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

Engaging Learners in a COVID World

Usually I base my stories on what other educators are doing. However, this winter I had a chance to teach an Osher course for Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I really wanted to test out some of my ideas about engaging learners during this period of remote learning. In this blog article I’ll share some of my successes as well as many of my failed attempts working with senior adults.

Before the sessions began I decided to create a survey to find out what my class knew about tools for engagement and what they hoped to learn in the class. For any type of learning it’s important to assess your learner’s and customize your learning activities based on the interests of your students. I also decided before the class started to test out some features of Zoom. One of the best ways to engage people in addition to the Chat Room is the Poll feature. When I tried to create a poll for my first class with Ani Martinez and Jason Swanson to look at the Tomorrow Project powered by Remake Learning, I found the polling feature didn’t function for me. I thought: maybe I’m missing something. I’ll contact CMU. Well, guess what? CMU disabled the feature for study leaders, their term for instructors of Osher classes. They suggested I send them my questions. I didn’t like that idea. It would be cumbersome and difficult to do each week. I thought about other online sessions I had joined and remembered a few years ago one of my colleagues used an online tool called Mentimeter. I thought: I’ll create my own polls and pose them during the class.

At the end of our first class Ani Martinez suggested that we save the Chat discussion. I never had done that, but I agreed it made perfect sense. Guess what CMU had done? Yes, they eliminated the ability to share any comments. Why? I asked but never really received an answer. It would have been a wonderful tool for engaging the class at our next session, but I had to think about another way to handle the challenge. I asked my teaching assistant, Bev, to write down the key ideas that people shared and sent them to me as an email file. It worked. Not as seamless as just saving the Chat conversation, but it proved again how you sometimes have to pivot in ways you don’t expect when you teach online.

It was easy to create a Word Cloud activity in Mentimeter, but when I went to have my class access the poll for my first class, it didn’t work. They couldn’t see where to enter information. I used the opportunity to talk about how we learn from our mistakes. I decided I would search for another polling tool. Were there some other challenges for that first class? Yes, of course. Jason Swanson wanted to show a video, but that didn’t work. Fortunately, he had planned for an interactive activity using Padlet. It had been years since I used this online tool. I never would have thought about it for an online class activity. It worked quite well.

The senior adults in my class quickly entered their ideas for the activity that Jason had developed around the Futures Triangle. Jason spends most of his time working for KnowledgeWorks as a Futurist. He’s not a prognosticator, but a person who analyzes the past, the present and the future by looking at major trends. The Osher class added their comments online and then Jason shared the Padlet board with the class. It engaged everyone and provided a wonderful first step for the class to look at the future of learning – one of my goals.

Tom Lauwers, the founder and CEO of Birdbrain Technologies, joined the class for Week 2: Remote Robotics. Tom and his team at Birdbrain struggled in the early days of COVID. How did you engage learners in Physical Computing when students don’t have access to robots at home? After doing some research Tom realized that there was a tool, Netblox, developed by Vanderbilt years before the pandemic that would allow remote users to control physical devices. It was an Internet of Things (IoA) solution. Tom then had to work with his team to make the Hummingbird Kit and Finch robot work with Netsblox. That was an easy challenge. For my class Tom highlighted two pilot projects using Remote Robotics from the Pittsburgh area and then set the stage for my Osher students to control a series of Finch Robots from their remote sites. The Osher students would manipulate some variables using Finchblox, a Scratch-like programming language that Birdbrain created.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While some of the students had great success, others floundered. Adult learners are not as open to new ideas and working in a digital playground. That was my key take-away from Session 2. You need to have more guided instruction. I should have remembered that from my days training teachers. However, the Osher students enjoyed their experience and we discovered another way to be engaged learners. I also observed how important “feedback” was for student success. Tom Lauwer’s did an excellent job observing how the students tested out ideas about moving the Finch. For any learning experience, especially for an online activity, immediate feedback is critical.

