Friday, 7 September 2018

1:100 - How schools are getting creative about technology access

Schools are back in full swing now, and the 2018-19 school year is officially on. For those of us in the instructional software game, that means one thing – teacher training. Small groups, large groups, webinars – whatever the format, there’s a short period of time to bring teachers up to speed on using our program. There’s a definite theme emerging from this year’s sessions, or more accurately, a cry for help. Instead of the usual discussion about the instructional design and intervention strategies, the conversation has almost exclusively centered on technology access and scheduling.

The struggle is real
Reading all of those encouraging studies about the rise of devices in schools, it’s natural to be lulled into thinking that all is rosy in edtech. The harsh reality is that computers are scarce in many districts and badly outdated in others. While teacher acceptance of “another new thing” is still a barrier to the adoption of new tech for reading intervention– along with the fear that students will miss out on content-area instruction – the scheduling issue really has become about physical access to computers.

Remember when 1:1 computing was a thing? Some schools actually got there, only to find that the devices they invested in five years ago are now completely obsolete. Other districts have tried but never really came close. Based on my completely unscientific survey of teachers using BrightFish, it’s common to find schools that have just 1 computer lab of 15-20 devices for 1000 kids.

Bring your own device (BYOD) programs were a hot topic a few years ago, but these have largely failed for very real issues around security and data privacy. It’s also a thorny equity issue because not all homes have laptops and tablets, and while phones are pretty ubiquitous, they are not a great format for serious instruction. Even when kids get online, providing a good experience can be a challenge. Programs like BrightFish are delivered over Wi-Fi and incorporate a lot of video and audio support. In a large district pilot that we ran last year, some schools struggled to provide working headsets and bandwidth levels in their classrooms were barely better than dial-up. Browsers crashed and kids kept getting kicked off the district network – not exactly a great experience.

The good news
Fortunately it’s not all bad news. Companies like Google and Amazon have packed a lot of functionality into their devices at a reasonable price point. The latest Chromebooks for schools are retailing at around $150 and new Amazon Fire tablets can be purchased for less than $100. Of course there will always be replacement costs for damaged or missing devices and accessories, but these are more reasonable expenses that can be worked into annual budgets.

Cable and telecom companies have partnered with districts to improve their infrastructure and bandwidth, and dedicated funding at the federal and state levels are starting to make a dent. While rural areas are lagging behind, there has been a concerted effort to increase access that should start to pay off in the next few years.

On the classroom side, teachers have gotten very creative in finding more time in the day for students to work online. For reading intervention, it’s critical to have regularly scheduled time blocks of at least 30 minutes for sustained practice, but there are periods of downtime before and after school when students can also do productive work. In BrightFish, activities are available in short, contained units, so students can log in and make progress in as little as 10 minutes, and teachers can monitor their work in real time. The key is flexibility and structure. Gone are the days of prescriptive rotations in 90-minute blocks. Programs have to fit into existing schedules and curriculum.

Read about some of the creative implementation models teachers are exploring with BrightFish here.

Are you finding ways to improve student access to technology in your school? We would love to hear from you!