Category Archives: Web/Tech

Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

Last week my eighth graders presented their independent, interest-based projects, the culmination of two months of research and applied learning. Elizabeth showed us her original comic, which she published online. Maisy displayed her handmade quilt and told us about the history of quilting in America. Sam presented his Claymation short film. Dana taught us about installation art and demonstrated the infinity mirror she had made.

These projects were impressive examples of what students can do when they have access to the right resources. For Elizabeth, Maisy, Sam, and Dana, that meant high-speed access to specialized websites, including the publishing platform, the Emporia State University archives, and the Seattle Art Museum’s website.

If the school’s broadband provider had blocked access to some of these sites because they don’t bring in money, if it had slowed the connection speed in order to provide other users with faster service, or if it had required the school district to pay extra for access to less lucrative sites, these and the other student projects would never have happened. And that bleak scenario is exactly what schools across the country are likely to face in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) recent repeal of the practice known as Net Neutrality. Teachers and students will have fewer opportunities, and those with the fewest resources will, of course, suffer disproportionately.

What is Net Neutrality?

Since the internet’s inception, internet service providers have treated all content equally. They do not restrict, discriminate, or charge differently based on content, user, or type of device. This is the concept of net neutrality. In 2014 President Obama sought to ensure the continuation of net neutrality, and to that end asked the FCC to recategorize internet broadband service as a utility. The FCC followed this recommendation in February 2015, instituting regulations that prevented broadband companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, from slowing or blocking access to legal websites, artificially slowing access for some customers while speeding it up for others, and charging customers extra for access to certain websites.

Net Neutrality in Schools

According to the 2017 State of the States report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, 97% of Washington State’s school districts had the necessary fiber optic connectivity to meet the FCC minimum goal of 100 kpbs per student. At my school that means my colleagues and I can stream videos and download resources from YouCubed to help our students develop mathematical mindsets. This amazing website is helping us transform our practice. And we are not the only ones. As of this writing, YouCubed has received 22,895,390 visits. But what will happen if we can no longer freely access YouCubed or the countless other sites that support our teaching and our students’ learning? According to Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, “when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk.”

In high-poverty schools such as mine, the risk is especially great. The internet provides access to experiences that our schools could not otherwise provide, such as authentic science investigations and contact with project mentors. Many of our students also live in homes without reliable internet access; they depend on having it at school not only for their assignments, but to develop the technological literacy that all students need and deserve.

Net neutrality has helped to reduce inequities between well-funded and under-funded schools, between students of privilege and students of poverty. If such access disappears, the equity gap will increase.

Broadband service providers argue that net neutrality stifles the free market. Other opponents fear that regulation allows the government to invade our privacy. Those arguments do not persuade me. There is no financial incentive for broadband companies to provide unrestricted, high-speed access to consumers, including schools. If they have the opportunity to make money by restricting access to certain websites, or by charging consumers for access or faster service, they will do that in order to satisfy shareholders. We may well find ourselves living in a world that our students will recognize from their favorite dystopian novels: a world where access to information and expression exists only for individuals with the most power and the most money.

I asked my district’s chief technology officer if the district has a plan for how to respond to the effects of the repeal of net neutrality. He replied, “We had no impact before the change and from what I’m reading/seeing/hearing, the impact back may be just as little. This is a move to free market service, not the end of access. It’s high on my radar. I deal with the FCC almost monthly. I’m watching it.”

We all need to do more than watch. While there was no impact on schools before the net neutrality regulations, that does not mean broadband companies would not have moved in the direction of restricting access and speed.  If we remain passive, if we wait to react until there is a change that harms schools, our students will lose.

For information on the efforts of various state leaders to ensure net neutrality in Washington State, go here.

Leveraging Technology: Support vs Distraction

Our phones are powerful tools.

They are computers in our pockets more powerful than most of the science fiction I read or watched growing up ever conceived of. Even Star Trek the Next Generation had stacks of iPadish computers full of data on the Captain’s desk—each only held so much data. Now, something a little larger than a deck of playing cards holds or has access to more data than the entire ship they flew in threw galaxies.

I love technology. I combined my English major with a computer science minor and assumed it would be a practical and useful piece of my education. It largely has. Most of what I learned is outdated now, but the minor taught me how to think in different ways and provided me a comfort with technology in general. I learned quickly that technology’s broad offerings could distract me easily and therefore made a personal mantra: technology must support what I’m doing not distract me from it.

Humans are highly prone to distraction. Recent brain science shows regions light up and fire when we are distracted by multiple stimuli, and that concentration uses glucose at different levels, and is thus more effort and exhausting. It makes sense that we, especially teenagers, would choose distraction over concentration, even to our own productive detriment.

I keep thinking of the Jimmy Kimmel sketch in 2015 where Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future character holds a smartphone and says, “This tiny supercomputer must allow astrophysicists to triangulate…” and Jimmy Kimmel interrupts to say, “no, we use it to send little smiley faces to each other.”

