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With so many questions around the future of learning and education, it is certainly a challenging time. But I do feel this is also an unprecedented moment full of potential should we wish to take it. With bold leadership I think we have an opportunity to shift away from that which was not working for our learners and educators, and create new systems that do. Systems and practices that are equitable for all, where every child has the chance to grow and thrive and contribute. So where do we turn for bold leadership?

A colleague and mentor of mine who I hold in high regard is offering such leadership – Lennie Scott-Webber – an experienced educator, trained social scientist, environmental behavior researcher, and an NCIDQ designer of learning places. I also have the pleasure of collaborating with Lennie on the board of the Green Schools National Network – the non-profit organization devoted to accelerating student achievement through the implementation of green, healthy, and sustainable practices. Having known Lennie and her work for a long time,  I completely trust her leadership in these complex times. She is a powerhouse of progressive thought and intention when it comes to the well-being of our educators, students and society.

For the last few weeks she’s been contributing to the conversation of developing a new way forward in education by sharing her knowledge and thoughts in articles she aptly names, Thinking Out Loud. She explains, “I will share how I think we might manage and grow from this situation and address next steps for my stated beliefs. Each issue will try and connect some dots as I share my Thinking Out Loud with you with a particular focus on learning experiences.” Each of her Thinking Out Loud articles are highly recommended reading to stretch and challenge your thinking.  It’s alongside thought leaders such as Lennie that together we can affect change and create a more sustainable, equitable and meaningful future for all.

In this Thinking Out Loud, Issue#2, Lennie discusses her observations and ideas around student equity, the digital divide and physical access.

You can also read Lennie’s first Thinking Out Loud paper here: where she discusses how the current outdated model of education is failing our learners and educators because it’s not about learning – and her ideas on how we can seize this present opportunity to embrace a new equitable education model.

Enjoy Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, INSYNC: Education Research + Design, Thinking Out Loud Issue #2

Introduction: Times are certainly anything by “normal” – whatever that means. I decided because many people were reaching out to me asking questions about what to do, particularly about learning and learning environments, in this current COVID-19 crises, I would share my thoughts in a series titled, “Thinking Out Loud.” These are thoughts from an experienced educator, trained social scientist, environment behavior researcher, and designer of learning places; BUT these are just my thoughts. Further scientific research may be required on some ideas. Read along. Take the thoughts for what they are. Discard them. Build on them. Use them if you find helpful – my hope is you will. Share back to build a community of thoughtful responses.

Beliefs: These are my stated beliefs – I will share the issues, and how I think we might manage and grow from this situation and address next steps for my stated beliefs. Each issue will try and connect some dots as I sharing my Thinking Out Loud with you with a particular focus on learning experiences.

It is my belief that… (1) the opportunity is now to let the proverbial education dinosaurs die, and grow from this situation to reach for a full focus on the learning experience. (2) integrating scientific knowledge to manage the switch from a traditional Education System to a System for Learning is possible. (3) the immediate smashup between the analogue [doing things by hand / onsite] and the digital [online] is our “new normal,” and will continue indefinitely. (4) we must find a way to bring our humanity’s human needs, particularly for the most vulnerable, into our responses for this, and any health crises, in order to thrive and not just exist in our day-to-day interactions with others. (5) the band-aid was ripped off exposing a truth, and the many failings in our collective systems [ex. food shortages, equity issues, teaching to the test, and lack of professional development for educators to know how to ‘flip the switch’ to online learning, an obvious lack of future-focused strategies for School Boards and Education systems]. (6) the fact that the pre-K-to-12 educators are our unsung heroes; their masks are invisible. (7) our social and emotional stresses due to this pandemic situation will become as critical as the health factors. (8) every situation offers the opportunity to envision something new, and it’s way past time for education to do so. I will share how I think we might manage and grow from this situation and address next steps for my stated beliefs. Each issue will try and connect some dots as I sharing my Thinking Out Loud with you with a particular focus on learning experiences.

The Digital Divide – Divides All

The Divide Described / In Brief: This divide is multifaceted. Some facets include: (a) physical access to service and digital tools, (b) a one-to-one ratio deficit, (c) a lack of digital literacy, (d) the lack of professional development for educators across the Kindergarten – Higher Education spectrum, and (e) an apparent lack of attention paid by local school boards and public entities to address the physical access issues in particular.