For Week 3 I invited Stephen MacIsaac, the executive director of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) in Pittsburgh, to bring a team of students to talk about the World of Virtual Learning and Work. NLA had created a pre-COVID a program, High School U, that combined taking college classes in high school with job placements related to the courses that the students were taking. A local group. Partners4Work, helped to fund the project. What was unique about the High School U program was the opportunity to get paid for time in class as well as time on the job. In the original model NLA tried to place students with work partners that related to the student’s college classes. How can you do that during a time of Remote Learning? How do you keep students engaged as both content learners and workers? Stephen invited Deb Smallman, the NLA coordinator for the High School U program, to join him and share the High School U success story during COVID with my Osher class. Deb sent out the word and four students and one tutor joined us. My Osher class first heard from Deb about NLA’s pivot, but it was the student stories that really made a difference for the class. I learned a great lesson – always include personal stories. Building relationships are key for any learning and especially in remote learning you have to find creative ways for people to relate to each other.

I also discovered another tool for engagement for the session with the High School U students. During an earlier online event I had attended one of the presenters used Slido. I discovered that Slido had an AddOn™ app that was designed to work with Google Slides. That solved my earlier problem with Mentimeter. Slido made it easy to project a poll and then have my students see the results.

For our fourth session I turned to Jessica Lee to look at virtual art, especially music, as a tool for engaging learners. Jessica and I had worked together on a number of projects in the past five years, especially a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center. However, Jessica had a personal interest in using Music as a tool for Wellness, or what Jess calls “A Healthy Body, Healthy Voice, Healthy Life.” Jessica not only entertained the class with wonderful exercises such as doing mouth percussion, “Za, Za Zoom,” but she also provided wonderful guidance around developing a Life Performance Lifestyle. The class didn’t need any slides to be engaged. It was more fun to actively participate in the exercises and hear Jess outline what she’s discovered teaching music online during this COVID period. It’s not easy to teach music remotely, since you cannot have people sing in real time. Zoom and all of its competitors have a sound delay that challenges any in-person music collaboration. However, as Jess pointed out, you can still use the same tools for one-on-one teaching and as my class demonstrated be very engaged by music. Social and emotional learning are keys for learning success. The arts are a wonderful tool to use to provide for new opportunities with social and emotional learning.

Justin Aglio, a colleague who just took over the leadership for the Penn State Readiness Institute in Pittsburgh, provided another lesson- don’t expect Internet connections to work in remote locations outside of your home. Justin thought he could create a hot spot for himself at the senior care facility where he was in the process of moving his father. The connection did not allow for a robust enough connection to make a Zoom session work. Fortunately, I remembered one of the key mantras for distance learning – always have a Plan B and Plan C. Justin sent his slide deck to me ahead of the class. That proved to be the key ingredient for sharing Justin’s story. I know I couldn’t be an animated and engaging as Justin, but since I knew Justin’s story and had his slide deck I was able to make his story come alive, especially getting my class engaged thinking about a Growth Mindset and participating in the Hope Moonshot that Justin had organized for the Readiness Institute.

Engaging learners requires us to think beyond today, but it’s critical to have real world connections. The Readiness Institute is designed to provide learners with connections to the community and business to make that real world connection.

I’ve always believed that in order to achieve “Deeper Learning” you need to apply what you’ve learned. In order to demonstrate to my class what a “capstone” project might look like, I created a movie for my class. This article is another example of how to process what you’ve learned.

My final session brought the pieces together. Justin Aglio joined the class and responded to people’s Hopes. He also explained that he’s had over 30 countries submit responses and some countries, like Ecuador, are thinking about a national campaign around the Hope Moonshot. Most of my Osher students shared their Personal Stories. They found the class rewarding and gave them new ideas for their Lifelong Learning. All of the projects were very anthropocentric, looking at a variety of needs for people ranging from veterans to educators with learning challenges to kids with cancer.

What’s Working During COVID

While many people have been concerned about the lack of learning during the COVID period, there have been a number of successful strategies and approaches.  Through a dialog with regional educators, my contributions to the work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), and listening to personal stories from 2020 HundrED Virtual Innovation Summit, I’ve compiled a list of successes. In this posting, I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve discovered. We’ll look at how at one school in Pennsylvania has students working together in teams and collaborating even with remote learning and social distancing. We’ll hear from an online trainer how the pandemic has opened new learning doors for active learning for students, parents, and educators. We’ll hear from one edtech company that has made robotics a remote hands-on experience for all learners. We’ll discover a school district in California that has found ways to continue to expand the expertise for their professional learning community. Finally, we’ll discover how an African non-profit has had to be pivot to continue to deliver its entrepreneurial program for learners.


