An Active Approach to Providing Students with Equitable Access to Technology
By Mary Beth Hertz, Technology & Art Teacher and Tech Coordinator
I started my journey into the edtech field in 2007 at a West Philadelphia elementary school. My students came to the computer lab room once a week, twice if they were lucky, for 45 minutes of computer-based instruction. Most teachers did not have functioning computers in their classrooms, and if they did, they had no training on how to use them effectively with their students. Often, the machines were so slow that they could barely run any programs at all, and I often found myself popping memory out of old, discarded ones and putting them in functioning ones, hoping it would make a difference. Despite my best efforts, they moved on to 7th grade with very limited digital literacy skills, and I can imagine that many of the schools that they entered did not offer them much more access than mine, though I hope, for their sake, I am wrong. I’ll never know. What I do know is that I had more access to technology instruction, a computer, and the Internet 1998 when I entered college, than my students in those classes did less than 10 years later.
A little more than ten years after I started my edtech journey, I am still teaching in Philadelphia, less than a mile from my previous school. Each of my students, who travel from nearly every neighborhood in the city, has a school-issued Chromebook that they take home. My students are both a statistic and an anomaly. They learn in a 1:1 environment that mirrors the learning environment of their peers less than a mile away in Lower Merion, an affluent suburb (who, ironically, started their 1:1 program in 2007).
However, statistically, they do not have access to a computer aside from the one the school issues them, and many do not have reliable Internet at home.
In addition, many of them come from schools where computers are often co-opted for testing, and students do not always have access to a computer in class. When students arrive at our high school, it is evident that those with a stronger background in even simple access to technology are already leaps and bounds ahead of those who are used to doing everything on paper.
Our staff often grapples with the issue of access. We have structures in place to support those students, but it often doesn’t feel like enough. Students arrive at school an hour before school starts to use the Internet. They stay at school until 6pm to do their work using the school’s Internet. Our classrooms are open during their lunch periods so they can work and ask questions about homework while they are still in school. Teachers will even adjust due dates for students with access issues so that they can submit assignments before school starts, rather than the night before. This gives them time to get to school, get on the wireless network, sync their Google Docs and submit their assignments on time. In extreme situations, teachers may accept paper assignments, but while we want students to be successful, we also want them to be resourceful. In the end, lack of Internet access is never a reason for a student to do poorly in a class, unless they are not using the resources and accommodations we provide.
If we assign student work that we know they cannot complete, are we setting them up to fail? How important is the homework, or can class time be devoted to reviewing concepts? How can we accommodate that student? Can they receive the work ahead of time? Get an extension? Do it during lunch and turn it in on paper? Can we provide them with space or point them to a safe space (a public library, for instance) where they can work?
While libraries, and even McDonald’s restaurants seem like the easy way to get access to the Internet, even these have barriers. Some of our students do not live close to a library, or they live in a neighborhood where it is not safe for them to travel to and from the library, especially after school when it might be getting dark. Using the wifi at a McDonald’s or Starbucks requires that they purchase something, and in urban areas, there is rarely a parking lot (or a car to park in said parking lot). These issues also exist for rural communities, where there may not be a public library for miles, and where telecom companies have not invested in Internet infrastructure because it doesn’t make financial sense for them.
As educators, we can tell our stories and call our lawmakers to maintain E-Rate funding to support building and maintaining school & library infrastructure where it is needed. We can be vocal about the fact that access to the Internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, and we should not be relying on telecom companies to decide who gets access to the Internet and who doesn’t.
Students in a low-income, urban school should be able to walk into the suburban school a mile away and see the same resources, and a student in a rural county should be able to access the lifeline of resources online so that they can complete their assignments just like kids in more suburban areas. There is no easy answer to the digital equality gap, but there are ways that we, as educators, can help spread awareness and offer solutions, even in our own classrooms.
Mary Beth Hertz has been teaching young people in Philadelphia for over 15 years. She has been on the forefront of technology integration in the classroom through local, national and global connections with other educators and leaders in the educational technology field for the last decade. She holds a Master’s Degree in Instructional Technology and is the Art and Technology teacher and Technology Coordinator at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a 1:1, inquiry-based public high school. Mary Beth was named an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2010, PAECT Teacher of the Year in 2013, and was named an ASCD Emerging Leader that same year. Her book, Digital and Media Literacy in the Age of the Internet: Practical Classroom Applications comes out in November 2019. You can learn more athttp://marybethhertz.me. Outside of educational technology, Mary Beth enjoys playing with her two children and eating her husband’s delicious meals.
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