When the US was locked down due to COVID-19 in early 2020, and as a former educator, I was appalled not only at the number of cities that shut schools down, but the sheer number of them across the country for the stated reason – “a lack of equity.” Seattle, Washington was one of the first. My gut reaction was, “How can a city, in a state with two of the richest men in the world be in this kind of situation?” Don’t get me wrong, I particularly admire the philanthropic work done by Bill and Melinda Gates and the Gates Foundation. But there was definitely something wrong with this picture. What in fact did the statement, “lack of equity” mean? We have a lot wrong, but there have been and continues to be some headway. It’s no secret that access to the internet is a necessary need for today’s world; a fundamental necessity not only for access to learning opportunities, but healthcare, and the need to be able to learn how to use these digital tools for work-related needs. The opportunity? Move this need to the forefront.

Physical Access:  “Obama said this during an announcement of ConnectHomeUSA, a program launched in July 2015 to offer free Internet service to 275,000 low-income households in twenty-seven cities and one tribal nation. What that means is that 1 in 4 people in the USA do not have Internet at home”. 275K homes! 1 in 4! This statistic was quoted in 2015. ConnectHomeUSA movement’s mission was, “Every child should be given the same opportunity to build a brighter future and to achieve their dreams.” Its goal was to “…bridge the digital divide for HUD-assisted housing residents in the US under the leadership of national nonprofit EveryoneOn.” Zip code apparently matters in terms of internet connections. It is apparent that equity on this issue is by zip code and the Black, Hispanic and Native American households all have lower access than white neighborhoods. According to the statistics shared in Olanoff’s report (quoted here), this lag is by a full 10%. Now, remember these stats were based on 2015. We’re five years passed that figure now in 2020.

Some good news prevails. This project was launched in 2015 and its sample was 27 cities and one tribal nation. It “…collaborated with public housing agencies, local governments, internet service providers, and nonprofit organizations. Since then, 37% of HUD-assisted households with children in these communities have gained internet access.” My question, why in five years didn’t we reach 100%? 275,000 homes offered Internet. Google stepped into the ConnectHome project also by “…offering housing authority properties through its Google Fiber project.” CenturyLink is making broadband service available to HUD households. Sprint works with these two entities and makes internet service programs available to households with K-12 students in the public housing. Furthermore, AT&T and Verizon support these low-income households with ConnectED. “EveryoneOn has secured over $70 million…” The hope is to have 350,000 households with internet service for 2020. If my math is right, that is only 75k more households than the 275K established in 2015. That amounts to five households per year – for $70 million. That amounts to 5 household per year – for $70 million??!! Digging further. On the EveryoneOn’s homepage it describes itself as a “…nonprofit dedicated to creating social and economic opportunities by connecting low-income families to affordable internet service and computers, and delivering digital skills trainings.” This website goes on to share that, “since 2012, we’ve helped more than 784,000 people, deployed thousands of computers, and delivered hundreds of hours of digital skills trainings to diverse communities.” Great! That’s roughly $900.00 per household. But, obviously we are not moving fast enough to solve this inequity. According to HUD.gov there are 1.2 million households living in public housing units. Again, the math. 1.2 million minus 784,000 = 416,000 households just in HUD that need fixing. Still, this math suggests the 65% of US households should have the physical access to internet and digital tools. Where is today’s data? Where are the city’s School Boards’ strategies linking their schools to these accessible equity enabling programs? To date, I can’t find any definitive information to indicate what the exact status of physical access is for these students. Maybe you can.

But there is another issue of access. According to SchoolHouse Connection homelessness is on the rise. “These needs are urgent. Public schools reported a record 1.5 million homeless children and youth in the 2017-2018 school year, with an additional 1.4 million children under age six experiencing homelessness. Approximately 4.2 million youth ages 13-25 experience homelessness on their own. As disturbing as these numbers are, they are very likely underestimates — and worse still, the current economic crisis and family stress related to shelter-in-place orders are expected to create new waves of youth and family homelessness.” A terrible statistic. We can’t count what we can’t see.

The Band-Aid Ripped Off:  A life-long Issue, COVID-19 has exposed many, many disparities in the USA. It could be great again, but only if we take the blinders off. But, we’re not alone as a country in this digital divide issue. In today’s Wall Street Journal, an article titled, ‘School Closures Draw Dropout Concern’ shares our concerns are being felt by other nations – Italy and Spain in particular. “The existing digital divide is aggravating the educational gap. Unless action is taken quickly, everything points to a significant increase of the dropout rate at the end of the school year, said Jesús Marodan, president of the Spanish union of education inspectors. Educators warn that students who are falling behind will struggle to catch up when schools reopen, potentially making a permanent difference to their lives and careers.”