Collaboration and Working as a Team

Melissa Unger, the K-2 STEAM Teacher for the South Fayette School District, has been an educational leader for the past decade. The pandemic forced her to rethink how she designs learning experiences, especially to promote collaboration and team-building. According to Melissa, “Being in a Hybrid setting and social distancing has caused us to rethink what it means for students to work together and collaborate. One of the best tools I have used for this is FlipGrid–students are able to share their work, thoughts, or ideas via short videos, and others can comment. In each homeroom, students have only met half of their classmates in person this year, so FlipGrid has allowed for a greater sense of community building and information sharing. I have watched students use others’ videos as a way to add on to their own ideas and form connections. 


“I also think that now more than ever open-ended projects and STEAM tasks are really important for our students. These projects and tasks address an uncertainty that students need to understand – an uncertainty about the virus, school closures, and just what’s going to happen each day. With open-ended projects, I think students start to see that having all the information is not always necessary before moving forward. This new learning situation builds confidence and resilience during this time of uncertainty.”


Active Learning

Active learning is always an important goal. In order to achieve learning engagement it’s critical to think about instruction design. According to Kelesy Derringer, the Co-founder of CodeJoy LLC, ” The job of an educator is not to simply transmit information, but to design educational experiences. Even in online learning, this is still the job, though our delivery method has radically changed. In our classes at CodeJoy, we continue to ask, “What are the students DOING?” We offer opportunities to do more than listen – students can code and control robots, build their own catapults at home with craft supplies, engage in the Engineering Design Process together, talk to a live puppet, ask a florist to cut a rose in half to see what it looks like, strap a phone camera to a horse and go for a ride, or have a dance party with children all over the world! Engagement looks different online, but it should still be the cornerstone around which educators design their learning experiences.”

Lock downs and social distancing requirements have created serious challenges to hands-on robotics education, but also inspired creative solutions, such as 1:1 robotics and remote robots. According to Tom Lauwers, the CEO and Founder of Birdbrain Technologies, “With 1:1 robotics, all students have a robotics kit at home, and use remote collaboration tools like the newly released micro:bit classroom along with teacher-led video instruction to learn coding and robotics. Remote Robots is a new technology that we’ve developed to allow kids to code a robot in a beginner-friendly environment that is not located in the same location as them. We quickly created five 24/7 live-streamed robots in April that anyone can code, and have also created a tutorial for educators to set up their own remote robots. Together, 1:1 robotics and remote robots provide educators with a toolbox to continue physical computing and robotics education in these pandemic times.”

Creating a Professional Community

CoSN for the past three years has assembled a global team of advisors to look at Innovation in Education. I’ve been part of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation advisory team. This year in addition to the normal Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers, we began to look at examples of innovation due to the COVID situation. Phillip Neufield, the Executive Officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California shared his insights with the CoSN community. According to Phillip, “Over the past five years, our district has moved to more experiential, actionable professional learning where teachers experiencing their learning as we intend teacher practices to land as learning experiences for their students (albeit with adult learning wisdom applied).”


“So in spring we delivered over 100 webinars to prepare teachers for the shift to distance learning with over 1,700 educators participating, some up to 3-5 times in different webinars.  Educators could access recorded sessions.  And we offered competency-based on-demand web training resources with over 10,000 unique visits.”


“We repeated this approach in summer to prepare educators for fall.
We found educators were bringing these new teaching practices back to their grade-level or department-level professional learning communities (teaching practices included the know-why, know-how, and tech mediated activities).”

Creative Pivoting

The problems learners, parents, and educators face in the United States due to the pandemic are truly global. During the Virtual HundrED Innovation 2020 Summit I listened to an African educator, Frank Omana, outline how his non-profit, EDUCATE!, pivoted.

Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities. With the appearance of COVID this skill-based model for entrepreneurial studies had to find a distance learning option

Frank and his team created “The Experience on Air.” They began to broadcast on national radio and available via text messaging. They kept the core components – practical experience with mentorships, skills, and assessments. Remarkably the pivot opened new doors for the African learners using the distance learning model.

In each of the cases I’ve outlined new doors opened, while old gateways were no longer available. In today’s world, that’s the lesson we all need to understand. We need to be nimble and pivot so we can maintain our educational goals like Birdbrain, CodeJoy, Frenso, or the South Fayette School District. The real test is how well are we meeting the needs of our learning community.