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Widening the Digital Learning Gap

A San Francisco middle school grapples with a tech company "partnership"
Widening the Digital Learning Gap

Franziska Barczyk
fitzma.me

“How many of you have a Verizon phone?” a smiling Career Day guest speaker asked the 8th-grade students gathered in our school library. A few students raised their hands. “Oh, good for you guys!” the speaker responded enthusiastically.

Overhearing these words from my desk across the library, I cringed. The Career Day panel of tech representatives was part of a package deal that came with our school’s multiyear Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS) program. During the setup in the library that morning, I was happy to see that the panel consisted of a fairly diverse group of women — but the fact that every one of them were employees at Verizon wasn’t explained to the students ahead of time. The organizers referred to this special class period in the library simply as “Career Day.” One student raised his hand partway through the talks and asked, puzzled, “Wait, you all work at Verizon?”

“Yes! Today is Verizon Career Day!” responded one of the bubbly volunteer employees with a laugh. “We have to switch you all from AT&T to Verizon!”

***

If you teach in the San Francisco Bay Area like me, chances are good you’ve had some experience with at least one tech company’s involvement in your school. In the high-profile, venture capital-infused world of San Francisco we are in close proximity to Silicon Valley, and this seems to make our underfunded public schools ideal candidates for corporate goodwill missions. This is a city where the contrast between highly paid tech workers and teachers struggling to pay rent — and unable to buy homes — is glaring and well established. Power feels especially unbalanced in the school community. Here, what companies refer to as their “Corporate Responsibility” sometimes plays out as great concessions by our schools, and inevitably includes a lot of advertising. But advertising isn’t the only troubling aspect of these ubiquitous Big Tech-public school relationships.

VILS is directed by a nonprofit organization called Digital Promise. Originating in 2008 when the Higher Education Opportunity Act was reauthorized, Congress established Digital Promise to help infuse new technology and tech skills into the country’s public schools. Most Big Tech names you’ve heard of are either partners with, or funders of, Digital Promise, which works nationwide “at the intersection of education leaders, researchers, and technology developers.” (I can’t help but notice the absence of the word “teachers.”) Their mission is “to improve learning opportunities for all and close the digital learning gap.” This is a term that I’ve noticed has largely replaced “digital divide” in many education and popular media spheres. The new name ostensibly encompasses not only equity of access to digital technology, but how people use their devices — whether they passively consume media, or use digital tools to problem-solve, construct, and deepen learning. But referring to this phenomenon now as a “learning gap” also suggests that it is a problem associated with schools, rather than a broader economic inequality.

For better and for worse, my district, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), has embraced many tech-related sponsorships, grants, donations, and partnerships over the past decade. In the middle school where I’ve worked for six years as the teacher-librarian, teachers and students have been involved in various projects with the San Francisco tech giant Salesforce, embraced a districtwide adoption of all things Google, and are currently in the fourth year of a $3 million program with VILS. Aside from all the money, services, and equipment provided by the tech companies, their employees are encouraged to volunteer in schools and promote careers in the tech industry. Indeed, the Verizon employees who visited my school touted working at Verizon over and over during their Career Day visits, focusing on high salaries and big dreams: “This is why you should come to Verizon!” and “I look forward to seeing you in 10 years!” they told the students. Although I think it’s great for kids to hear about different kinds of career options, I found myself thinking about striking Verizon workers in 2016, and how the company is notoriously anti-union.

Since my school district is moving forward with the goal of being a “Digital District,” I imagine it would have been difficult for our district heads to say no to the “partnership” with Verizon. Being a fully Digital District includes, among other things, a “1:1 device environment” initiative — a device for every student. The VILS program provides “free technology, free internet access, and hands-on learning experiences to help give under-resourced students the education they deserve,” according to their website. Currently more than 150 middle schools across the country partner with VILS. I wish I understood more about the conversations that took place before our district administration selected three SFUSD middle schools, including mine, to be VILS program sites. In any case, four years ago our school received more than 700 brand-new iPads complete with 4G data plans from Verizon. All teachers and support staff received iPads too. Last year VILS invited every teacher to swap their iPad for an even newer one, though the same student iPads have continued to be used year after year, much to the students’ disappointment.