Connecting Some Dots:  According to NCES, “Educators, policymakers, and parents alike are focused on ensuring the academic success of our nation’s students. These efforts interact with the expanding use of technology, which affects the lives of students both inside and outside of the classroom…While access to technology can provide valuable learning opportunities to students, it does not guarantee successful outcomes. Designing successful practices for student use of technology (aka, digital literacy – my input) is but one piece of the puzzle…” NCES provides a wealth of research-related information on studies conducted.

PD for Educators: Schools didn’t ‘flip the switch’ when COVID-19 closed up shop. Why? The work force certainly did. Everyone became a ‘zoomer!’ There appears to be a K-HE lack of professional development training allowing all educators to feel confident and comfortable in providing online connections to learning. NCES reported, “A literature review conducted by Buabeng-Andoh in 2012 discusses individual, school, and technical factors that researchers have found to be associated with teachers’ use of information and communication technology in the classroom. Conclusions from the literature review suggest that at the individual level, teachers are less likely to use technology in the classroom if they lack the confidence, skills, and pedagogical training to do so; if they do not perceive a benefit of using a new technology over current instructional approaches; or if they anticipate the new approach will be difficult or time-intensive to adopt. At the school level, technology experiences may be limited by organizational structures, such as an emphasis on traditional assessment and instructional methods or on restrictive curricula. Technical-level barriers include the absence of current and well-maintained hardware or appropriate instructional software, and limited access to technology resources in the school”. As I indicated in Issue #1, educators at all levels should be able to ‘flip the switch’ and have no more lost days. Equity issues play an important role. But more and more opportunities are there to correct them. School Boards must step up and engage with entities providing solutions to them. Provide professional development. Add master teachers, use the blended learning platform and generate a new future-focused agenda.

A Hero’s Journey – A Learning Example:  I collect heroes. In my years at Steelcase Education, I had the opportunity to connect with Greg Green, principal at Clintondale High School in north Detroit, Michigan. Greg cared deeply about the fate of his students. The school was in a perilous situation, and possibly going to close. I am going to paraphrase my conversation with Greg. He indicated when talking to his faculty, he said, “We’re failing our students, and it’s not just with an ‘F’.” He had seen and read what a FLIP/Blended learning platform could do and decided to try and make a difference for the students. He found every available free software platform, repurposed old closets to video record lectures/content, and in 18 months this team of principal and educators had completely reworked their grade 9-12 high school curricula into a blended learning platform. When content is FLIPPED the lecture goes home as homework and the real learning happens in the learning place at school; facilitated learning. These students’ marks went off the charts in a good way! “Founded in 2010, Clintondale High School helped pioneer flipped classroom instruction in the United States. Students watch video lessons at home and review materials. Then, when they are at school they spend class time working on assignments or engaged in discussions. Teachers are also available to help students with material they didn’t grasp from the videos and information packets provided.” Thanks to this advanced learning model Clintondale HS has been recognized by study.com as one of the top blended HS. It didn’t take much money. It took vision, resourcefulness, and dedication by a staff that cared about their students’ future. Way to go Clintondale!

Many opportunities are in place. Communities must find the leadership and devotion to students as our future and move opportunity into reality. Let’s not waste the opportunity.

Definition: As defined by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (2015), the term, “digital learning” refers to “any instructional practice that effectively uses technology to strengthen a student’s learning experience and encompasses a wide spectrum of tools and practices” (p. 1969). This includes: (a) interactive learning resources, digital learning content (which may include openly licensed content), software, or simulations, that engage students in academic content; (b) access to online databases and other primary source documents; (c) the use of data and information to personalize learning and provide targeted supplementary instruction; (d) online and computer-based assessments; (e) learning environments that allow for rich collaboration and communication, which may include student collaboration with content experts and peers; (f) hybrid or blended learning, which occurs under direct instructor supervision at a school or other location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery of instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace; and (g) access to online course opportunities for students in rural or remote areas. (p. 1969).”

You can also read Lennie’s first Thinking Out Loud paper here: where she discusses how the current outdated model of education is failing our learners and educators because it’s not about learning – and her ideas on how we can seize this present opportunity to embrace a new equitable education model.

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