Last Friday, September 18th, my neighboring school district, McKeesport Area School District [MASD], was featured on NBC’s the Today Show. As the band and cheerleaders lined the football field’s sidelines, the host excitedly revealed that Comcast would be providing every student and teacher in both the Junior High and the High School with a free Dell Laptop and one year of free Internet service. McKeesport holds the distinction of being the fourth most dangerous city in America. The city has seen a rapid decline since the closure of many of our area steel mills that once lined the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh, PA. Many of the students’ families in McKeesport are living below the poverty level. They would be considered members of the binary “have not” category that is discussed in the Dolan article.
When our schools shuttered in March due to the pandemic, the district in which I teach as well as the other surrounding districts turned to online education. My district surveyed parents and added Internet hot spots to ensure all of our students would be able to connect and continue learning with their school-supplied iPads in hand. We paused learning for one day to provide teachers with an additional clerical day to prepare and we were off to the races. Sadly, the teachers and students at McKeesport Area were left with no devices and fewer with access to the web. They turned to paper packets…and eventually, to nothing and education ground to a screeching halt for the students. Nine weeks of learning lost and never to be recovered.
Now that the McKeesport Area Tigers are holding these new devices, what will change? Will this be a panacea for an economically strapped district? I posit that without teacher training, that these devices cannot be utilized to their optimal capacity for learning. According to Dolan, “An important consideration to the implementation of 1:1 programs is that educators must focus on technology as a practice to be used, rather than as a tool to be learned.” (2016) There is no doubt in my mind that the teachers at MASD are content experts in their fields. I also know they are prodigious experts at pedagogical knowledge as they are educating some of our local most at-risk youth and leading those students to great success. However, they are novices at technological integration as it is now a new addition to their teaching tool kit. Without professional development on technology integration, these invaluable new laptops will be used as a substitution for pen and paper and will never truly redefine learning (for more information on the SAMR model, click here).
While Marc Prensky labeled students as “Digital Natives” in his 2001 article “Digital Natives; Digital Immigrants”, students are only natives to the technology to which they have become accustomed. For the students at MASD, most are mobile phone natives (with varying platforms and branding). Their digital usage history mostly consists of social media, internet browsing, and texting. Their digital literacy is constrained to the use of these phones. While this is a foundation upon which to build other literacy skills, it leaves a giant chasm in their educational portfolio. The insurmountable task at-hand now lies in trying to “catch up” to their peers in other schools who have had classes in coding, media, and database management. Much like the paper packets that were a catastrophe in the Spring of 2020, there is a void in their digital literacy skills that I am not sure can be mended quickly.
Comcast is supplying one year of Internet for MASD students, then what? What will become of the laptops for home usage? The tigers will need to begin planning today for tomorrow. The students’ digital literacy depends on a continued and seamless integration of technology integration into lessons. The teacher will need an abundance of support and additional training to see this donation truly make a long-lasting impact on an impoverished school. The impact of a proper integration can make ripples on this endangered community. Will an increase in digital literacy change the community by increasing graduation rates and lowering crime rates? Only time will tell. MASD will never return to the blue-collar steel town, but it can reinvent itself. I pray the metamorphosis brings prosperity and peace.
Dolan, Jennifer E. (2016) Splicing the Divide: A Review of Research on the Evolving Digital Divide Among K–12 Students, Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 48:1, 16-37, DOI: 10.1080/15391523.2015.1103147
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part 1. On the Horizon, 9, 3-6. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816