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LISTEN — Class Disrupted Podcast Episode 1: Why Doesn’t Every Student Have a Device and the Internet? How One Texas District Is Leading the Way for Virtual Learning

By Michael B. Horn and Diane Tavenner | May 18, 2020

Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple PodcastsGoogle Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

For many families in the U.S., the internet is a utility like water or electricity. But as COVID-19 has shown, that’s not true for everyone. Millions of children lack broadband access at home, making it nearly impossible to participate fully in remote learning.

In this episode of Class Disrupted, we speak with Evan Marwell, founder of EducationSuperHighway, about what it will take to get the internet and devices to all kids — and why that matters.

We also talk to a student and teacher from the Pasadena Independent School District outside Houston, Texas. Pasadena provides devices for all students and has embraced project-based learning and mentoring to help students develop strong relationships with teachers and build valuable skills for college and beyond.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Brian, a parent: Our school district has not been doing a lot of education now in light of the coronavirus, in part on the idea that a lot of kids don’t have laptops and don’t have internet and therefore don’t have access to the learning materials. And I understand that, and we share that equity concern. I guess our concern is that they don’t have those things and it seems like we should be focused on getting them internet access, and getting them laptops, and getting them all the tools they need to learn. Because It seems like a sad state if we say, hey, no one’s going to be learning right now. We recognize that yes, we have these raw resources, but we’d love to understand a little more about what it takes to get everyone these resources so that all the kids can learn.

Diane: Hi, I’m Diane Tavenner, co-founder of Summit Public Schools. As schools have shifted rapidly to remote learning, parents have a lot of questions and challenges. So along with Michael Horn, a speaker, writer and thinker on all things education, we decided to launch a podcast to answer them.

Michael: In today’s episode of Class Disrupted, we’re going to look at the role the internet and devices play in education. For the two of us, having the internet in our homes is like having running water. Having a dedicated device to work on is like having a cell phone. It’s a given, a basic element of our lives.

Diane: But not a landline.

Michael: No, not a landline.

Diane: Well, actually, we actually still have an old-school landline phone. But we haven’t plugged it in in years and it’s a paperweight now.

Michael: And I have your old landline number stored in my phone — which explains why you haven’t gotten all those messages I left for you.

Diane: Fair enough, but I’m actually trying to answer all of the messages coming in right now, thankfully with your help. And one of the things parents are pointing out is that tech is something most of us take for granted.

We know that isn’t true for all Americans. That said, it becomes more and more true all the time. Ninety percent of American adults regularly use the internet, and three-quarters of the country has broadband internet access at home.

Michael: As we’re all painfully aware, COVID-19 has forced school closures for the rest of the school year in most states. It’s affected nearly all of the nation’s 50-plus-million public school students. And while some schools are offering technology-enabled schooling, we’ve seen a ton of schools that are only doing worksheets. Worksheets, mind you, that have to be printed and then delivered, mailed or picked up weekly.

Diane: Michael, it’s become a head-scratcher for a lot of people. If most Americans have access to the internet at home, you’d think that most kids would have access to the internet and a device, right? So why aren’t all schools offering tech solutions?

Michael: The thing is, even with most of the nation having broadband at home, that leaves over 9 million children between the ages of 3 and 18 without it. And even if families do have internet, they don’t necessarily have a dedicated device for each of their children to use — which for older students would have been a big problem even before the pandemic. But now that impact is magnified, as research shows that eighth-graders without access to computers or internet were already more than two years behind their classmates. Add this all up and there are now plenty of schools telling their students and families that they don’t have the capacity to serve their academic needs at all, and so school is effectively out for the year. 

Diane: So this leaves us with a big question. How is this possible? Aren’t kids using computers or tablets at school? Can they just bring them home? If so many Americans have the internet at home, what’s the problem? And if they don’t, isn’t that a bigger problem? How are kids going to learn the skills to function in the world without regular access to the internet, if 90 percent of people have it? And what’s the right role for tech in education, anyway? How do we make sure we don’t go overboard?

Michael: Great questions, and the best person we could think of to help us answer them is Evan Marwell, the founder of the EducationSuperHighway. In 2012, Evan set out to upgrade the internet access in every public school classroom in America. Many people — myself included — thought it was a worthy, ambitious goal, but hard to imagine pulling off. But EducationSuperHighway did it. They have helped to bring broadband to 35 million students, and they are set to close up shop in August 2020, because, well, they did it. Their mission’s been completed.

Diane: It is amazing what they’ve done. It’s surprising, but they were the first people to truly measure how much broadband access schools really had — which is how they discovered it was much less and much less powerful — even when it was available — than anyone had previously understood. They also learned that, because there was no transparency about what schools were paying for broadband, that they were paying eight times as much as businesses for service. Eight times, Michael!

