Tag Archives: technology

Things I got done this year

After a challenging 2016-17 school year in which I was pressed into duty as Interim Dean of Students, this year I was able to get back to my regular gig as a mid-level administrator. From this perch I am able to work on projects that are important but not urgent; the sweet spot in the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Here are some projects I completed this year of which I am particularly proud.

Mobile Device Policy The school’s antiquated Cell Phone Policy has been in place since right after 9/11 when the school realized that it needed to permit students to carry a phone so that they could contact their parents in the event of an emergency. But the old policy was hindering academic innovation by decreeing that phones must be off in classroom buildings. Teaming with our Academic Technology Integrationist, Howard Glasser, we wrote a new policy that addresses mobile devices, not just phones, and permits classroom teachers the flexibility they need to employ mobile technology in their pedagogy if they so choose. The new policy also allows students the latitude to use their devices to stay organized and consult the LMS (Canvas). Since this is a boarding school, we also provided new guidelines for our evening study hall and late-night dorm use. You can read more about the new policy in my last blog post, here.

Endangerment Rewrite Going back to last year, I had been working on a revision to one of our major school rules, “Endangering the Safety of Others.” The language in our handbook was frustrating me because this is a large and important category of behaviors that the deans worry about, but the current policy seems only concerned about the dangers of incendiary devices. I also have grown concerned about dangerous driving, helmetless skateboarding, and students providing each other with tattoos and piercings in unsafe ways. The new policy language I wrote addresses these concerns, and it also has changed the name of the rule to the simple “Endangerment,” thus placing equal weight on behaviors than endanger oneself, not just others.

I should note that it took me two attempts to get this policy revision approved by the full faculty. I trust our Quaker process, and my first attempt didn’t provide enough time for discussion. I am very thankful that my colleagues ultimately gave the revision their blessing.

REACH things My role as the REACH admin here in the deans’ office took up a lot of my time and attention this year. While we nominally rolled out REACH at the end of the 2016-17 school year, this was the first full year that we used this digital sign-in/sign-out software. I’ve written about it on blog elsewhere, but I will note that there is an exciting software update coming in August, and it may lead to everyone here liking REACH even more. It has taken time to figure out all the best ways to configure the software to meet our needs most fully, but by the end of the year we were using it to replace our old system of collecting vacation travel information, so we are really converts. If the mobile apps become faster and more pleasurable for the user, then the students and dorm parents will have fewer complaints, and I’ll be able to take advantage of even more of the capabilities in REACH. You can read more about REACH in my blog posts here and here.

Attendance System 3.0 This project was a major undertaking for our IT department, and I can’t claim much credit. I have served as a spokesman for the deans’ office and what we want to see in the functionality of the new system, and I am the dean who most directly supports our attendance supervisor, who is the most important end user. Our new attendance system, which is completely homemade, is now offering a host of new options for students. They can clear cuts and lates electronically without needing to take a piece of paper to a teacher, and their advisor can look over their shoulder and help guide them. The faculty can now pull dynamic info about who is out of school on a given day instead of receiving a static report once per day. (But they can click a little button and subscribe to the report, and then they get an email like the one they used to get. I love the way the new system feels comfortable for users who don’t like change, but offers better visibility to power users.) This big project isn’t done yet, and when the new features for parents are rolled out the whole thing will be far more automated than before. Just as REACH (ideally) takes busywork away from the deans so that they can do more high level, critical thinking tasks to keep kids safe, the new attendance system will ultimately take busywork away from our attendance supervisor.

Network Restricted Lists Gaming addiction is a major story in the NYTimes this week, and we are dealing with it in boarding school land, too. Our old school policies, which forbid students to have televisions in their dorm rooms, haven’t been updated to respond to streaming gaming, “Netflix and chill,” etc. I approached our committee of dorm heads to ask them to collaborate with me on new policy language to address the concern, but they basically came back at me and said, “Why don’t we just shut off the wifi for kids with a problem?” So that’s the approach we have taken. We’ve created two new network access levels (whether a student is on the school’s wifi or wired network) that grant more restricted hours of use. The second, stricter list also denies access to popular gaming, entertainment, and social media sites and services. The hope is that we will not need to use these new tools very often in the coming years, but if we have kids under our care who cannot moderate their own device use such that they are not getting satisfactory sleep, we can temporarily assign them to one of these lists to support them.

