Low Cost, High Tech to Address Digital Equity

The 2020-21 school year created many challenges for all school systems around the world. The Consortium for Schools Networking (CoSN) published a report as a response to the challenge of digital equity during the COVID period. The complete Edtech Next report is only available for CoSN members (great reason to join CoSN). I serve as the co-chair for CoSN’s Emerging Technologies Committee and I helped to gather many of the resources in the report. For this article, I’ll share some of the highlights that might help you as you look for proven strategies that are cost-worthy.

The report clustered the strategies into four areas:

  • Digital Equity Starts with Connectivity
  • Digital Equity via Virtual Teaching
  • Digital Equity via Technology-Enabled Assessment
  • Digital Equity via The Internet of Things (IoT)

For each cluster I’ll highlight projects that have demonstrated how low cost, but high tech solutions can address digital equity.

Connectivity: Communities as Early Adopters

Some school districts and communities have used the COVID challenge to examine new ways to bring Internet connectivity to all of their users. New technologies like Wireless Mesh Networks (WMS) or Citizens Band Radio Services (CBRS) have been used around the country. Why? Schools realized that it was less expensive over the long-haul to create their own networks rather than try to provide wireless access points or other kinds of connectivity to address the digital equity issue.

In the Pittsburgh area, Kris Hupp, the Director of Technology and Instructional Innovation for the Cornell School District, took a lead role. He realized in the early days of remote learning during the COVID period that many of his students were not connected. Kris began by providing 1:1 devices using CARES funding. He connected with Carnegie Mellon University who then linked Kris and his community to a regional initiative – Every1Online that enlisted a rural partner, the New Kensington-Arnold School District, and three schools that are part of the Pittsburgh Public School System. The project taps into the state-wide fiber backbone provided by the Keystone initiative for Network-based Education and Research (KINBER) and uses the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning as a broadcast tower to each community. Everyone1Online provides free access via 50/25 mbs connections to connecting families. After the year-long pilot, districts will have the option to purchase affordable connectivity for students through an arrangement with another partner – Meta Mesh. As Kris points out, “My hope is that, through Every1online, I will have a solution for our families–just like breakfast and school lunches, if we have a hungry kid, we’ll feed them. And if we have a kid who needs Internet, we can provide Every1online.”

The Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) in California, like Cornell, discovered that many of its students were without service to their homes. Fresno decided to create its own solution rather than partnering with any other entities. FUSD opted to create its own LTE CBRS network with partners Net Synch and NOKIA to overcome the inequities it faced. The project is expected to go fully operational in Fall 2021. FUSD decided to use its own buildings as part of the linking chain. On building roofs FUSD mounted antennas and tripods to send signals throughout the district. Dr. Phil Neufield, the Executive Officer for Technology, has led the charge. According to Phi, “We’ve got to push carriers to change the baseline. Changing the game under the ground with fiber, changes the game in the sky and in homes.”

Virtual Teaching: OnRamp – A Regional Virtual Professional Development Initiative

Early during the COVID period of remote learning the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), one of 29 regional agencies in the state of Pennsylvania that provides services to K-12 schools, realized that educators and parents needed training and support. According to Kevin Conner, the Curriculum and Instructional Technology leader at the AIU, “Tech isn’t useful until it’s useful to you. You have that light bulb but no one can turn it on but you.” Conner and his teammates at the AIU started a series of Zoom online sessions that reached out beyond the AIU to other IUs. By May, 2020 they had reached out to over 10,000 teachers throughout the state. The AIU partnered with local providers, non-profits, and universities to offer a variety of courses. Sessions were based on the notion that peer-to-peer instruction would best turn on the light bulb. The AIU partnered with the Friday Institute at North Carolina State University to create a dynamic interconnected framework for the online instruction. The project tapped into existing resources and provided grant opportunities for educators to share their expertise.

Technology-Enabled Assessment: Highline School District

Rebecca Kim, Executive Director for Teaching, Learning, and Leaders in the Highline Public Schools (HPS), explained how her district looks at equity, “We are looking at Proficiency through the lens of Growth and Mastery. We celebrate growth…Our focus is on acceleration, not remediation which is a deficit approach.” Highline discovered that its years of curriculum development had set in motion a great approach to meet the challenges of COVID and remote instruction. HPS’s acceleration model stemmed from rigorous grade-level content development using a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Instructional supports included individual and small-group core-instruction support, home-learning resources, and family supports. The district turned to four formative online tools that the District already was using to deliver instruction during the COVID period: Zoom for daily instruction and attendance monitoring; Screencastify for asynchronous instruction; Seesaw for its elementary students; and Google Classroom for secondary students.

Internet of Things: Remote Robotics

Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off company from the CREATE Lab at Carnegie-Mellon University, discerned quickly that its physical computing solutions, the Hummingbird Kit and the Finch Robot, needed to find a new way deliver instruction for remote learners. Tom Lauwers, the CEO and founder of Birdbrain, worked with his team and they discovered Netsblox, a free visual programming tool developed a number of years ago at Vanderbilt University. Netsblox provided a link between remote Internet enabled devices and users on the Internet. Soon Tom and his team had a number of pilot projects up and running at no cost for remote users. Erin Whitaker at Sewickley Academy, developed her Robot Dance Party Project using the Hummingbird Kits she had. She had her students remotely use Google Drawing to design their robots and then Erin constructed the robots based on their collaborative designs. Erin created the Netsblox code so each team could control their robots. The students used YouTube to view their creations. At each point she found an existing resource that required no additional costs.