Michael: They worked to make all of this information available. And, as a result of their efforts, America’s schools now have meaningful internet access at an affordable price in every single classroom. That’s why we wanted to talk with Evan.

Michael: So we’ve outed ourselves and admitted that we questioned whether you’d be able to accomplish this. Why do you think people thought this was such a crazy ambitious goal?

Evan: Well, you know, I think there aren’t a lot of things in the nonprofit sector where people have actually accomplished a goal. And a lot of that, I believe, is because the goals people set are so big. It’s like, “solve world hunger.” You know, it’s like, “improve health care for the entire world.” They’re such humongous goals that achieving them almost never happens. And so one of the things that I think enabled us to actually complete this mission was that we defined our goal in a very finite way.

That we said, look, there’s only 100,000 schools in the United States. It just so happened that there was already $2.4 billion a year of funding available to upgrade the schools. Now, the funding wasn’t being spent very well, and that was one of the big problems we had to deal with.

But we said, look, with only 100,000 schools, and with that much funding, we should be able to do this.

Diane: Education Superhighway has accomplished an incredible goal. If you stayed open, could you do it again? Could you get devices and internet to every student’s home in America?

Evan: So the interesting thing is that in the last month we’ve stood up a 22-person team to work on that problem. We’re still planning to go out of business, hopefully August 31st, but in the meantime, we hope to make a difference on this front. As we’ve investigated what the challenges are, we started the same way that we started the last time, like “what are the root causes? What are the issues that need to be addressed?” There are really four problems that we need to tackle, and they’re very similar to the problems that we have to tackle for broadband in school.

So the first is school districts don’t actually know which kids don’t have internet access at home and which kids don’t have devices at home. And so, as with frankly, almost any problem related to broadband for sure, but for many other problems, if you don’t know where the problem is, you can’t fix it.

And so the first thing we’re doing is we’re developing a playbook and a set of tools to help states and school districts figure out the answer to that question — which students need broadband access at their home? That’s number one.

Problem number two is once they know who needs help, they don’t actually know which service providers can provide that help and they don’t know what the best deals are from their service providers, and they don’t know how to sign up the kids for those actual deals.

And so once again, the work we did with schools, a lot of what we did was help connect service providers to school districts so that they could get the best deals available for them. That’s what we need to do again here, and so we are building a toolkit that will allow a school district to upload a set of addresses and it will spit back to them: “Here are the service providers that can serve each address. Here’s the best deal.”And, hopefully: “Click on this link to sign your students up.”

The third problem is devices. And the challenge here is somewhat that schools don’t have enough devices, but actually schools have been investing a tremendous amount of money in devices over the last five years. And I saw data once that told me there were 50 million devices purchased by schools over the last three years in the United States. The problem is all those schools, all those devices, are sitting on laptop carts and in closets at schools. And the vast majority of school districts have never sent a device home with a kid.

And so we need to help them figure out how to do that and do that in an effective way. So we’ve actually brought on board a guy named Jeff Mao who set up Maine’s one-to-one laptop program where every kid in Maine has a device, and we’re writing a playbook and developing a toolkit for how to set up a device lending program for school districts that haven’t done this before. And going through all the details from who should get them, to what’s the acceptable use policy, to do you need insurance, to how do you maintain them, et cetera, et cetera. And so we actually just launched yesterday a website called DigitalBridgeK12.org, where we’re publishing all this material for school districts.

And then the fourth problem is policy. Once again we’re back to policy. Because for many of these things, you’ve got to fund it. Right? We’re going to be able to help with procurement, but at the end of the day, connectivity for the 9 million plus kids who don’t have it at home is going to cost probably close to $2 billion a year if we want to do it all the time. And so we’re doing a lot of work on the next stimulus package to see if we can get funding included for the next school year. But to be quite honest, if we really want to be prepared for remote learning, not just in 2020 but in the future, we need to make policy changes to the E-rate program that allows it to support this kind of connectivity in times of national emergency.

Michael: If we were successful, so let’s make the case, what would that enable for every kid to have a device and access to high speed internet at home? What would that enable?

Evan: Look, we are huge believers in the power of digital learning and the power of technology to transform education. We believe it can dramatically increase student engagement. We believe it can level the playing field and what people have access to, what kids have access to. We believe it can help personalize learning, as Diane, you’ve been such a leader in. But the big challenge is, and I think this was shown and has been sort of laid bare during the last month, is schools, teachers, states, state departments of education, they need time to figure out how to do this.

Michael: Yeah, super appreciative. Not only of you coming on, but your continued efforts, even as you were preparing to close down. This is incredibly valuable for the country. So thanks, Evan.

Evan: Thanks for doing this.