Again and again, the story of these projects is one in which open-minded collaboration with colleagues leads to better outcomes than if I just apply executive force. I don’t always get exactly what I want, but (if I try sometimes) the school gets what it needs. Happy summer vacation, school people!

Advertisements

Back From ATLIS

I returned last night from the ATLIS Annual Conference in Washington, DC. (Okay, technically it was in Crystal City, VA.) Due to my busy schedule, I was only able to attend one day of the three-day conference, but I still got a lot out of my time there and co-led a session that represented the culmination of a year’s worth of work. ATLIS is the “Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools,” and basically, these are my people. It’s incredibly energizing to be among so many fellow educators who are engaged in the task of thoughtfully employing technology in schools, either as their primary job description (IT directors and technology integrationists) or as a focus they’ve chosen within their work as classroom teachers or administrators.

Before discussing the session that I co-led at 11:00am yesterday, I want to praise the session I attended first thing in the morning, “Digital Health and Wellness: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach.” A school counselor, librarian, and dean from Sidwell Friends School shared what Sidwell has done to create a common terminology and set of goals that are vertically shared PreK-12 at their school. Because Sidwell is a fellow Friends school, a lot of what they have done could be deployed directly at the school where I work with little alteration and it would be a good cultural fit. I appreciate the generosity with which the Sidwell team shared their story and their resources. The session was booked into one of the smallest meeting rooms at the venue, and I’m glad I arrived early since it was standing room only, and there were attendees sitting on the floor everywhere. We might deduce that, even among this very tech-forward crowd, there is a great deal of concern about the health and wellness risks that come with the devices and media our kids are bringing with them to school every day.

Indeed, the session that I co-led with my colleague Howard Glasser (@hglasser) was an outgrowth of our work this year writing a new mobile device policy for our school. Our session, “Mobile Device Policies: Exploring Reasons and Experiences” was nominally a chance for us to share out what we’ve done with our new policy, but as we brainstormed what we wanted to do with our hour, it quickly evolved into a session that was far less about the Eric and Howard show, and far more about sharing the wisdom of all of the attendees in what we hoped would be an interesting meeting of the minds.

To that end, we impaneled an all-star trio of tech leaders, Dawn Berkeley (@theberknologist), Jared Colley (@jcolley8), and John Yen (@johnyen), to bring together a variety of points of view and to help break up the sage-on-the-stage dynamic that might have developed if Howard and I did all the talking. It’s a shame that we didn’t feel confident enough at the start of this process to request a longer time slot. Howard and I held hour-long Skype conversations with our panelists before we asked them to formally present with us, and I wish we could have recorded those conversations and uploaded them to YouTube. We were able to go into greater depth just shooting the breeze in that format, but all three were wonderfully eloquent, thoughtful, and good-humored as panelists. They fielded one pre-canned question posed by Howard and me (“How has your school’s mobile device policy impacted the teaching and learning at your school?”), and then responded to a variety of questions from our audience of roughly 35 attendees. We had questions about addressing poor behavior from students, dealing with rampant gaming, and bringing along reticent colleagues. Overall, our panel and the attendees left me with a sense of optimism that the benefits of mobile devices far outweigh the dangers, and the core beliefs that Howard and I wrote into our school’s new policy were affirmed.

