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How technology education clashes with basic student needs – and leaves the most in need behind.

The integration of technology into schools across the country is growing, and creating incredible new opportunities for students to learn and broaden their horizons. Tech is transforming schools. With new opportunities, however, come new problems. For example, I’m teaching computer science to a group of high school students, nearly half of whom do not have access to a computer outside of school. Assigning homework that requires a computer would be giving those students work that they cannot possibly complete at home. And this is in a course that teaches them to program computers!

A growing number of schools are fortunate enough to have funding to implement “one laptop per child” policies, giving students a computer that they are often allowed to take home with them. The next step in that progression is to expand internet access, so that those students can get online at home as well. Amazing progress has been made against these issues: according to a 2015 Gallup/Google survey, 91% of students report having a computer at home that has access to the internet[1]. In terms of tech education, this creates powerful learning opportunities for students.

Except for when it doesn’t.

I recently participated in a Twitter chat focused on technology education in rural schools (#ruraledchat). One of the discussion topics was about struggles in planning technology based assignments when students have neither computer nor internet access at home, which I’m familiar with. One teacher’s follow-up, however, caught me completely off guard:

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Tammy G Neil: “Since my entire curriculum is online, I have to take into account those without access at home. It’s sometimes a struggle.”

Elizabeth Hill: “Do you have any easy to share suggestions about that? my district is going 1:1 and some of my Ss don’t have electricity…”

***

To hammer that home: this teacher’s struggle with planning tech lessons was that some of her students lack electricity.

This floored me. I had never stopped to consider the challenge posed by the lack of electricity. Setting aside all of the struggles of simply living a life as a student without power, it poses a near total barrier to home technology access. In the  best case scenario, the ability to complete an assignment becomes a race against the battery capacity of the school provided laptop, and it clearly gets much worse from there. The top question invading my mind was, simply, how many students are affected by this? Is a lack of electricity a widespread barrier to technology education? I dove into the facts to find out.

Or at least, I attempted to. The first thing I found is that there nobody really knows how many families in the US lack access to electricity. Some sources cite that 100% of US families have access[2], but this is demonstrably false. Lacking direct data, I turned to a few other sources to try to narrow in on an approximation. Helping place an upper bound is the Gallup/Google survey above. If 91% of students surveyed report having a computer with internet access at home, then absolutely no more than 9% lack electricity – and probably many fewer, given the multitude of other reasons that a home may lack a computer or internet access.

Trying to drill in to that 9%, the best stand-in I could find for living situation was data about student homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Actdefines, among other things, how schools have to count and handle homeless students[3]. Homeless students are not the only ones without power, but it provides a decent proxy. While the numbers are generally accurate, they may be low, as two issues are known to cause underreporting: first, that students who are homeless often do not self-identify, which is a major way of finding them, and second, that when identified as homeless, students will state that they have greater accommodations than they do. Being able to complete your tech homework when you’re homeless ranks low on the list of concerns in life, but that only drives home the point about the limits of technology.

Now, the numbers: the Department of Education reports that in the 2014-15 school year, the latest for which data is available, there were 1,290,649 homeless students in the US, which is a little under 3% of all students[4]. This definition of homelessness, however, encompasses a broad range of living situations. Some might have reliable access to electricity, such as those who live in motels or are “doubled up”, living in someone else’s home with them. Others, like those who spend their nights in homeless shelters, may have less consistent access to an electric socket from which to make use of their tech.

What’s more certain, however, is that a subset of this population will have little to no outside access to the power grid. They are the 40,306 students who fall into the category of “unsheltered homeless”, and they’ll spend a majority of their nights in parks, abandoned buildings, or similar places. What I find most astonishing about this group is the fact that, despite these circumstances, they manage to remain enrolled in school at all. The only positive aspect about this number is that it is a smaller percentage of the overall student population, coming in at under one half of one percent.

But it’s uncertain yet in which direction these numbers are headed. Even as the economy recovered from the great recession of 2008-2009, the number of homeless students grew, reaching a record high for the 2013-14 school year, and then falling only slightly[4],[5].