My teaching has always involved technology. The only room I’ve taught in in 14 years without a set of computers is my first, I’ve taught with a smartboard for nearly a decade, I keep my curriculum as public as I can (minding copyright) on my website (which is also my plan book) so students and parents have continual access, I’ve used online classroom environments, and I’ve required students to turn in papers or projects digitally.

Ironically, as my district (and most surrounding districts and the national educational conversation) adopts and repeats the phrase, “leverage technology,” I’ve found myself pulling back from using technology. My mantra has remained the same: technology must support and not distract, but my experience and observations in the classroom lead me to believe technology does not agree. It seems more and more that technology is inclined, and even designed, to distract and not support productive work or learning.

Tech insiders seem to agree. The glamour and glitz and impressive largeness of technology continues to dazzle society. Many parents, teachers, community members I know and work with believe in technology with a faith I find confusing. I’m sure this post will garner me the label of luddite, etc. But I don’t use social media (in any form) because it is a black hole of distraction for me. It keeps me from the things I value: my students, my family, good literature, the immediate world around me. I know it is the great connector for many people, but for me I’ve never felt more superficial and isolated than when I followed my graduate school cohort to Facebook. Turns out pictures of meals are boring no matter who posts them. I stuck with letter writing (letter emailing). I recognize this is a personal choice, and not one made by the majority of culture.

But I am not a luddite. I use a computer and smartphone every day. I teach fully online classes at my community college. But I do believe that if educators use technology such as this nature sound map (recently promoted by my district), and never take students outdoors (even in urban centers) to listen and categorize and be present in the actual world, not just the virtual, we risk doing serious damage.

As Marshall Mcluhan said, “the medium is the message.” This is not a bad/critical/negative thing. But it becomes dangerous when forgotten. Shouldn’t part of the conversation (at least) center around deciding what technology best serves our educational outcomes? Maybe it is for many, but in my experience the devices eclipse the outcomes, and I increasingly find students struggle to use devices without distraction, and I find I turn to it less and less for lessons, despite being asked to include it more often.

Building a Hybrid Virtual School

Qbqonw By Mark

A colleague of mine posed an interesting proposition lately. Like many school districts, mine is apparently toying with the idea of a hybrid virtual/brick-and-mortar kind of school-within-a-school. The idea is that the curriculum would be administered face-to-face when necessary and via web interface when necessary, so this colleague of mine was casting out a few lines to see if any of us would bite.

I've voiced interest in participating, but have concerns and questions. 

A few years ago, I was part of starting a small learning community "school-within-a-school" of sorts in my high school, and it is still operating, but that endeavor was small by comparison with what my colleague has in mind. I am wondering what models of this kind of hybrid exist, what are the benefits or shortcomings, and what the best course would be.

I'm definitely in the learning stages here. Sure, I can Google it or read some journal articles, but that only gives part of the story.

So, SFS readers and contributors: what do you know, or what advice do you have about building this kind of educational opportunity? If you are a brick-and-mortar teacher, what concerns would you have for a hybrid or virtual school? What hopes would you have?

Tech Guru, Tech Skeptic

Ibm_pc-jr  By Mark

I've inadvertently, and inexplicably, become a guru of sorts. I sometimes feel like I barely have myself figured out–but nonetheless, my willingness to experiment with technology and use it in my instruction has led other to seek me out for advice. The dirty little secret? Most the time those confident answers I offer are simply my willingness to offer conjecture and speak it with authority–I have no special training to back it up other than the time I spend on my own just playing with these "cool toys." 

The dirtier little secret? When it comes to incorporating technology into the classroom, I may be computer savvy and a digital native, but more than that I'm a technology skeptic.

Too often, when I see technology for the classroom, I only see ways to go the long way about accomplishing a goal which could have reasonably been accomplished "the old-fashioned way." (Full disclosure: I'm a 31-year-old education blogger who came of age with the internet…so I may be entering my curmudgeonly years a little early.)  

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My Worries about Virtual High Schools

School-desk  By Mark

I came of age with the internet. I'm fond of telling my students that when I had to do my senior project I had to use these things called a card catalog and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. I had to actually touch materials to use them in research. I had to learn keyboarding on a manual typewriter with ribbon and correction tape…and I'm only in my early 30s.

But by my first year at university, the internet had exploded. Since then, I have learned that I am what is known as a "digital native," perhaps because my father brought home a PC Jr. when I was about six.

I'm all for utilizing the "Web 2.0" as a resource for education, even though I find the moniker kind of obnoxious. I'm on my computer essentially every minute that I'm not with a student or caring for my family. I know that the wired universe (or better stated, the wireless universe) demands new skills sets of our students and "multiple literacies" unheard of twenty years ago. 

I begin to grow uncomfortable, though, when people start to talk about classrooms which exist wholly on the internet–especially on-line schools for teenagers.

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Increase of Online Courses in School

Picture 2

I have to admit, I have a bias here. I feel comfortable around technology and use it for education and social learning. I teach two online courses and use technology in my classroom for podcasts, vidcasts, and instruction; my students use technology as well for more than word-processing. So when I saw that Michigan was leading the way in online courses, I had to read the article, oh, and by the way, the article is online. 

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