Perhaps the heart of our session was an interactive poll we created as a conversation starter using Pear Deck. We asked the audience to weigh in their minds where their school’s mobile device policy fit on a spectrum from traditional to progressive and then to plot that on a line so we could visualize the variety in the room. Then we asked them to do the same thing regarding their school’s pedagogy (again, traditional to progressive spectrum). Finally we joined those two lines as an x and y-axis to create a Cartesian coordinate map. Here’s what the results look like:

Because the mobile device policy that Howard and I brought to our school’s faculty for approval was accepted, we feel that we’ve shifted our school’s policy from the far left (most traditional) to somewhere in the progressive range. Perhaps our policy is now out ahead of our school’s pedagogy, which is a bit more traditional, but the policy we wrote gives individual teachers the flexibility to determine how mobile devices are used in their classes, so there will be a wide range of choices on display at our school in the coming years. We hope that the Pear Deck activity will empower attendees of our session to go back to their schools with data about where their school’s policy fits into the broader ecosystem, and perhaps to persuade their colleagues that change is needed.

This work of rewriting our school’s mobile device policy is the signature accomplishment of my 2017-18 school year, but it would have never occurred to me to use it as the jumping off point to lead a session at a conference. I owe Howard a great debt of gratitude for dragging me into this enterprise. Howard is a masterful coach; so masterful in fact that he manages to coach me without me noticing that he is doing so! Our session was one of two that Howard co-led at ATLIS, so he is helping to put our school on the map as a leader in the area of educational technology. (The other session was “School Community as a Driver of Change.”) I’m also deeply grateful to Dawn, Jared, and John for giving so generously of their time as our panelists. I know that conference attendees chose to come to our session specifically because of the respect they feel for those three tech leaders.

 

Using REACH for Vacation Travel Planning

My colleagues and I in the deans’ office have been dissatisfied in recent years with the way in which we collect vacation travel plans from our students, and our inability to organize those plans usefully once we receive them. We are just about to throw in the towel and outsource the whole thing, but we thought we’d try an experiment for our last major vacation of the year (spring break) and use REACH as our travel planning hub. (You can read my previous post about REACH here.)

Our old system requires parents to login to the school’s parent portal and fill out a form that is linked to our database. The form then populates an Excel spreadsheet that is very detailed and sortable. However, the hurdles that this system asks parents to jump over, such as remembering their login info and completing a very extensive form, lead to low compliance. Many parents just email us instead, or call, and then we are stuck entering all of the information into the form, or more often we just house information in multiple places, which leads to mistakes. We need to pass this information along to the car service we use to shuttle students to the nearby train station and three major airports, and errors can be costly and lead to urgent crises.

REACH puts the onus on the students to fill out their vacation leave request. (Our school used to make the students fill out a paper form back in the day, so this isn’t without precedent for us.) They need to get all of the pertinent info from their parents, including flight data and so forth, and then submit it for electronic approval by their parents, host (if there is one), and finally the deans. Now that REACH has a well-designed mobile app, nearly all of our boarders have the ability to fill out their vacation travel info from their phone at any time. You can imagine how much more accessible this system is than asking parents to sit down at a laptop and navigate to a web site, login, and then follow several links to a form. REACH easily generates an Excel spreadsheet, too, so there is no loss of spreadsheet-ability, but our old form had a lot more columns for specific info. In particular, with REACH students put their flight info into the “Notes” field, so it is doesn’t get broken out in detail in Excel as it would using our old form.

That concern aside, we are much, much closer to 100% compliance using REACH, and that’s an enormous improvement over the system we’ve been using for the last few years.

Moreover, I see many opportunities to improve upon this first attempt. When we first started using REACH, Brian Murray (the company’s Director for North America) showed me how to format the leave type for this purpose, but I forgot some of the good advice he gave me. So I correctly created a specific “Spring Break 2018” leave type, and I created the correct work flow for the “actors” (people who need to give approval), but I didn’t pay attention to the transportation categories. I should have custom built just two options for students: “school provided ground transportation” and “family provided ground transportation.” Instead, the kids selected from the crazy quilt of options we normally give them (GS Van, Uber/Taxi, Car – parent driver, Car – other, Public Transportation, etc.). This meant that I had to send about 30 follow-up emails to students who chose transportation options that required me to be psychic in order to know whether they wanted us to book them a limo or if they were trying to say that another student’s parent was driving them. That really wasn’t such a headache, and I’ll get it right next time.

