Minimizing the Digital Divide: Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials Program

As educators and policy makers have attempted to eliminate the achievement gap over the years, one of the well-documented pernicious gaps continues to be the “digital divide”.  In fact, a google search on “digital divide” yields over 4 million hits as of October 12, 2011. While there are several definitions of the term, Wikipedia captures the essence in the following description:

More recently, some have used the term to refer to gaps in broadband network access. The term can mean not only unequal access to computer hardware, but also inequalities between groups of people in the ability to use information technology fully.

Last month, we as a country made a major step in addressing this problem with the joint announcement by the Comcast Corporation, FCC, and District of Columbia Public Schools. This major step is the national roll-out of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which will provide affordable internet access to low income families. At an Internet Essentials launch event, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski assessed the digital divide and the need for affordable broadband. With broadband being essential to the academic success of America’s youth, Chairman Genachowski reflected that “the digital divide is seriously troubling; more troubling now than in the past, because the costs of digital exclusion are rising”. Genachowski continued this sentiment noting, “Students increasingly need to go online to complete their homework assignments.” Chairman Genachowski further remarked on the stark statistics and detrimental nature of the digital divide. He referenced research that shows one-third of all students and most of all low-income students do not have internet access at home.

This lack of resources available due to the digital divide results in a lose-lose situation in education. When faced with this problem, teachers will either assign Internet-based homework or not. Either the students without Internet access at home are hurt, or the students do not learn how to utilize the Internet and do not attain necessary Internet skills. However with Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, teachers can escape this lose-lose situation. (more…)

Digital Promise

The Department of Education recently launched Digital Promise, an effort to identify the best in education technology and get it into classrooms across the country:

The National Science Foundation will also be one of the first contributors to the effort, announcing today $15 million in awards to support research on how best to create contemporary, digital learning environments.

“The projects within the NSF portfolio for cyberlearning stand to demonstrate and promote learning technology, to transform our schools and to enhance our lives,” said Farnam Jahanian of the NSF’s directorate for computer and information science and engineering.

It’s good to see so much effort go toward recognizing the innovative ways technology can be put to use in the educational sphere.  In addition to a host of other benefits, like reduced cost and more efficient content delivery, applying technology in the classroom helps educators accomplish two other critical goals: individualizing instruction and extending instructional time.  We’ve written quite a bit on Oasis, a personalized learning platform that allows students the opportunity to practice writing at a targeted level, read text targeted to their reading level, and even engage in vocabulary activities.  Oasis is built around the idea that targeted practice, when distributed over time, can help improve a student’s reading and writing ability.  Best of all, because Oasis is online, it can be accessed year round and anytime of day; and because Oasis is self-guided, students have the opportunity to engage in targeted practice with limited teacher involvement. 

Kudos to the Department for their effort to recognize the best in educational technology and to utilize it to ensure opportunities for all students.

Changing the Equation

We’ve written before on Change the Equation, a non-profit, CEO-driven organization dedicated to addressing our innovation problem and committed to driving  “the U.S. to the top of the pack in science and math education over the next decade”.  Good thing too.  Only 43 percent of U.S. graduates in 2010 were prepared for college work in math.  And Scholastic’s Math Hub reports on a new study from the Gates Foundation and Harris Interactive noting that many students report feeling unprepared for college courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas.  That’s too bad, because as Math Hub documents, the US will have over 1.2 million jobs in STEM related fields by 2018.

We applaud the recent work of the Obama administration, and organizations like Change the Equation, for their efforts to prepare students for careers in math, science, and technology.  But parents will have to do their part as well.  It’s critical that parents foster an appreciation of math and science in their children.  The effort to keep students engaged in year round learning starts at home.  As Malbert Smith recently wrote:

What we really need is for parents to create an environment at home that supports academic achievement.  To accomplish this shift in parental expectations and involvement, we will need to conduct a comprehensive and concerted campaign of education and support of parents.  Through PTAs, PSAs, teacher conferences, pediatrician visits, community meetings, library sessions, and many other outlets, we need a crisp message for parents on what they can do to promote their child’s achievement.  The critical importance of school attendance, of devoting space and time at the home for homework,  of turning off the TV and reading, and the use of public libraries, to name just a few, all need to be part of the message.

Those are just basic steps, of course.  It’s our hope that schools and districts will do more to increase instructional time and work to keep students engaged in math activity even over the summer months.  Parents will have to do their part as well by attending to their children’s work and ensuring that their children have the opportunity to complete their assignments. 

STEM related occupations are one of the fastest growing career clusters.  For the U.S. to remain competitive, it’s vital that schools and districts bolster their focus in mathematics and science and that students embrace STEM disciplines as the gateway to college and career readiness.

LibraryThing: Now with Lexile Measures

We announced last week that we have partnered with LibraryThing, the popular online cataloging and social networking site for book lovers, to offer Lexile measures on both LibraryThing.com and LibraryThing for Libraries.