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All teachers received our original iPads from VILS a few months before the students, so we could get used to using them. My teacher iPad was handed to me in a plastic case emblazoned with “Verizon” in huge letters on the back. Told about this blatant breach of the district’s anti-branding policy, our teacher union president brought the issue to the school board. Together, they successfully prevented the Verizon-labeled cases from being distributed to students — but it took several teachers sharing their concerns with our union to make that happen. It also delayed the distribution of the student iPads by several weeks since new cases had to be ordered. I’m not sure if our district heads and school board had been oblivious to the situation, or had turned a blind eye; either way, it is a reminder that without constant vigilance, corporations may disregard even explicit policies. Several years ago I experienced a similar situation when Target remodeled my school’s library. (See the article "The Library that Target Built" in the summer 2014 issue of Rethinking Schools .)

Our district technology department staff eventually checked out the thousands of new VILS iPads, in plain black cases, to each student in the three participating middle schools for yearlong school and home use. The process for students to receive their iPads was especially cumbersome for parents who weren’t able to take time off work to come to school on the mandated first distribution day, as well as those who didn’t speak fluent English, have computer skills, or access to the internet at home. I was particularly aware of this because sometimes parents came into our school library for help. In each of the years we have facilitated the iPad distribution process, it has only become more complicated. The documents required by Digital Promise to check out each student’s iPad are now all online, creating a difficult and sometimes humiliating situation for families already struggling with being on the wrong side of the digital learning gap. A student who was acting out in class one day last year burst into tears when I talked to him individually about his behavior; he and his recently immigrated parents had not understood the process required to obtain an iPad, and he was embarrassed and frustrated at not receiving a device on the same day as the rest of his classmates. Sometimes school personnel have not been very understanding of how challenging it can be for parents to fill out the lengthy legal pages online, either. “They all have cell phones,” one staff member told me with an eye roll, when I brought to their attention that some parents needed the thick packet of paper documents, and help filling them out.

Our school counselors, social worker, and tech teacher made considerable effort to reach all families and arrange for times to come in individually, but it was time-consuming and a great challenge. Some students never received an iPad, even after two years, because their parents could not or would not sign the documents. It may have been too big a responsibility for some families to take on, or they were opposed to their children bringing home an iPad for any number of other reasons. Even in the final years of our relationship with VILS, there are many unanswered questions about the legality of the contracts and insurance policies that VILS and our district technology department ask parents to sign: Is it legal for a public school to require parents to sign out a valuable device for their child? Are families allowed to opt out? If they opt out, what plan is in place? Over the years, only a handful of parents asked that their child not bring home an iPad; our principal made arrangements to store those students’ iPads in their counselor’s office overnight, but VILS did not encourage this and our school was not set up to handle the secure charging of many devices.

Our VILS trainers told us on day one that having iPads ensures “always-available access” to learning, especially for students without internet connections or computers at home. The trainers insisted that having a device with internet access is a solution to helping our most vulnerable students keep up with the “hands-on learning experiences” teachers are expected to create and provide as part of the VILS program goals. We have been introduced to many apps that supposedly “make learning fun” and keep everybody engaged and on task. Verizon’s donation to my school of iPads plus data plans was allegedly intended to help narrow the digital learning gap. I’m sure, to some degree, using iPads in every classroom has helped engage some students who otherwise would not be as engaged. But in a lot of ways, the gap seems wider than ever.

When 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds walk around with a device worth $500 in their backpacks or hands, there are bound to be issues. In the past few years, many iPads were stolen from classrooms, homes, and cars. Other iPads were lost, broken, likely even sold. (One stolen iPad was tracked in China just days later!) Students forget their iPads on a daily basis, or forget to charge them, or can’t charge them because charging cables are lost or stolen. Screens are cracked when backpacks get dropped. All of this was somewhat expected — by most of us teachers, anyway — but the striking outcome over the years has been the disproportionate number of Black and Brown students, and those from low-income families, who ultimately have no iPad to use in class each day. There is supposedly a system for replacement when iPads are lost or stolen, but often it takes weeks or months — or doesn’t happen at all. Students and families are sometimes ashamed or nervous about reporting a missing iPad; they worry they will be in trouble, or have to pay for the cost of replacement. Some students are deemed too irresponsible to have a second (or third) iPad and are simply not given a replacement.