One aspect of REACH that our old system can’t duplicate is that it provides greater visibility to the students’ dorm parents (“hall teachers” in our school’s parlance). Those important adults can see the students’ leave requests, although many of them haven’t fully figured out REACH yet. (You could rephrase that to say, “The school hasn’t provided them the training they need,” and that blame falls on my shoulders.) But they are certainly able to see whether a student has left campus or not, which used to be rather chaotic and opaque before we started using REACH. We agreed earlier in the year to a solid workflow in which students have their dorm rooms checked for cleanliness by a dorm parent, who gives them a paper check-out ticket. The student brings that ticket to the deans’ office, and we SISO them out on REACH when they are actually leaving campus. (SISO stands for “sign-in/sign-out,” if you aren’t hip to the lingo.) Every adult on campus who logs into REACH can see who is still here and who has departed, and vice-versa at the end of each vacation.

There is even a little room for humor in this process, which makes it fun for the deans and dorm folks. I create custom locations for each vacation to which students are SISOed when they go on leave. Thanksgiving was “Turkey Time,” winter break was “Tinsel Town,” and our upcoming spring break will be “Cherry Blossom Wonderland.” You even get to assign each location in REACH a color of your choice, so I get to have seasonal fun with that, too.

After spring break my fellow deans and I will reevaluate how things went and decide if we are going to use REACH for vacation travel planning next year. As of this writing, I am leaning towards dedicating a year to working with it and improving upon what we’ve accomplished. We should reap productivity gains as returning students develop experience with the system and come to understand what is expected of them. As more adults on campus gain proficiency with REACH, they should come to enjoy the window it grants them into the work we do in the deans’ office, and they’ll be better able to care for their advisees and dorm charges.

I’ll try to write a post-spring-break breakdown of how things went. Stay tuned.

Digital Distractions vs. Substances

For the last few weeks the article “Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones” from the NYTimes has been lingering in my mind. Written by Matt Richtel and published on 3.13.17, the article explores the theory that substance abuse has declined among teenage students over the last decade because the time they would have used to experiment with drugs has been squeezed out by all the time they are spending on their mobile devices. While the article admits that there have been no conclusive studies done yet to support the theory, it certainly seems plausible — even likely — to me and my colleagues. I brought the article to a recent deans staff meeting for discussion, and our subjective, anecdotal evidence makes us feel like the theory must be true.

The news that substance abuse is down, in some categories roughly 10%, among teens, should of course be greeted with joy. But the idea that substances are being crowded out by a new addiction, mobile devices, makes one wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. I bring a pro-tech bias to my work as an educator, but I also worry that addiction to mobile devices may end up being a more widespread and insidious social ill than nicotine, alcohol, and other substances were in the 20th century. Will deaths caused by distracted driving eventually exceed those caused by drunk driving? (Not if cars are all self-driving in the near future.) Will addiction to social media and mobile gaming lead to a generation of zombies more sleepless and in need of their fix than addicts during the crack epidemic? (Not if parents and boarding school faculty like me equip children with tools and habits to help them unplug at night and during community time.)

I’m focused on asking myself what a dean of students at a boarding school should do if we grant that the thesis is correct. The problem with addressing this mobile-device addiction is that our use of these devices switches back and forth hundreds of times each day among different modes of use. One minute we are using our devices for important work, the next minute we are checking our feeds, the next minute we are responding to a text from a family member, and the next minute we are pulled back into that new game we really love. Teachers can’t possibly know how a student is using their device at any moment, and the temptation to overreact is strong.

