time for a better way.

For too long, our school’s technology had too many moving parts. For example, we used Microsoft Office at school, but students used Works or WordPerfect at home. (This tech divide is typical in urban schools.) Some students ended up spending more time learning about file formats than doing their work. And it left everybody frustrated.

All of this mayhem led me to think about trying out Google Apps Education Edition, which includes free email accounts and collaborative online word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications.

The free email got my attention at first. Up until Google Apps, not all of our students had email accounts. If they did, they ran the gamut. How would you like to email a student at pimpdaddy11, babyangel89, or my favorite, xxx_califoneeyas_finest_xxx? The idea of a common, professional email account structure for all students sounded perfect.

But what ultimately got me to sign up for Google Apps was its simple, easy-to-use office applications. I’ll say more in an upcoming post, but it became clear very quickly that Google Apps would solve nearly all of the problems our students were experiencing. No more flash drives. No more viruses. No more anxiety about file formats. No more emailing documents to yourself. And, most important, no more lost work.

With that vision in mind, I began taking steps to make Google Apps a reality at our school.