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

Driving Innovation: Accelerators

In 2018 the Consortium for Schools Networked (CoSN) transformed the K-12 Horizon Report into The CoSN K-12 Driving Innovation Series with three reports. The reports are based on the work of over 100 educators around the globe who look at emerging technologies through three lenses: Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers. As the co-chair of the CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee, I was selected to be part of the process. The Advisory Group engaged in several months of discourse about the major themes driving, hindering, and enabling teaching and learning innovation at schools. After each phase, final thoughts from advisory board members were distilled in surveys discerning the top five topics to feature in each publication.

Currently I’m working with the Emerging Technologies Committee to expand the work of the Advisory Group around Accelerators, in particular Data-Driven Practices.  The CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee felt that all five themes (see graphic) were important, but for the CoSN audience, Data-Driven Practices had the greatest relevance. Plus it has been over three years since CoSN had worked on examples in this area.

According to the Driving Innovation report, data-driven activities can be defined according to this statement: With more engagement, performance, and other kinds of data being collected, schools are leveraging that data to make decisions about curriculum, hiring, technology investments, and more.

CoSN’s previous discussions on Data-Driven Practices focused on administrative issues relating to privacy, security and uses of data to inform instruction, with a major focus on compliance issues relating to No Child Left Behind. Now with the move towards student-centered learning, there’s a growing interest in looking at other ways of using data in the educational arena. The Data Fluency project at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab is a great example of how data is now viewed as a tool for empowering both educators and student learners.

According to the Mission/Vision statement from the Fluency Project:

Fluency is a process of deep inquiry, case-making, and advocacy. Guided by shared values, we explore how technology and data can serve as tools to enhance the voices of teachers and students. Co-powering teachers and students to be “Fluent” means they can gather information, reconcile it with their personal experience, and influence public discourse. Within this framework, the focus is on creating an individual path for exploration based on self-knowledge, in the context of the world around you. While students will have access to new tools for understanding data and creating compelling media, we believe it is the Fluency process that will lift up their voices, and mold them into critical thinkers and active citizens.

In order to understand how this looks in a K-12 world I interviewed school leaders and teachers from two school districts in the Pittsburgh, PA region who are taking a lead in using data to enhance student agency – Carlynton and Allegheny Valley. The principal of Carlynton Jr/HS, Michael Loughren, introduced me to two of his English teachers who have taken the lead on the Data Fluency project – Kristen Fischer and Wendy Steiner. We don’t usually think about data projects in English. Kristen and Wendy have discovered a new approach give students a voice in their writing, oral and digital communications.

For the study of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, students now analyze the character in relation to episodes of PTSD. They have to find details (data) in the form of repeated words and phrases that supports an argument that Macbeth suffered from PTSD. For another project students had choices of expression for an an oral history project on a self-selected element of family history. The students used a different tool to express themselves – a podcast format. According to Kristen and Wendy there have been a number of benefits. Student work is now always original with no elements of plagiarism. All students are engaged and see a purpose in their writing. According to Michael Loughren the Data Fluency project has deepened and strengthened relationships between teachers and students. In addition, he has witnessed a decrease in the number of discipline problems.

At Allegheny Valley, Brett Slezak, the technology director, has seen similar benefits using the Data Fluency approach. Student voice has been amplified by allowing each student to make their case, which in turn has led to more student engagement. Brent emphasized the importance of using an inquiry-based processed. Students need to start by asking essential questions. At Allegheny Valley the essential question for one high school project was: What is air quality? Why is it important? Students used a SPEC sensor from the CREATE lab to monitor the air quality in multiple classrooms. The students then had to analyze the data and make their case. The problem required the students to “scrub” the data and visually represent what was happening. The students discovered patterns that led to conversations with teachers. The students had to develop a narrative so the data created a story. The students then had to advocate for changes within the classrooms. The students discovered how data revealed solutions for real world problems.

There were more projects that Carlynton and Allegheny Valley teachers created. In every case students voice became amplified. Data provided a way to gain insights into real-world problems. Students discovered that data can be more than numbers. Students took their ideas to new levels by becoming agents of change advocating for solutions to solve real-world challenges.

 

What Happened at #TRETC2018?

Each year the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) shares the best in the learning realm for K-20. This year’s event occurred on November 6 at Baldwin HS, just outside the city of Pittsburgh, PA. Mike Moe, an edupreneur from Silicon Valley kicked off the event by looking at the Future of Work and the challenge for K-20 education. According to a Tweet from @Kinber:

Michael Moe @michaelmoe Co-Founder of ASU + GSV Summit @asugsvsummit this morning’s opening keynote on Reigniting the American Dream at #TRETC2018 #TRETC18 @pghtech.

Following Mike’s on point keynote, over 500 participants headed to workshops. TRETC has honored regional and state award winning educators for the past five years. This year featured presenters included: Matt Dancho talking on “Teaching in the Creative Zone;” Rachel Gatz looking at “Building Gender and Racial Equality in Tech;” Melissa Ungar using Scratch and Hummingbird Technology for 3D Storytelling; and Joe Welch, “Promoting Student Voice.”

Discover some of the presentations, including Justin Aglio’s presentation on “AI in K-12”  thanks to SIBME.

Here are some of the comments from Twitter about the sessions:

Gregg Russak exclaimed, “Really fascinating and informative presentation on Teaching and Learning in AI at TRETC 2018 .”

RJ Baxter shared, “Cyber Civility: It’s more than just Cyberbullying.”

Dr. Stanley Whiteman reported, “Great job today ⁦@MsUtley86⁩. We had a #PackedRoom at #TRETC2018 for #VR #GoogleExpeditions”

Melissa Butler related, “Shared ideas today at #TRETC2018 around engaging students in reflection about knowing/not-knowing as part of learning.”

Kevin Conner added, “@nhsdwelch sharing How I See It: Promoting Student Voice with Storytelling at TRETC 2018.”

In addition to presentations in the morning there were three workshops. Kelsey Derringer from Birdbrain Technologies worked with a packed house of over 50 adults and kids from Baldwin to create a Tiny Town using the new Micro:Bit Hummingbird. Mike Moe interacted with a team of student entrepreneurs from the Fort Cherry High School. Finally, Jody Koklades and Lisa Anselmo took people on an Edtech Smackdown.

During the lunch period TRETC participants interacted with exhibitors on the main level, People also headed downstairs to an Atrium to visit Student Showcases, discover emerging ideas in Poster Sessions, and engage in conversation with Innovative Projects and Companies.

The conference wrapped up with a reflective opportunity in the TRETC Cafe led by Dr. Jordan Lippman. Participants looked at the issue of digital equity and identified key questions that came out of the day’s activities, especially on how to prepare all students for the Future of Work.