Where is all this heading? Speaking only for myself, I think we need greater clarity in our school-wide policies as to what sort of mobile device use is acceptable in which contexts. We must carve out community spaces and times in which no use is permitted at all. Boarding schools need to think about sleep issues as well. (I’m influenced here by Jonathan Crary’s haunting book 24/7.) A small number of teenage boarding students are able to unplug from their devices at night without prompting or assistance from adults, but most cannot. True to the Swiss army knife aspect of smartphones, most teens now use their device as their alarm clock, which means that if you confiscate their phone to help them get undistracted sleep, you’ve increased the likelihood that they’ll be late to class! Wristwatches and old-fashioned alarm clocks are not very popular among today’s teens.

The most worrying factoid from Richtel’s article is that the drop in substance use seen in young people ages 12-18 is not showing up among college students. Those college students are using substances as much as ever. How do we understand this data? Will substance use among college-aged people drop as the current 12-18 year-olds age, or are we seeing something much more troubling? If use has dropped so significantly among middle school and high school kids, but not among college students, that means that we are seeing more college students than ever who left for college having never experimented with or abused substances but who begin to do so after leaving home. This strikes me as a terrifying prospect. Colleges simply do not provide the careful attention to student well-being and safety net that secondary schools do. Therefore, high school teachers must continue to educate their students about the perils of substances even if the data suggests that fewer and fewer of our kids are actually at risk while under our care. We educate not just for the present, but mostly for the future.

Building a Chatbot for the Deans’ Office

Summer vacation is a time that growth-oriented educators use for reflection, rejuvenation, and professional development. As a new dad with a baby at home, this wasn’t an ideal summer for me to travel to conferences or take courses; instead, I focused on growing my tech skills. The end result is a cool product that I built to satisfy my curiosity in artificial intelligence: a chatbot.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of a chatbot yet, you soon will be, as they are on the brink of becoming ubiquitous. In brief, a chatbot is a bit of code that masquerades as an interlocutor inside a messaging app, such as Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp, or iOS’s native text-messaging app. You typically use these messaging apps to talk to people you know, but more and more you are going to find yourself talking to businesses though this medium. Or rather, you will be talking to bots that are programmed to do a limited number of tasks while interacting with you in what seems like natural language.

Why is this process going to happen? Because that’s where the eyeballs are. I remember seeing a Wired Magazine article in 2010 declaring the death of the Web, and thinking to myself, “That’s ridiculous; the Web is still young, and I love the Web. Why would I ever stop using the Web?” But the authors (Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff) were prescient. I avoid using a web browser as much as possible these days and interact with the internet through apps instead. I don’t open Firefox and navigate to google.com; instead I tap the Google app on my iPad. But now, not even six years later, the techno futurists are assuring us that we are on the brink of the next era. In this new phase of the internet, we will interact with all of our favorite sites and services without ever leaving our texting app. How do they know this? Well, it’s already happening in Asia. (WeChat and Line are two of the messaging apps that are on the cutting edge of this change.)

As recently as this past May, it would never have occurred to me to build a chatbot. But about a year ago, I heard about a much-ballyhooed a.i. digital scheduling assistant named Amy, produced by a company called x.ai. I signed up for a beta account, and then waited, and waited, and waited. Then suddenly in May I came off the wait list and started testing out Amy. Amy isn’t a chatbot, but she is an a.i. bot that works through your email and calendar. While complex and powerful a.i. personas such as Siri get most of the attention, the new wave of useful bots are built to do very specific tasks, but do them with excellent results. Amy only does one thing: If you have agreed to set up a meeting with someone, she takes care of the irritating emails back-and-forth as you and the other party(s) try to find the right time and place. She does this amazingly well, and uses such convincing natural language that you would believe that she is a real person.