Diane: OK, I’m feeling a lot better after talking with Evan that getting devices and internet at home for our students is a solvable problem. Of course, that leads us immediately to the worries many teachers and parents have about technology and learning. It seems like there’s always a new story about how some Silicon Valley tech guru doesn’t let their own child use a device. So there’s a lot to clear up.

Michael: Right. I hear parents cite outdated or incomplete recommendations about screen time — for some reason two hours as a limit has really stuck in peoples’ heads, for example. The fact is, and studies have shown this, it’s way more complex.

So much of proper screen time use has to do with HOW that technology is used, WHAT technology is being used, how old the kid is, and what the kid’s family relationships are like. Most experts we know recommend a common sense approach that makes sure that kids are getting enough time to exercise, be with family, be with people, period. But they’re much less rigid about what the actual time on screen looks like.

Diane: This is something I think about a lot because our job is to prepare high school graduates to be adults. Try to imagine an eighteen-year-old who’s been in schools where there is a 1:4 ratio of computers to students. A school where there is a laptop cart that is shared by classrooms, and so it’s only every now and then that the student has the chance to use a computer for a specific program for a limited number of minutes. Now what if the student comes from a home that doesn’t have a computer. He likely has access to some sort of a phone, but think about the difference between a phone and computer — the type of work you do on each and how applicable that is going to be in college or the job market. The first thing his college or employer will expect is that he can use a computer to do meaningful work. What happens when that student starts trying to type on a keyboard with two thumbs? I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve actually seen that happen, Michael. Two-thirds of the jobs created in the last decade require at least moderate computer skills.

Michael: That’s why learning tech is such an important part of education. And everyone talks about kids being digital natives these days, but it’s very different to be able to swipe left and type with your thumbs than it is to learn how to use technology productively in a professional environment. Who’s going to teach them if schools don’t?

Diane: Right. You learn tech tools when you practice them. We’re definitely not encouraging typing class. Neither of us wants that to be the case. But the best way for all kids to develop employable skills with computers and software is to regularly use computers and software to learn and do their work. They have years and years to practice this in school.

Michael, I got a chance to talk about this with a pretty amazing senior, Kacy Huerta. We talked a bit about what her school day was like pre-coronavirus, and what it’s like now. Would you like to hear what she had to say?

Michael: Yes absolutely. It’s always best to hear directly from students themselves.

Diane: Meet Kacy!

Kacy: I live in Houston, Texas. I go to Dobie High School and I’m a senior there and I’m really in a lot of things. I do community service. I’m in FFA. I’m in Guide Dogs for the Blind. I did tennis freshman through junior year, and then I joined swim my senior year.

I have two very crazy brothers. One’s older, one’s younger. I have a mom and a dad, a dog and three turtles.

Diane: What does a school day look like for you?

Kacy: As soon as the bell rings, I’d get onto my computer and start doing my work. And I always have my peers next to me, so I can always ask them for questions and my teacher’s next to me as well. And I always try to have as much work done as I can at the end of the day, cause I like having everything turned in on time and setting goals and accomplishing them on the platform definitely helped me want to finish as much as I could in a day.

Diane: Did you ever go to a school where there wasn’t a lot of technology?

Kacy: Well, usually my middle school, my elementary, middle schools didn’t really have a lot of technology. We would just go to computer lab to type things up. And changing to technology, it really helped me understand not only technology, but it kind of helped me set goals a lot differently.

Diane: What other benefits did you experience from being in a technology-rich environment?

Kacy: Well, I always worked faster than other students.So being in a regular classroom, I’d have to wait for everyone to get done with a subject or whatever and then it would just take forever. So with the self-pacing stuff that the Connect program had, I was able to work ahead. And work at my own pace so I didn’t have to wait for everyone else and the teacher could just say, “Go ahead, move on. You can do what you want.” And I would just keep working my way through the platform.

I saw a lot of kids that are really slow too, and there’s not a problem with that. And people just learn different paces, but with kids learning a little bit slower, they’re able to take more time. To learn that subject and master it well, and they would just be able to continue going through what they need to so they can understand it better, rather than in a traditional classroom, you just learn it, take a test, fail, oh, well. You just keep moving on.

Diane: What does that look like between you and those students? Do you guys ever work together? What does that look like? Do you learn together, work together?

Kacy: We always learn together, but since some of us did fall behind, other students would help out. The teacher is always there no matter what. You go to the teacher and she’s going to be there if you need her, but technology is also a resource for us, so we don’t always need to go to the teacher.

Diane: I’m wondering, as you think about your next steps, are there one or two skills that you’ve been learning and practicing for the last few years that you think are really going to be useful for you?

Kacy: Using technology really is important because you use it for everything. Nothing’s handwritten anymore. Everything has to be turned in online. Textbooks are online. So it really is important to learn how to use one.

