Mulling Over Internet Accessibility

I work in an urban district at the cross-roads of five different cities in Orange County, California. My school is a Title I school meaning that we receive federal funds based on the large percentage of our student population who come from low socioeconomic households. I mention this because many of my students struggled during the COVID-19 school closures with accessibility to devices and reliable Internet. My school attempted to address the device issue by passing out Chromebooks to students. But Internet accessibility was a whole other ballgame. Although Spectrum offered service at a discount, I suspect that many families opted to use their money to pay for rent and food. My district put hotspots in school buses and parked those in strategic places throughout our area, but complaints from the community shut that down rather quickly (don’t get me started on THAT issue).

But I’m writing this post because although I have reliable Internet access at home in South Orange County, California, while we are living at our other home in Northern Michigan, Internet access is limited to hotspots from our cell phones. We live in a rural area…a good distance from the nearest town.

I suppose that we could get wifi here, but that entails having a company come out to the farm to dig a trench and then run I don’t know how many bajillion feet of wire to the nearest box. Because that’s not an expense we are willing to take up at this time, my access to the Internet is solely dependent on the strength and speed of data from my cell phone’s hotspot.

Which brings me to my point about accessibility…

I am teaching online this summer — not because of COVID-19 but because I’m teaching a course in the online doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University. This means that Internet access is an absolute necessity as I need to check emails, read discussion board posts, and download assignments for grading. So far, things seem to be going well. We changed data plans to accommodate my husband’s and my work obligations. But where we used to take for granted our ability to access the Internet through high-speed wifi…here, we are at the mercy of our data plan. 

First world problems, right?

However, this experience (full disclosure: it’s only been one week so far) has made me more cognizant of what many of my own students likely struggled with when school moved entirely online in the spring. I mean, I knew what they were going through because they wrote about it in their Living History Journals. But that makes really stop and think. How many of their parents stressed over choosing Internet access over food or rent? How many worried about how far their child would fall behind without reliable Internet access to their classes? How many were frustrated at the thought that they had one more expense on their plate?

I don’t have any of those problems whether I live in Michigan or California. I am truly blessed in that regard. But I now know from experience that it’s a bit stressful to think about Internet accessibility and what will happen if we go over our data plan. We were told that our Internet speed would be throttled if we went over the GBs allowed on our new plan. So how will that affect my ability to teach or my husband’s ability to virtually lead his team? Luckily, we can afford to up our data plan again which is why I’m not meaning to complain at all. What I’m now fully realizing though is that it’s mentally stressful to think about not having reliable access or having to put more money into cellular data plans. So how much more (infinitely more) must my students and parents have gone through during the 12 weeks when in-person instruction was cancelled…? 

With the number of COVID-19 cases rising in California, it’s plausible that we may either start in-person instruction and move quickly online or just start online in the fall. But now I’m thinking, what can we do as educators…as a school…as a district…to better support the needs of our families so that our students don’t fall behind? What can we do to ensure our parents that we are in this together.

I don’t have any answers (yet). 

Just mulling over things as usual.

Staying Connected via Padlet

Working with middle schoolers in and of itself is a complex process. You have 30 little bodies each with their own unique personalities and dispositions and only 45 minutes a day to get through whatever it is that you have planned. Add technology to the mix and now you’re looking at complex to the nth level.

I think by now most educators have realized that just because these kids are growing up in an era where technology use seems ubiquitous does not necessarily mean that these kids understand and are ready to use technology for learning (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2017). In fact, I think the cancellation of in-person instruction for K16 education highlighted the fact that the digital divide and the digital use divide is still a very real problem (Auxie & Anderson, 2020).

In my conversations with fellow educators, it seems as if teachers approached distance learning in two ways: continue with current pacing (albeit at a reduced level) or created new curriculum that aligned better with what students would be able to do at home on their own.

At my school, I was given the opportunity to choose if I wanted to continue with the current pacing or create an independent project. I chose the latter, and I’m so glad I did.