I got to use Amy for about a week to impress a couple of colleagues at work, but then summer vacation began, and I was left wondering what other bots are out there that I should know about. I began reading every article on the topic that I could get my hands on, and I discovered a young but rapidly expanding world of chatbots. For the last month I’ve been using a chatbot that helps you save money, called Digit. It isn’t exactly a bank account, but it’s very close, and you can see that very soon we will all be interacting with our banks via bots like this. Unlike quite a few bots that I’ve tried out this summer, Digit really works. It isn’t buggy and it does what it says it’s going to do; namely, it sweeps tiny amounts of cash out of your checking account when you aren’t looking, and then holds them in a (rather lame, non-interest-paying) savings account. Digit sends you upbeat text messages to update you on your savings, and you can text message it back to ask it how much money is in your account, or to ask it to transfer cash back to your real bank account

The success of Amy and Digit got me thinking about my job in the Deans’ Office at George School. We are a high-traffic corner of the school’s administration, and we are frequently bogged down in onerous data-collection tasks. What if we had a chatbot that worked on a platform that the students use often, such as Facebook Messenger? Would this more frictionless medium make it easier for us to collect information that we need, such as vacation travel plans? And would we be able to reduce the number of phone calls that we receive asking for information that is available on the school’s web site if people could just ask a bot that lives in their phone? Too bad, I thought, I’ll never get to find out, since I don’t have the coding skills to build a chatbot, and this cutting edge tech must be far beyond my abilities, right?

As a flag-waving member of the Connected Educator community, I do a lot of my professional development through Twitter. And good old Twitter brought me the solution in the form of a tweet from a company called Flowxo. They claim that you can use their platform to build a chatbot without having to write any code. And so my three-week adventure in building a chatbot for our Deans’ Office began in earnest.

After signing up on Flowxo’s website and poking around a little, I tried brainstorming a list of all of the things with which a chatbot might be able to help the Deans’ Office. Examples include:

  • Collecting vacation travel information
  • Providing information on upcoming assembly times/subjects
  • Providing information about sports contests times/locations
  • Answering questions about school rules
  • Answering questions about sign-out procedures
  • Communicating about minor discipline
  • Submitting reports about missing belongings
  • Providing updates about inclement weather delays/closings
  • Allowing students to pull up individualized schedule information

I spent a couple of weeks tinkering during spare moments when my son was asleep. (Time: a rare commodity when you have an eight-month old.) Through a lot of trial and error and ignorant bumbling, I came to the conclusion that Flowxo’s “application” template would help me design successful functionality for collecting vacation travel information and allowing students to submit reports of missing belongings. My attempts to use RSS feeds from the school’s website to move information in the other direction (from the school to the end user, as opposed to from the end user to the school) were unsuccessful. After my chatbot is unveiled, it’s possible that members of the school’s IT team will be able to quickly help me to figure out the things that I couldn’t do on my own. I wanted to stubbornly work on this project by myself, so I didn’t ask anyone for help. (Although my wife, mother-in-law, and an advisee helped me test the bot once I activated it.)

The two “flows” that the chatbot now performs are simple, but they work beautifully. Both gather information from users through relatively elegant natural language, then they fire off automated emails with the data collected. The vacation travel information flow isn’t nearly as detailed as the online form we have on our web-based parent portal, but we struggle to get anything close to 100% of parents to submit the information using that form. If students or parents will adopt the chatbot and enter the information that way, it will be a big win as far as I’m concerned.  Over time, I may be able to improve upon the flow to get it closer to the full online form, but in the meantime, it collects the basic facts that my office needs.

Chatbot

Dean Eric’s Chatbot in action

In case you are I thinking about making a chatbot for your school, I should warn you that there are a lot of hurdles on which one can trip. Flowxo has a great site and provides a wonderful service, but it took a long time for me to understand their system. (You need to hit the “refresh” button on your browser after everything you do, and it took me days to figure that out.) The Flowxo directions also make it sound pretty easy to submit your bot to Facebook so that they’ll let it run in Messenger, but that step nearly tripped me up completely. You need to submit a privacy document full of legal language, plus a screencast of your chatbot in action. I didn’t know how to do either of those things. Some rapid googling helped me get those tasks done, and ultimately Facebook approved my app within a day. After that, I still found that the bot wasn’t operating correctly, and I nearly destroyed all of my work in a panic as I tried to fix it.

