Balancing the Digital Divide

With Santa Fe Public Schools' Digital Learning Plan funded to move forward, some question whether that means kids need to learn how to power-down, too

During a field trip about a decade ago, Katherine Bueler stopped her science students beside a duck pond to soak in the spring afternoon. She broke out a Frisbee and asked who wanted to play. None of them did, instead turning their eyes down to their cellphones.

"It was disappointing and kind of freaky," Bueler says. "It was one of those early moments where I realized, whoa, this is different."

She teaches eighth-grade science at El Camino Real, an early beneficiary of the Education Technology Note property tax that has funded the Santa Fe Public Schools Digital Learning Plan, and saw some of that same infatuation when iPads entered her classroom. With them came a flexibility in teaching, working with students and allowing them to find new ways to engage with the material. She's already experienced success with a student who struggled to succeed in class, but who found an app that lets you create planets and stars and see how they interact with one another, and in the ability to use programs through Google Classroom to provide feedback on student work as its written.

"[Technology] is jumping over hurdles that public school teachers face and giving us access to resources that wealthier families and schools take for granted, because we can get at some version of them in a virtual form, even if we can't get at them in a concrete form," she says. "It's giving our kids access to a wider range of experiences than they would have access to if we were screen-less."

That's how the district often frames the plan—as one that provides equitable access to technology to prepare students for careers in the 21st century. And with 62 percent of the 4,647 votes cast on the Feb. 2 election for the Education Technology Note in favor of continuing a property tax that pays for the district's five-year Digital Learning Plan, the Santa Fe Public Schools secured $33 million to move forward with the next phase, putting more technology in the hands of more students. Classrooms will see more smart boards, document cameras and laptops for teachers; carts and labs of Google Chromebooks, iPads and Samsung Galaxy tablets for students; and other computer equipment and infrastructure needs, including fiber optic networks for faster Internet service. The goal is to have enough devices so that K-5 students can use them for 1.5 hours each day, sixth graders can access a device all day and seventh graders and above can have a laptop during school and take it home as well. A pilot program for the take-home portion of the plan is set to begin in August.

"We want to make sure that every student throughout all of our schools has access to the equipment that they need, the infrastructure and really the effective teaching with those devices, not through those devices, but with those devices in every school, no matter what part of the city you're from, no matter what your cultural background and socioeconomic status is," says Neal Weaver, digital learning coordinator for the district. "The intent is to provide students with the ability to learn anywhere, anytime."

But with a device always within reach comes a question about when and how students will learn to power down, and for that, there is no formal plan. And the ramifications come, again, to the question of equity.

In a town where schools are socioeconomically divided, kids in the upper echelon find themselves benefitting from programs to take them outdoors, camping or rafting, or generally putting themselves in places where phones are discouraged (and often useless). But those programs don't often reach all the way through the social strata.

"We're helping our public school kids a great deal because we're giving them access to things their families don't otherwise have access to, and I think that especially for kids from lower socioeconomic levels, the technology is very important," Bueler says. "But I would like to see more support of, especially at the middle school level, wilderness to counterbalance."

Her sentiments are echoed by others, including the author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, who will be speaking in Santa Fe later this month. The tagline to his recent book, The Nature Effect, summarizes it neatly: "The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need."

During a recent event to showcase El Camino Real's digital learning tools, students and parents huddled around iPads watching student-made videos and even a teacher-made video that kicked off a massive math story problem. Teachers used smartboards to provide tours through math games and online tools to track student progress. Teachers talked about increased engagement from students with devices in hand, excited to make a movie or less inhibited about asking questions when they can email them, or just happy to swap a page of multiplication problems for scoring a couple hundred points on a math computer game. Devices create options.

"We're focusing on good teaching, and good technology becomes a secondary resource that helps us reach that goal," Weaver says. "It's about blending traditional with new ways of learning so that we can make the most effective use of the tools that we have."

Over the five years the ETN money is spent, 31 percent will go to professional development and support for teachers, including an increasing number of digital learning coaches in schools.

"In order for technology to be used effectively, we have to really think about the way we're using it and being careful about too much screen time and being careful about doing everything with technology," he says. The goal is to demonstrate that there's a time for playing, for learning and for using technology to learn.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Waldorf school model, in which elementary and middle school students instead spend time playing in a natural landscape alongside a garden and practicing handicrafts like weaving and woodworking. Students don't engage with technology until high school, and at the end of senior year, after reading the American transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, they undertake a solo wilderness trip. Tuition ranges from about $8,000 to $16,000, depending on grade level, plus materials and trip fees.

Students are encouraged to create their own stories, rather than copying those they might have seen in movies or television shows, and play with toys that lend themselves to reinterpretation—not a plastic fire truck that can only ever be a plastic fire truck, but wooden blocks or components that can be reassembled into various renditions. Rather than pulling a map up on Google Earth, they draw one.

"I think one of the fundamental questions is about depth, it's about the resonance of an experience for a child or for a student, and what that does for their ability to recall," says Jeffrey Baker, school administrator of the Santa Fe Waldorf School.

For some, devices throw into question the whole foundation of education, Baker points out. Want to know what constellation you're looking at? There's an app for that. So what's the drive to learn?

"If we view education as only information acquisition, it really does beg the question," he says. "Our perspective is there's more to an education. … Twenty-first-century preparedness isn't just about tool use. It's going to be about nimbleness of thought."

There's an argument in favor of leveling out the playing field when it comes to access to technology, he agrees, but adds, "I think it's more a question of when is the right time to be introducing these devices. … It's not about who deserves what."

And are we going to also ensure equitable access to natural play spaces, school gardens, farm-to-table meals and lessons outdoors?

To spark a dialogue along those lines, the Waldorf school will present a talk by the author Louv in Santa Fe on Feb. 21.

Louv is quick to clarify, he's not against technology and was, in fact, an early adopter of computers.

"I love my gadgets," he tells SFR. "But my suggested rule of thumb for education is that for every dollar we spend on virtual, we spend at least another dollar on the natural, on the real."

Research connects physical activity and schools with green outdoor spaces where student can read, write, do math and learn biology with increased test scores and reduced symptoms of ADD, Louv says. "We know these things work and yet … that approach to education seldom comes up in school boards."

Spaces around schools could be converted to gardens or filled with native species—engines of biodiversity and student engagement, rather than asphalt wastelands. Louv's forthcoming book, Vitamin N, is a prescription for doing more to create and reconnect with nature.

"Our lives will become more technological, there's no question about that, but as that occurs, we have consciously balance that with more experience in the natural world for mental health, for physical health and in fact for cognitive function and the ability to be creative," Louv says. "If we don't, we're going to have a lot of out-of-balance kids."

In short, we need both; a modern "hybrid" mind built through experiences with technology and nature possesses the abilities to handle it all.

"It's not a question of less technology," he says. "It's an issue of more nature in education."

Those phone-addicted students in Bueler's class did eventually go on a week-long trip to Catalina Island in California. Their phones didn't work, so they snorkeled and went sea kayaking instead.

"We are just in a different world. But it's one that we don't have any choice about," she says. "That's the bottom line. We just don't have any choice. Our job is to adapt."

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