World history in my district is a semester course (don’t get me started on how to teach 1500 years of history in 20 weeks). So I used this time as an opportunity to try out a new curriculum knowing the level of digital access my students have at home, their technology knowledge based on what I taught them in class, and what I thought would interest them yet also provide a bit of respite from the ton of stressors that they were dealing with.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I have made a concerted effort to create assignments that would help students acquire and practice mastering socio-emotional skills. Every week there was an assignment that had students reflecting on the ethics of decisions by historical figures or making a personal connection to the content. But then I also snuck in assignments that would hopefully help to create an online learning presence – something that is foundational for online learning to be successful. I had to be careful in which apps or websites I chose to use because modeling was not an option during remote learning. I needed apps/websites that were easy to figure out, and then I used them over and over again. Padlet was one that my students used on a regular basis. Each week, students summed up their learning in a creative way (e.g., sketchnotes, open mind, meme) and posted their project on a class Padlet wall for all 150 of their peers to view and enjoy.

Padlet was our go-to app because it didn’t require a log-in, could be used on a mobile device or desktop, and was easy to figure out on their own. Before in-person classes were cancelled, we had used Padlet once. But once we were solely relying on interacting via online platforms, I decided that Padlet was going to be the tool that kept us connected.

The last assignment I gave to my students was to create a Summer Quarantunes Playlist. I wanted them to post a song that either motivated them or reminded them of better times ahead. By having students post their songs to a class Padlet wall, we created a playlist of various genres of music from my highly diverse group of middle schoolers.

For the past 12 weeks my students have been sharing their highs and lows of living with the coronavirus crisis and recent protests in their Living History Journals. But this playlist offered additional insight to how they were feeling…and I just love that. =)

Enjoy!

Made with Padlet

References

Auxie, B., & Anderson, M. (2020). As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face a digital ‘homework gap’. PEW Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/16/as-schools-close-due-to-the-coronavirus-some-u-s-students-face-a-digital-homework-gap

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2017). Reimagining the role of technology in education: 2017 national education technology plan update. https://tech.ed.gov/files/2017/01/NETP17.pdf

Looking Back in Order to Look Forward

I am a big fan of reflecting on things. In fact, I tend to perseverate on too many things which isn’t helpful. But that’s a story for another time.

As the school year comes to a close (five more days!)…I decided that this would be the perfect time to collect information from my students that would allow me to know what worked and didn’t work for them during these past 12 weeks, AND I could gather information on how my 8th grade colleagues could better support them if we have to either start online in the fall or quickly transition due to rising cases of COVID-19.

The Google Form is long. But it’s a nice blend of closed- and open-ended questions. Sixty-two students have already completed the reflection which is AMAZING because it’s technically not due until next Tuesday. Could the five points extra credit have been an incentive to not procrastinate? Believe me, I’ll take it any way that I can get it. 😉

So, what kind of information was I gathering? Well, here are the main sections:

  • Technology Access
  • Learning at Home
  • Looking Forward
  • Wrapping Up

One of the main concerns I had (actually it’s a concern I’ve always had considering that I work at at Title I school) is access. What kind of access do my students have? And by access I talking about devices and connectivity. The digital divide is very real where I work.

Another concern I had was the learning environment at home. I know that many of my students live in multi-generational households, or they live with multiple families in a small space. I was curious as to whether they (1) had a place to study and (2) whether that place to study was quiet. With many people having to work from home during this crisis, I know it put a strain on space at home, in general.

Because we don’t know what the fall holds for us, I also wanted to gather information on how my 8th grade colleagues could better support our students if remote learning remains in place or if we have to quickly transition from in-person to remote learning. I was curious as to what types of communication were the most helpful, and also if the students preferred a more structured approach or independent-project approach to learning.

Wrapping up the reflection, I asked students one thing that they learned about themself during this time of remote learning as well as one thing that they could change about their study habits if we have to continue with remote learning in the fall. This harkens to my goal of making sure that socio-emotional learning skills remain in the forefront of what I do.

I appreciate the honest and quite candid answers from my students. But then again, for the most part, middle schoolers tell it like it is. The fact that they don’t have a filter (or that they don’t employ it often) is one of the things that I most enjoy about working with this particular grade level.

As of this moment, I have quite a bit of quantitative and qualitative data at my finger tips. Over the summer, I’ll be working on a longer post about what this data is telling us about the benefits and challenges of this type of learning environment, and while I don’t pretend that what we’re doing at my school is indicative of what’s going on everywhere else, I am confident that teachers, students, and parents from across the U.S. are all experiencing something similar.

At least we know we’re all in this together.

If you’re interested, here is the link to the Google Form: A Time to Reflect.

P.S. If you think of other questions that should be added, please leave a comment below or email me. =)