Students showing up to class without an iPad continues to be a big problem in our school because the iPad is, by design, taking the place of textbooks, paper, pencils, and other less expensive school supplies. These could be lent out or given to students who do not have their own, but teachers do not have any extra iPads in their classrooms. Administrators direct us not to lend school laptops either, because bringing a charged iPad to each class every day is an expectation for students in schools sponsored by VILS: It is supposed to build responsibility. But without an iPad, many students already struggling in school fall further behind. Teachers often scramble to create and print out paper variations of their online assignments for students without iPads, but that is not always possible. My colleagues and I frequently ask ourselves and each other: If a student shows up to class without an iPad — for any reason — shouldn’t we be able to offer them a laptop or other device on loan? Shouldn’t that be a decision made by a teacher, not a corporation?

There is also, of course, the ever-growing and concerning issue of students using their iPads in ways that distract from classroom learning. Instant access to online games, videos, a camera, and the entire web constantly challenges student self-control during class time. It also competes with the time students have to socialize and engage in more active activities during lunch and recess. Each year, when VILS issues the students their iPads after the first several weeks of school, I notice book circulation and lunchtime board game use noticeably drops in our library. Although our technology department sets the student iPads so nothing can be downloaded except district-approved apps, students have access to the internet through the school Wi-Fi and their data plan, so “always-available access” is a double-edged sword when it comes to web-based activities. Some classroom teachers are convinced the iPads have exacerbated the problem of sleepy students who stay up too late playing games or watching videos on their devices at home. I can’t help but feel that this is Verizon’s unspoken motivation for “helping” our school district out: The more time kids are online, the more dependent they become on Verizon’s products and services. Data harvesting is another concern I have and wonder about, even though our district technology department tells me Verizon is not collecting student data.

VILS strives to have teachers “flip” the classroom in our school. This means offering assignments online so that students can prepare for class at home using their iPad, then spend classroom time doing group work and project-based learning. Although it may sound great on paper, the reality of preparing lessons like this regularly requires much more planning time than teachers have been allocated in our district, and the likelihood that all students would complete these assignments cannot be assured — even with an iPad. Rose Stuckey Kirk, Verizon’s chief corporate responsibility officer, boldly states, “Verizon Innovative Learning took the opportunity to intervene with some of the most under-resourced children in America’s middle schools, in order to fundamentally change the way teachers teach and children learn.” As I see it, this “opportunity” Verizon is leveraging is a lack of funding for our public schools, which increasingly makes our education system susceptible to private, often corporate strings-attached gifts and influence. There is great irony in the fact that companies like Verizon have been handed power to influence teaching and learning and help our struggling public schools, while these same corporations contribute to economic imbalance in our community and sway national policies that perpetuate a disparity of wealth. 

The idea that an iPad can revolutionize learning in the classroom is rife with problems, no matter who provides the iPad. When it comes to what VILS trainers and program goals push and what most educators know about teaching, learning, and their students, there is often a disconnect. One colleague told me last year, “I’m thinking of going back to paper — the kids are more engaged. They ask for it!” Another teacher was having great success and engagement in his class using digital tools on the iPads, but lamented the fact that there are always students who don’t have their device with them for one reason or another. Without extra iPads to lend out, the teacher felt he was “giving a subpar education to some students.” During many teacher union discussions, staff meetings, and hallway conversations, our school has grappled with how to handle the problems and challenges of a program designed by people who do not work full time in schools and who are not trying to teach mandated and hopefully meaningful curriculum every day. Most of our classes have more than 30 students with a wide range of skills, abilities, and backgrounds. Many of the classroom spaces in our old building are small and crowded, making it difficult for students to listen to audio or record a project using their iPads.