LibraryThing, often described as “MySpace for books”, connects people with recommended books, allows them to share reading recommendations, and offers suggestions for which books to read next. LibraryThing for Libraries is used in libraries with existing Open Public Access Catalog (OPAC) systems, allowing library users to access much of the content generated by LibraryThing users. Lexile measures will now be available for books listed in the catalog and in the OPAC system.

LibraryThing users appreciate the unique value that Lexile measures offer in providing them with more information on the complexity of a title and in helping inform their decision about the right books to read.  MetaMetrics is thrilled to be a part of a social network applied to the world of reading.

More on Khan Academy

Here’s Wired on the innovative work of Salman Khan:

Khan Academy is an educational website that, as its tagline puts it, aims to let anyone “learn almost anything—for free.” Students, or anyone interested enough to surf by, can watch some 2,400 videos in which the site’s founder, Salman Khan, chattily discusses principles of math, science, and economics (with a smattering of social science topics thrown in). The videos are decidedly lo-fi, even crude: Generally seven to 14 minutes long, they consist of a voice-over by Khan describing a mathematical concept or explaining how to solve a problem while his hand-scribbled formulas and diagrams appear onscreen. Like the Wizard of Oz, Khan never steps from behind the curtain to appear in a video himself; it’s just Khan’s voice and some scrawly equations. In addition to these videos, the website offers software that generates practice problems and rewards good performance with videogame-like badges—for answering a “streak” of questions correctly, say, or mastering a series of algebra levels.

We’ve written before on Khan’s work.  By offering a free, virtual classroom available to anyone with a few minutes and an Internet connection, Khan Academy provides students with easy access to information on their own terms.  And because the lessons are videos, students are free to review again and again, allowing them access to the content as often as needed.  This means that students can move at their own pace, moving ahead when ready or reviewing material where necessary.  Khan Academy stands in stark contrast to the assembly line model of traditional classrooms and represents individualized instruction where students are free to move ahead as they master prerequisite material.  And it appears to be paying off:

Initially, Thordarson thought Khan Academy would merely be a helpful supplement to her normal instruction. But it quickly become far more than that. She’s now on her way to “flipping” the way her class works. This involves replacing some of her lectures with Khan’s videos, which students can watch at home. Then, in class, they focus on working problem sets. The idea is to invert the normal rhythms of school, so that lectures are viewed on the kids’ own time and homework is done at school. It sounds weird, Thordarson admits, but this flipping makes sense when you think about it. It’s when they’re doing homework that students are really grappling with a subject and are most likely to need someone to talk to. And now Thordarson can tell just when this grappling occurs: Khan Academy provides teachers with a dashboard application that lets her see the instant a student gets stuck.

…The result is that Thordarson’s students move at their own pace. Those who are struggling get surgically targeted guidance, while advanced kids like Carpenter rocket far ahead; once they’re answering questions without making mistakes, Khan’s site automatically recommends new topics to move on to. Over half the class is now tackling subjects like algebra and geometric formulas. And even the less precocious kids are improving: Only 3 percent of her students were classified as average or lower in end-of-year tests, down from 13 percent at midyear.

Those results are worth noting.  Khan’s work is inspiring and is likely just the beginning of the work that can be done with virtual classrooms.  We’ve incorporated Khan’s work into our own tools on the Quantile Framework for Mathematics website.  In Math at Home, for example, students can select textbook chapters and lessons and search for supplemental material by which to review their primary lessons.  In many cases, they will find a variety of Khan videos available to help review core skills and concepts.  If you haven’t already, be sure to take a look.

Using Social Media in Math Education

Tip of the hat goes to Scholastic’s Math Hub for pointing to Sokikom – a new math website that manages to employ social media to keep students engaged in math activities year round.  Math websites are nothing new, but Sokikom has introduced a unique element by creating a massive multi-player social learning game directed toward elementary school students.  Here’s Math Hub’s own description of the site:

The research-based program is based on Social Learning Theory, the idea that people learn by observing others’ behavior and using these observations to model their own behavior. Sokikom has created a safe, fun environment where students can join teams, compete with each other, and develop their math skills.

The game is aligned with the Common Core State Standards and NCTM Focal Points and follows the guided discovery learning model, which allows students to explore different solutions to each problem. The program also features Challenges, individual learning activities in a self-paced environment. In addition to games, there are also animated lessons with adaptive instruction for students who need additional help.

Sites that utilize social media are proliferating at a rapid pace and we are just now beginning to see the educational potential of such exciting applications.  It’s good to see that so many are interested in extending instructional time beyond the classroom.

Piazza: Homework as Social

As we’ve noted, social media sites have recently begun expanding their reach into the educational sphere in a variety of ways.  As the NY Times points out, this reach now extends to homework sites, including a new free service, Piazza:

Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to.  Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time.  Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments.

