Thursday, November 21, 2013

Without Access: An Unexpected Social Experiment

Earlier this week we had something of a technology crisis in our district.  Email was down, and at one point we were asked to shut down all computers.  My day as a coach went from being filled with technology and access to being plunged into a YA dystopian novel.  I don't know all the ins and outs of what happened, but the truth is, it doesn't matter.  Quite suddenly, the entire district had to do without tools that we completely take for granted.

Things are up and running again, but my experience this week really got me thinking.  In a way, this week was something of a forced experiment for me.  Technology, the internet, social media...there are endless amazing and powerful tools, right?  But, they are only amazing and powerful if we can access them.  Two major themes kept coming up for me this week.  First, how do we facilitate learning so that our students not only know how to use these tools, but can also troubleshoot and find new ways to get the job done when things suddenly don't work?  Second, just how much of an impact is a lack of access to technology having on students from a low socioeconomic status, and what do we need to do to help those students?

Let's talk about my initial questions first.  As adults, most of us grew up in an age without the constant access to technology that we have today.  We may have had a computer at home, but we certainly didn't carry one around in our pockets.  Students today are growing up in a very different world.  Their access to the internet, to social media, and to devices can be nearly constant.  As adults, we grew up functioning in a world without these tools, and when they go down, we can fall back on previous habits to get things done.  Are our students able to do the same?  We know students need to practice using these tools in meaningful ways, but what skills do they need to have in order to function when things go down?  Personally, I think the most necessary skills that students need come right from the ISTE standards for students: Creativity, Innovation, and Problem Solving.  If we are fostering these skills with students, not only will they help students no matter what new technology tools might arise, but students will also learn to not be dependent on technology and will still be functional when things break down.

My second question, of course, raises the issue of the digital divide.  I think we can all agree that a digital divide exists.  Families who are struggling financially often have to choose putting food on the table over internet access.  There are 1:1 schools just down the road from schools that are lucky to have the ancient desktops they do have.  While more and more families have at least one smart phone in the home, they may only be able to access the internet until their data runs out.  Then it's waiting until the next billing cycle to get back on.  The divide is real, and I think it's significant.  Technology can easily become just one more way our less advantaged schools are behind, and we need to find ways to fight that.  I believe that one of the most important ways to close the divide is by educating families on the importance of access to the internet, and by supporting them to make access a reality in their homes. I also believe that teachers need to be educated on how to use the tools they have access to, whatever those tools may be, to maximize the impact on student learning.  It might just be an old, clunky desktop, but if it can connect to the internet, students can do any number of transformative things from research to blogging to chatting with experts.  It's important to remember that it's the teacher who transforms instruction, not the device itself.

Needless to say, my time without access to my email has been frustrating, but also very reflective!  I'd love to hear your thoughts on helping students learn to troubleshoot when their tech goes down or on bridging the digital divide.

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