The chatbot is now running on the Facebook Messenger app if you want to check it out, but it is useless if you aren’t a George School student or parent. There’s nothing to be ashamed of there. Just as Amy from x.ai does one thing and does it very well, my bot does two things, and does them (fairly) well. It’s the right tool for the specific task; nothing more. I’d like to expand the chatbot to other messaging apps other than FB Messenger, but Flowxo doesn’t yet offer those integrations. (It works with Slack, which is awesome, but we don’t use Slack at GS.) If I could run the bot on the native iOS and Android messaging apps, that would cover something close to 100% of our student body.

As I wrap up this post, there are still a couple of weeks until the start of school. I don’t know if the chatbot will be adopted with love or mocked and misused for the amusement of teenagers. However, I feel satisfied that I tried something I didn’t think I could pull off, and it is now up and running. I’m not aware of any other secondary schools that have a chatbot yet, so for once I’m truly out there on the cutting edge. It may never happen again. (There are an awful lot of schools out there, so I’m guessing some other enterprising faculty members have got some bots online.)

Final note: In the chatbot community, people care about the distinction between bots that are truly a.i. and those that are not. Dean Eric’s Chatbot is not a.i.; it is basically a glorified voicemail automated phone tree type of setup, albeit operating via a much hipper medium. While I was working on building the bot using Flowxo, I saw a tweet from IBM saying that you could build a bot in ten minutes using Watson and Bluemix. For one glorious day, I abandoned Flowxo and worked on a truly a.i. bot on IBM’s platform, but I found their interface to be buggy, and I had to give up. So my chatbot isn’t powered by IBM’s amazing Watson technology, and I’m at peace with that.

The Homework Gap

You’ve probably already read “Bridging the Digital Divide That Leaves Schoolchildren Behind” in the Technology section of yesterday’s NYTimes. How then do we process Anya Kamenetz’s piece for npr.org published today, “Study in Your PJs? What a High School ‘Work From Home’ Day Looks Like.” While the Times piece (written by Celia Kang) focuses on the homework challenges faced by the 40% of students in the McAllen, TX area who live in homes that can’t afford internet access, Kamenetz’s piece talks about a public school in northern NJ (Park Ridge) that had a voluntary distance learning day in which all of students were encouraged to stay at home. According to the principal of the NJ school quoted in Kamenetz’s piece, “99 percent” of the students in that district have high-speed internet at home. Park Ridge was experimenting with a distance learning day mostly to be innovative, with some lip-service paid to college readiness and future bad-weather situations. Meanwhile in McAllen and across the country, low-income students are lucky if they live in a district that is experimenting with wifi-hotspot-enabled school buses. Otherwise, they have to sit in fast food restaurants for hours using free internet. Burger King: the ideal setting to work on your research paper about Macbeth. Compare and contrast: fast food restaurants and the blasted heath.

At the boarding school where I work, we have had tough discussions about how late at night we allow our boarders to access our (strong, omnipresent) wifi network. We care about equal opportunities to access the web for our boarders and our day students. The conversation can tie you in knots since it requires you to make generalizations about what the parents of day students allow their children to do, or what the parents of our boarders would like us to do in their stead, but we are talking about a situation in which everyone has access to the web nearly all of the time. And even when we turn off the wifi (very, very late at night), many students just stay on their devices using their own data plans.

The Times piece discusses the Lifeline program that (controversially) spends $2 billion in tax dollars to subsidize broadband for low-income households. Hopefully the FCC will re-up this program next month, but much more attention is needed to the so-called homework gap. Students at my school complain (a little melodramatically at times) that they really can’t do any homework any more without access to the web, and in truth, that’s where they look up their assignments and access relevant coursework. Lifeline is a start, but we also need much more funding at the local level for public libraries, which for many school children are the go-to setting for after school internet study time. Wouldn’t we much rather see our kids working in a library than a fast food restaurant or a school bus? How does one even do homework for hours on a school bus, especially after dark and in cold weather? This issue is beginning to sound like it is one part educational access crisis, one part public health crisis.