But in our relationship with Verizon there is no room for — and seemingly no interest in — our questions, concerns, or ideas. VILS sends out a required standardized survey to all teachers a few times each year, purporting to ask for our feedback. However, even though I always fill up the last box with comments, and I know other colleagues do too, no one ever responds to or addresses our concerns and questions. Should we consider that maybe an iPad is the wrong tool for middle school students? Why are we giving our students a(nother) screen, to use almost without limit, when most of us have serious concerns about how and how long kids use screen time? (This issue has recently come to light in the news as Silicon Valley software developers and engineers themselves question and limit their own children’s access to screens.) Does the use of apps in the classroom really lead to more engagement? These feel like taboo questions that must be whispered behind the backs of our administrators who have too many other obligations and concerns, and our corporate patron, who has clearly achieved a position of power in exchange for expensive hardware. Whenever our staff brings up ideas such as keeping sets of iPads in classrooms and not allowing students to take them home or use them during lunchtime, our principal mentions a contract with Verizon that will not allow us to make such autonomous decisions or alter the program in any way.

This is what fundamentally bothers me most about our district’s “partnership” with Verizon: It is not one. VILS has created a facade of educational and tech-related buzzwords and insisted every classroom teacher facilitate lessons using iPads, while leaving out the educators’ own voices from the program planning and decision-making. Because of this exclusion, at my school some of the most vulnerable students have been faced with yet another barrier to participating and fitting in. Verizon is not providing long-term solutions, either. Next year when our VILS partnership ends, our school will keep the gifted iPads (which are now beat-up from being hauled around in middle school backpacks for years), but the Verizon data plans will expire. I’m sure the company hopes all families will purchase their own data plans at home — the Verizon Career Day representative said as much! Or maybe they expect our school district to provide the data plans. Either way, the iPad initiative, like many other philanthropic ventures in education around the country, is not sustainable. Our school will be responsible for coming up with replacement iPads and charging cords, crucial parts of the program if it is to work for all of our students.

While I believe the intentions of the individual VILS employees and volunteers are sincere with regard to helping our students, schools should not forget that the overall mission of a corporation like Verizon is one of profit. In my experience, most tech companies do not see anything wrong with using their entry into our schools to advertise their products. No doubt they would be doing even more advertising if it were not for SFUSD’s decades-old Commercial-Free Schools Act. Even with that policy in place, banners and other temporary promotional materials are allowed at certain events. And if no one complains — or has time to take them down — these banners stay up in the schools for weeks, or months. The branding is therefore accomplished.

I find this overlaying of corporate culture on school environments incongruous and offensive. In schools, most teachers and teacher-librarians I know strive to infuse critical thinking skills into their lessons, giving students the practice needed to weigh issues and converse intelligently and respectfully with people who may not think the same way. By contrast, corporations thrive on dogma and company loyalty. They are driven by advertising, which is antithetical to critical thinking. It is heartening to see some students voicing questions and concerns recently about the corporate influence they see at our school, and I hope we can foster more of this. At the Verizon Career Day last fall, the guest speakers were a little less focused on direct advertising (maybe because of some outraged feedback from me!) but a student raised his hand right away and asked, “Is this an advertising campaign?” The speaker responded, laughing, “No, but would you like to come work for Verizon?”

Having up-to-date technology in our school is powerful; I appreciate and value opportunities to learn about new digital tools, access growing numbers of high-quality digital sources, and collaborate on projects online — and it is crucial that students have these opportunities also. But I resent being beholden to any company that acts like it should control learning and pedagogy in our public schools. Once a month, our students are released for half a day and our entire staff participates in a required VILS professional development training all afternoon. On these days I consider the precious time that feels wasted. We learn about new, “fun” apps that are often not very useful to us because they have been developed for businesses rather than classrooms. What if we spent that amount of time each month on restorative justice work? Trainings that teach us how to better help students affected by trauma? Lesson planning? The “gift” of devices to our school has come at a tremendous cost: our autonomy, and to some degree, our credibility as professional educators. As one student told me last year after Verizon’s Career Day, “School is supposed to give you information, make you think. Not try to sell you stuff.”

Rachel Cloues is a teacher-librarian in the San Francisco Unified School District. She wrote “The Library that Target Built” for the summer 2014 issue of Rethinking Schools.

Illustrator Franziska Barczyk’s art can be seen at fitza.me