Piazza’s supporters claim that what sets this service apart from other educational software services, such as Blackboard, is their rapid response time.  They also claim that “Piazza [gives] students a community…” and provides students the opportunity to be more interactive with their fellow classmates. 

The impact of social media giants, like Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, has been that consumers now expect instantaneous feedback.  Piazza’s attempt to harness the power of social media is an attempt to satisfy this expectation.  Piazza allows students  to collaborate and receive assistance at the speed they’ve come to expect.  Kudos to Piazza for utilizing social media to improve the educational experience.

Raising Standards: Fighting The Coming American Worker Shortage

A familiar topic these days is the state of our economy, particularly the volatile job market.   But as many employers have made clear, there is a disturbing shortage of skilled workers when it comes to positions that demand strong skills in math and science.  According to this recent article from CNNMoney, executives from major corporations are voicing their concerns on the standards set for today’s students in science, technology and mathematics.

 The group of executives, called Change the Equation, notes that only one fifth of today’s 8th graders are proficient or advanced in math, citing figures from national educational assessments.

 That’s cause for concern.  It appears that our country’s lead in math and science (which are prerequisites for careers in technology, engineering, and the sciences) has weakened considerably.  And without some change in our current trajectory, we will soon face a severe deficiency in homegrown talent

 The CEO-driven initiative launched last fall as part of the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign in response to forecasts that the U.S. will be short as many as 3 million high-skills workers by 2018, according to a Georgetown University report issued last year. Two thirds of those jobs will require at least some post-secondary education, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

 The good news is that the Common Core State Standards offer more rigorous standards across content areas, including math and science.  If adopted, the US can expect a higher set of standards to ensure that students graduate ready for the demands of college and career.  Not surprisingly, many employers support raising academic standards as a way to prevent excessive outsourcing and having to choose from within an unskilled workforce.

To tackle the predicted lack of qualified workers, Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor, has developed software to help state educators, lawmakers and others develop tailored plans to improve math and science education and workforce policies. Like other defense contractors and many government agencies, Raytheon needs homegrown talent because national security guidelines do not allow for easy outsourcing of work or importing workers.

We too recognize the importance of disciplines like mathematics in preparing students for the demands of the contemporary workforce.  Math at Home represents an attempt to keep students focused on math year round.  Math at Home allows educators, parents, and even students to match themselves to targeted math resources (games, worksheets, video tutorials, practice activities, etc…) based on current textbook lessons. In addition to linking to targeted math resources, Math at Home allows students to create multiple resource lists, which they can then share (through e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter) or save for a later date.  It’s our hope that Math at Home can play a small role in keeping students engaged in math activities all year and in helping prepare them for the rigors of life beyond high school.

Using Social Media to Support Instruction

Earlier this year we mentioned how educators are using social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter and others to extend instruction outside of the classroom, even in cases of inclement weather.  As EducationNews.org reported this week, teachers in California are continuing to incorporate social media into their English classes.  “Rather than just the teacher reading student work, an entire class can read, review and give feedback on other students’ writing.”  Teachers claim that using social media as an educational conduit has also encouraged participation from students that are often too shy to raise their hand in a more traditional classroom setting – giving a voice and outlet to all students. 

And the utilization of social media sites as a tool to supplement instruction is not limited to the English classroom.  At MetaMetrics we’re trying to incorporate popular social media outlets into our own tools.  Our Math at Home utility, which allows students to locate targeted math resources at the right level of difficulty, now includes social networking features.  Based on the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, “Math at Home recommends various resources that students can add to their list of favorites.  Students can then print, email or share their list on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to encouraging participation in the virtual classroom during the school year, social media sites also support year-round instruction efforts by making resources available to students from any place at any time.  This is especially critical during the summer months when research shows so many students are susceptible to summer learning loss. As social media sites near ubiquity we hope that students will take advantage of these tools to review and solidify their skills.

Laptops for Every Student

In an effort to help close the digital divide, Google announced a major initiative aimed at getting laptops in the hands of school children:

At Google IO this week, Google announced a “new kind of computer” and a new program aimed at schools: Chromebooks for Education. These new devices look like laptops, but they run on Google’s new operating system Chrome OS and are truly Web-based and Web-centric. There is no local storage and there is no software. In other words, everything runs through the (Chrome) browser and everything is stored online.

Google’s new Chromebooks for Education program will offer these devices to schools for $20 per user per month.

That’s great news and we applaud Google’s efforts.  As more schools move toward individualized instruction and personal learning platforms, Google’s initiative helps shore up one of the central issues with a focus on learning platforms – the digital divide.  Many schools lack the funds to provide adequate technology to every student and many students – particularly low-income students – go home to technology free zones.  Google’s $20 device helps bridge that divide by making the web accessible to all students – allowing students and educators to take advantage of a whole host of personalized learning platforms, not to mention all of the instructional resources, tool and utilities that are now finally accessible. 

Kudos to Google.  This device promises to open up a whole new world of resources to students around the country.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.