Diane: When school buildings closed, what was that transition like for you?

Kacy: So it was kind of a really easy transition for me to go onto the computer and start learning online again because I already knew how to do it. So it was just a really smooth transition for me.

Diane: What about your friends who aren’t in a school that uses technology?

Kacy: My friends do struggle sometimes because they don’t know how to, they don’t know how to submit a document. They don’t know how to kind of turn things in online or learn it themselves because they’re so used to having a teacher in a classroom teach it for them. So it has been a challenge for some of my friends, but I just tell them, let me know if you need help cause I’m really kind of used to doing this.

Michael: Wow you weren’t kidding, Diane. Kacy is amazing, and her experience is exactly the type of learning we should be providing to all students. It’s clear that she’s fortunate to attend the Pasadena School District, which is one of the school districts that has adopted the Summit Learning Program, which Diane and her teams built. So although they are not a Summit school, they work with a lot of the same tools that Diane’s schools do. 

I was personally curious about the district, so learned a bit more about it. Located outside of Houston, the student body is 83 percent Hispanic, over 85 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, and nearly 30 percent of its students have limited English proficiency. And yet all of its 50,000 plus students have a school-issued device and connectivity, which enables them to do distance learning right now, but more importantly to provide the meaningful education and preparation Kacy described, not just to a few students, but to all of them.

Diane: What is mind-blowing to me is that 20 years ago we couldn’t have imagined everyone having a device and connectivity, let alone a conversation about the equity of the matter. As Evan made so clear, it is literally possible today for every student to have bandwidth and a device. And what Kacy made clear is how much she has benefited from the great leaders in her district committing to making that possible for all students.

So why aren’t more districts like Pasadena?

Michael: Well, part of the issue is a big misconception around teachers. There are absolutely some teachers who worry that technology might put them out of a job. But the teachers who are actually using technology, and using it on a daily basis with their students, they’re actually some of the most outspoken advocates for technology tools, they want them in their hands. We talked to one of them, Jill Lambert, from Carter Lomax Middle School in Pasadena, Texas.

Jill: I am a sixth-grade ELA teacher at Quarter Lomax Middle School in Pasadena ISD School District. I’ve been teaching for 13 years.

I love the idea of integrating technology. Honestly, I would not want to go back to traditional teaching. Our students are already comfortable with the computers now. That’s why transitioning into distance learning was so easy for them. Because having those one to one devices, technology became a norm to them.

Diane: A lot of teachers are worried technology will replace them. You don’t seem worried about that.

Jill: Yes, the misconception that technology replaces the teacher is a total misconception because it just enhances our ability to mentor the students. It gives me time to mentor the students, and mentoring is such a valuable time that I can spend with those students to build those connections with those students. Once I build those relationships through mentoring, I am actually able to dive in and understand the root cause of any learning gaps they may have, what’s going on with them. So that mentoring time that the technology piece allows me to have with my students is incredible.

Diane: How are you preparing students for their future?

Jill: So we are setting the students up for success because technology is the norm. Students see value in the technology because they know they need it to use it in the classroom on a daily basis.

Students use technology tools to schedule their time and plan out their day. They are also learning how to use Google docs, spreadsheets, slide decks, presentations. These are lifelong skills that carry into their career.

Technology helps students take ownership of the learning, it provides students with that choice when they do not master content assessment, the technology shows the students what they have mastered, what they haven’t mastered, what they need to go back and relearn. That technology tells them, this is the objective that you need to go back and relearn to where they are able to come to me and say, Mrs. Lambert, I need to work on objective two and three. So it puts that ownership on them, that accountability on them and that learning experience on them. So the technology has allowed it truly to be student-centered and data-driven.

Diane: What motivates your students?

Jill: Well, just like adults, the students like to be successful, and when they see on the platform that they mastered the content assessment, and it may have been red and it turns green, that motivates them. It motivates them to be on track. Doing the one on one mentoring sessions and building up their confidence motivates them to be successful. They want to be successful.

Michael: The notion that technology will — or could — replace teachers is literally lunacy in my mind. Jill makes such a compelling case, that technology done right only enhances what great teachers do. And just to state it for the record, we can never replace teachers.

Diane: Of course we can’t and technology isn’t the only tool we should use in education — it shouldn’t be the only — or even the first — place we look for solutions. But it’s a hugely impactful piece of the puzzle.

It’s just so striking to me that giving every kid access is possible, that every school district in the country can have this. For those who say it’s just too expensive, that it’s not doable, that’s just not the case. It is doable, and it would have a dramatic impact.

Michael: And maybe more importantly, it can open all sorts of opportunities for learning.

Diane: Which leads us to the question, “Why is the work my school is assigning so boring?”

Michael: And conveniently, that’s the question we’ll seek to answer in the next episode of Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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