When we talk about helping students learn so they can live better lives, this is the group most in need of that help. And yet, the tools and technology meant to help all students learn has little hope of helping them. Like many cases, helping “all” really means “most”. This creates a tough balancing act for teachers and schools looking to increase the role of tech in the classroom, and it’s a balancing act I was hardly considering. How can we design technology oriented lessons that make no assumption about the students’ home resources? Can we even do that, and if we can, how good can those lessons be? How should we balance the fact that by using tech to improve some students’ education, we might be taking our most in need students and isolating them even further?

In the larger scheme of things, is it possible to solve this problem closer to its root? The “free and reduced lunch” program uses existing school infrastructure to offer students who would otherwise go hungry an opportunity for breakfast and lunch, under the guiding principle that lacking food is a major barrier to learning. Could we leverage school infrastructure in a similar way to provide students with greater access to electricity and internet access outside of the confines of class time?

I like to try to end my posts with a nice “lessons learned” section, but in this case, I’m overwhelmed. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is internalizing words I’ve heard before, but never felt as deeply as I do now:

“When we complain about how hard some kids are to teach, think about how hard some of their lives are to live”

 


References:

[1] https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/searching-for-computer-science_report.pdf
[2] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS?locations=US
[3] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/11301
[4] https://eddataexpress.ed.gov/data-elements.cfm
[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/number-of-us-homeless-students-has-doubled-since-before-the-recession/2015/09/14/0c1fadb6-58c2-11e5-8bb1-b488d231bba2_story.html?utm_term=.77226a226f4a

Banner image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons license.

The Hardest Lesson I’ve Ever Taught

“Haha, you need help from a girl!”

He’s a 5th grader in the robotics club I help run. He’s 10, maybe 11, years old. He says those words to another boy in the club, who was indeed receiving help from a girl. And even as the words are still coming out of his mouth, I knew they need to be addressed.

I want to tell him that at that very moment, I too was getting help from one of the girls in the club. I want to tell him girls can be incredibly helpful. I want to tell him that I’ve received great help from incredible women, and that some of the smartest people I know are women.

I want to tell him that that doesn’t mean all women have to be helpful, or that women are only good at being helpful. I want to tell him that even when a woman isn’t the smartest person he knows, that’s ok, because the girls are just like boys, and some will be smarter and some won’t, and gender doesn’t matter for that.

I want to tell him that by using a girl to insult a boy that he was also insulting the girl. I want to tell him that the fact that girls are in the robotics club is a somewhat unusual thing. I want to tell him that girls being one third of the robotics club is even less common. I want to tell him that that number probably won’t last in the years ahead.

I want to tell him that insults just like that one will be repeated time and time again. I want to tell him that talking that way about the women around him will slowly drive them away from robotics, and from technology fields. I want to tell him that subtle sexism, and blatant, for that matter, is pervasive in STEM, and that sexism is hugely damaging to both individuals as they are and as they dream to be.

I want to tell him about sexism. I want to tell him about gender roles in society, and about how some of the ideas he’s already formed are not only wrong, but hurtful to others. I want to tell him that not only is mocking the other boy wrong, but that by using mockery to define manliness, he is spreading a malformed definition of what it means to be a man. I want to tell him that being manly doesn’t mean being above women.

I want to tell him that insulting others in the classroom is never tolerable. I want to tell him that, from the start, insulting the other boy is unacceptable. I want to tell him that asking questions and asking for help are the best ways to learn. I want to tell him that he should learn from anyone who can teach him, regardless of race, or gender, or age, or orientation, or any other factor that divides us.

I have, realistically, a few seconds to say about two sentences, before his attention span for my words cuts out. Even if that weren’t the case, I have to say all of this in a way that helps him learn, not that makes him feel burdened by gender roles and norms being unwillingly hoisted upon him. I have to communicate critically important ideas and messages to a middle schooler who hasn’t yet had the life experiences to really understand what I’m about to say. And I have, approximately, 10 seconds.

He completes his sentence, and a moment later, I begin trying to teach the most important lesson I’ll teach all year.