According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, up to 28% of children whose family income is less than $40,000 per year do not have internet access at home. In general, the lower a household’s income is, the less likely the family is to have internet access.
“When you look at students from low-income households, they score far below the national average on computational thinking and computer information literacy,” said Justina Nixon-Saintil, director of corporate social responsibility at Verizon.
Even in normal times, these digital inequities put students at a disadvantage. But during a pandemic, not having access to the internet or devices to use for distance learning can put a hard stop on students’ academic progress altogether.
Bridging the digital divide
Since 2012, Verizon has been fostering digital inclusion in under-resourced school districts throughout the country with the Verizon Innovative Learning program. "Verizon Innovative Learning is a significant part of Citizen Verizon; our plan for economic, environmental and social advancement," said Nixon-Saintil.
This transformative education program not only provides each student with a device and a monthly data plan, but also a technology-based STEM curriculum. The program also offers training and ongoing support for teachers, as well a dedicated Verizon Innovative Learning coach for each school that participates in the program, hired by the district.
“We provide guidance to the district as to the type of person they should consider,” Nixon-Saintil said. “Usually, our learning coaches have a strong history of innovative teaching practices, the ability to develop effective adult learning experiences that promote digital instruction, and a love of technology.”
Teacher training goes beyond how to use the technology and devices supplied by the program: It covers how to integrate that technology into lessons and teaching methods, too.
“We support teachers by training them on what blended learning looks like, what digital collaboration and project-based learning looks like — we have very specific goals for our teachers,” Nixon-Saintil said.
Ultimately, teachers are equipped with knowledge on how to support learning agency and autonomy to help transform students into lifelong learners.
Currently, there are 264 schools participating in the program.
“It was really focused on middle schools over the years – but for the first time this year we are bringing 10 high schools into the program,” Nixon-Saintil said. “We’re starting to create the path to success for our students moving from middle school to high school with the same resources that we provide in middle school.”
Participating in the Verizon Innovative Learning program
For Jose Gonzalez, a Verizon Innovative Learning coach and educator formerly at Bunche Middle School and now at Davis Middle School in Compton, California, taking part in the program for the past two years has been a game changer for his students and for his own professional development.
“Verizon provided a tablet for every single student that also included a data plan. So many students who didn’t have devices or even have internet in their homes now had that capability,” he said. “Kids could now get online anytime, anywhere. They weren’t limited to school hours. They were able to submit their assignments from home and leverage their tablets for research.”
Gonzalez works with teachers to develop new and exciting ways for students to learn using the provided technology.
“For example, instead of learning about the Mayan ruins from a textbook, kids take virtual tours, watch 360-degree videos and access simulations online,” he said.
Students have also worked on creating video app prototypes, stop-motion projects and visual poems.
Making the shift to distance learning
When students shifted to online learning in March, the training and resources Gonzalez and his fellow teachers had received through the program provided crucial advantages.
“Many of the teachers were already trained in using technology in their lessons, and all the teachers were already on Google Classroom, so they were able to give assignments to students, and students were able to turn them in virtually,” he said. “In those ways, we were very well prepared — as best as anyone could be.”
Although students were equipped with devices and internet access, there were still challenges.
“Some of my top kids — kids that would come on the weekends to work on their projects, sometimes working for months on end, kids that went above and beyond — I found that I was losing them,” Gonzalez said.
He then gave an assignment asking students to create a video answering questions on how the students were feeling, and, as a result, he found that creating a space for students to socialize and connect virtually was key.
“That really changed my relationship — and also my teaching — with them,” he said. “I realized that you have to give students time for them just to hang out with their peers, just to have that conversation. I found if I gave them 10 minutes just to connect with their peers, that really made a difference.”
To keep students engaged, Gonzalez used tactics that kept students active in their learning experience.
“I try to find many activities that are engaging, like gamification teaching strategies, creating videos, out-of-the-box ways to reach kids,” he said. “I invite the kids to co-teach with me, so many of the lessons being taught I might teach them first — and then they teach others in the group.”
Empowering students to not just be consumers of the technology but also be actual tech leaders is a major part of the program, something Nixon-Saintil saw demonstrated during the shift to digital learning.
“When the pandemic hit, we started getting these great stories from our schools where our tech team of students were actually helping parents, teachers and students virtually,” she said. “My favorite story right now is how we were able to develop this group of tech leaders in each of these schools who were able to actually extend their reach to families to help support their technology.”
By: Danielle Page
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