COVID-era laptops bridge the digital divide, but the task is far from over.

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When insects began attacking plants in the local garden near M. Agnes Jones Elementary School in Atlanta, the students came up with a plan.

They didn’t want to use pesticides in the garden, and they had learned in their science lessons that bats feed on insects. They conducted research on how to attract bats to the garden, created paper sketches of bat house designs, and then moved on to digital design tools. The students were able to visualize 3-D versions of their houses, test modifications, and refine their designs. They made the entrances narrower to make the bats feel safer and added rafters to provide better spaces for nesting.

This week, a new National Education Technology Plan was published, urging educators to use technology as a means to facilitate this kind of active, hands-on learning. The plan also recommends that states and districts provide the necessary training, planning time, and technical support to make this happen.

First introduced by the U.S. Department of Education in 1996 and last updated in 2017, the National Education Technology Plan offers guidance to help school systems utilize technology to enhance learning and close achievement gaps. The latest version of the plan comes at a time when virtual learning and federal pandemic relief efforts have accelerated the adoption of technology in schools. However, the plan argues that innovation has slowed down even as more students gain access to laptops, and much of the technology used in schools today is passive.

According to surveys, over 90% of secondary students and over 80% of elementary students had access to personal laptops or tablets even before the pandemic, compared to less than half of students previously. Schools are now equipped with digital tools and are grappling with the implications of artificial intelligence. However, a recent survey of more than 41,000 students found that the main way technology was used in schools was for online tests and quizzes.

Persistent disparities exist in digital access

The plan identifies three types of digital divides. The access divide still persists, as not all students have laptops or reliable internet access. There’s also a use divide, with some students using technology merely to catch up on assignments, while others use it for more advanced projects such as designing bat houses. Lastly, there’s a design divide, where only some teachers have the necessary training, support, and planning time to effectively utilize new technology.

To fully harness technological opportunities, school systems need to address all three divides, according to the plan. Additionally, they need to strike a balance between student privacy and responsible oversight, equip students with digital literacy skills, address the negative effects of social media, adapt to artificial intelligence, and make informed decisions about which technologies to invest in.

The plan highlights the potential of technology to empower students to take control of their learning, establish connections that were previously not possible, and showcase their skills in new ways. English learners and students with disabilities, in particular, could benefit from more accessible materials and alternative ways of demonstrating their learning. However, the plan also warns that without careful planning, these students are at risk of being marginalized.

The plan features numerous examples of educators who are already incorporating technology in innovative ways, including those from rural and high-poverty schools. It also provides guidelines for decision-making and offers insight into common pitfalls to avoid.

For school districts with limited internet access, relying on online surveys to reach parents is not advisable, for example. Instead, they should consider organizing monthly in-person technology nights and communicate in various languages. Special education directors purchasing screen-reading programs should ensure that they work offline and are compatible with the district’s laptops’ operating systems.

The plan also includes rubrics for evaluating the evidence supporting educational technology programs and suggests conducting regular audits to determine which programs teachers are actually using. An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that school districts spent millions of dollars on educational technology during the pandemic without sufficient evidence of its effectiveness.

David Miyashiro, superintendent of the Cajon Valley Union School District in California, was part of the technical working group that contributed to the development of the plan. He has been a proponent of integrating technology in education from an early stage and has overseen its expansion in a district where two-thirds of students come from low-income households and one-third are English learners.

Students in the district receive their first laptops in kindergarten and use them to deliver 30-second TED talks about their fears and excitements, accompanied by generative artificial intelligence. Through this approach, they develop presentation and communication skills while building a sense of community and connection with their peers. The district provides students with upgraded devices in third grade, when they transition to middle school, and again in high school. An educational technology bond helps fund the purchase of devices, IT infrastructure, and a replacement fund.

Miyashiro hopes that the new federal plan will assist districts in effectively and thoughtfully incorporating technology into their instructional practices. He believes that the timing of the plan is significant, as more students now have access to devices.

“Many districts purchased computers so that teachers could conduct synchronous Zoom classes with their students,” he said. “But now, what are they going to do? This plan helps them course correct.”

However, for John Fredericks, an English teacher at West Tallahatchie High School in the Mississippi Delta, digital access has actually worsened since 2021. The influx of pandemic relief funds provided students with laptops and hotspots for the first time, although the internet connections were unreliable.

“The best part was being able to differentiate instruction for students who wanted more work when they had internet access and a computer at home,” Fredericks said. “For students who struggled to complete their work, I could give them more time and support.”

Now that the hotspots are gone and laptops must remain at school, Fredericks has returned to sending home paper packets when a student is absent. Students enrolled in virtual dual-enrollment classes attempt to complete their college coursework during other classes using the school’s computer lab.

Fredericks finds it difficult to imagine the learning opportunities that his students are missing out on. He hopes that policymakers won’t forget that the laptops distributed during the pandemic are already breaking down and that some communities still lack affordable internet access.

“When it comes to bridging the technology divide, simply throwing money at the problem actually worked,” he said. “This isn’t always the case in government or education policy, but if you genuinely want to address the technology divide, keep providing schools with funding for technology. Let them purchase computers, hotspots, and advocate for high-speed internet in rural areas.”

Integrating technology with education requires time and vision

When Margul Retha Woolfolk became the principal of M. Agnes Jones Elementary in Atlanta, she discovered that the science lab was being used as a storage unit in a modern building. The school serves a high-poverty neighborhood, and students were spending a significant amount of time focusing on basic skills.

Retha Woolfolk, who is currently an associate superintendent with Atlanta Public Schools, knew that her students performed better when core skill lessons were paired with hands-on projects. She had a passion for science and began attending conferences, seeking knowledge from every available source, and establishing partnerships with local universities and the private sector.

Jarvis Blackshear, a paraprofessional with experience in music production, played a crucial role in providing instructional support in science and technology. With his background in teaching himself new programs as a music engineer, he had a talent for guiding students and parents along the way.

Retha Woolfolk wanted to purchase a programmable robot for the school, but it had a price tag of over $7,000. However, she discovered that it could be obtained for $3,000 if it was purchased disassembled. Blackshear invited fourth and fifth-grade students to assist him in building the robot. He would assemble each section in advance, ensuring that sharp edges were smoothed out, and then disassemble it for the students to put it together.

He adopted a similar approach when students were designing the bat houses, teaching himself design programs in order to support their learning. When the 3D-printed bat houses didn’t meet expectations, he enlisted the help of a grandparent with carpentry skills to help the students turn their blueprints into reality.

Seven years later, Principal Robert Williams proudly continues this work. M. Agnes Jones Elementary offers coding alongside art, music, and physical education. Students engage in building electric cars and learn about force, motion, circuitry, teamwork, and the engineering design process throughout the process. The MAJ Rapid Racers team even competes in Greenpower USA regional events, often referred to as “the NASCAR of elementary school.”

Aleigha Henderson-Rosser, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional technology, emphasizes the significant impact that building-level leadership has. She also encourages educators to not feel intimidated and to take risks, while allowing the students to guide the way.

“Don’t be afraid to take risks, and the students will lead the way,” she said. “Our students deserve to learn like this.”

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