At Seneca Valley School District Eric Fogle wanted to engage all 600 of his middle school technology education students. He set up 12 robots around four themes: Moving Masterpieces, Musicians, Carnivals, and Animals. The middle school students used Microsoft Teams to work on their coding and designs. The project engaged the students in coding, collaborative design, and computational thinking with no additional cost for the Eric’s class since they already owned the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and had Microsoft subscriptions for students and teachers. As Tom Lauwers explains, “Teachers need enthusiasm and interest, not necessarily experience in robotics or CS, to get started.”

Key Takeaways

The CoSN Edtech Next Report highlights the following points to remember:

  • Create Change via Networking, Partnerships, and Grant Opportunities
  • Invest in Buy-In Time
  • Do Your Homework. Leverage Your Influences
  • Build Sufficient Support Networks
  • Evaluate Costs/Benefits Relatively

Connecting Learning to Real World Problem Solving

For the past ten years Mimo Ito and the Connected Learning Research Network have looked at how young people learn. They realized that there were three overlapping spheres – interests, opportunities, and relationships. At the center of these three spheres is “Connected Learning.” I discovered this powerful look at student learning through my work with the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh. I used some of the principles to develop a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center of Pittsburgh. Recently Mimo Ito and Connected Learning Research team published an updated report on their findings – Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship.

According to Mimi Ito there are three outcomes that demonstrate when Connected Learning occurs:

  • The project sponsors or legitimizes the interests of diverse youth;
  • The learners are engaged in shared practices, e.g. solving real world problems;
  • Learning is connected across settings through brokering and coordination.

Let’s look at each one of these outcomes through the lens of a series of Design Challenges that students in the Parkway West Consortium of Schools participated during the 2019-20 school year.

Learning based on Interests

When I first approach the schools in the Parkway West Consortium, I give them choices. Each of the choices is based on a real-world problem that the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) has identified as a problem where they want high school students to provide fresh insights. The schools receive their first or second choice. Each school approaches this in a slightly different way. One school might look at a course that has a fit. Another school might consider an after-school club or activity group. Another school might open the Design Challenge to any students to who have an interest. In each case students participate based on their interests. For instance: South Fayette High School decided to participate in the “Gems of the Hill District” Design Challenge. They outlined the responsibilities and let students from three classes choose to participate. It was not a required activity. It was based on students’ interest in the Design Challenge.

Engaging in Shared Practices

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

One of the keys for successful connected learning is focusing on real world problems. The EIC each year looks at problems where students might provide valuable ideas. For example: several years ago the EIC developed a Design Challenge around new LEED certification directions to take the building. Even though, the EIC had a platinum status, the management team realized that there were more sustainable opportunities. One of the teams, from Montour High School, focused on the need for more living plants within the building. The student consulting team developed a prototype for a green wall for Innovation Hall, one of the spaces at the EIC.

During the summer of 2019 the EIC management team decided to build on the original idea that Montour had developed and implemented at their high school. This time the high school student consultants from Montour, Chartiers Valley, and Parkway West Career and Technology Center were asked to develop a prototype for a “Mobile Green Wall.”

Learning is Connected Across Settings

The “Mobile Green Wall” provides great examples how the students had to collaborate and work as three teams to solve a real-world problem. The Chartiers Valley team worked on the schematics for the prototype using CAD-based software. The team from Montour focused on the plants and the environmental needs that would be part of the design. The student consultants from Parkway West constructed a metal scale model that incorporated Chartiers Valley’s design incorporating Montour’s recommendations. The student consulting teams had to broker and coordinate their ideas. Quite honestly, there was a time when it didn’t look like the pieces were going to fit together. However, the students persevered and ended up with a prototype that will be used by the Energy Innovation Center in the future.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Math and Science Outside the Classroom

[In today’s world it’s not enough to just target STEM during school hours. I serve on the Board of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) in Pittsburgh, an umbrella organization that provides funding and programmatic opportunities for community and faith-based organizations to work with young people in after-school and out-of-school programs. Several years ago NLA developed its Warrior program where high school students are trained to work with younger and older learners. Today over a thousand learners gain new opportunities through the NLA Warrior program. It’s exactly the type of program that every community should develop. In the following article you’ll discover similar programs around the country. You have a chance to help these projects by donating to DonorsChoose, an organization I use to support programs in the Pittsburgh area.]

April 4, 2017 by William Broman

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Guest Post By Science Everywhere, a collaboration between Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation

Teachers across the country and at all grade levels are coming up with fascinating outside-school math and science projects on DonorsChoose.org through the Science Everywhere campaign. Thanks to match funding from Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation, everyday donors can double their impact by contributing to projects that speak to them. Projects that still need funding range from a gardening project at a Florida elementary school, to “weekend weather kits” for students in Missouri, to robotics materials for high schoolers in Indiana.

Five projects that need funding to become a reality:

Research shows that outside-school engagement is essential to boosting math and science learning. Viewing learning opportunities as “charging stations” helps to visualize why it’s so important: students who are surrounded by opportunities to “charge up” their learning – attending afterschool programs, going to museums, exploring science centers – can apply the concepts they learn in class to everyday life and develop a fluency with math and science that helps them succeed. Students who live in “dead zones” with fewer opportunities to do math and science outside school can find it hard to keep up.

Science Everywhere hopes to help teachers inspire kids to understand and love math and science in exciting, new ways. The skills young people develop doing math and science – critical thinking, problem solving, experimentation, and more – are incredibly valuable in all aspects of life. Since students spend 80 percent of their time outside of school, these critical subjects should be part of their daily lives. As part of the campaign, the foundations are matching donations from the public to fund outside-school math and science projects submitted by teachers to DonorsChoose.org. At the end of the challenge, five $5,000 prizes will be awarded to the teachers who come up with the best ideas.

Teachers have until April 30, 2017 to submit qualifying projects on DonorsChoose.org to be considered for one of five $5,000 prizes. The winning teachers will be announced on September 5, 2017.