In your article “We All Need Broadband” [April 7, 2020], you mentioned that “some parts of our community don’t have quality, affordable broadband, especially in the rural areas of Shawnee County.” I’ve always been impressed by how you and your colleagues responded to community needs by setting up an entire online branch of the library to serve those who, living in rural parts of your service area, couldn’t easily visit a physical library building. Can you tell a story that shows how you and your colleagues overcame some of the challenges of Internet access to provide those online services?
There are a few things. TSCPL equipped bookmobiles as hot spots and has been providing technology training for the community for well over 20 years. What is somewhat discouraging is that the “Taming the Mouse” class is still offered. I say that because it’s still needed. And TSCPL installed about 170 public access computers in the early 2000s to ensure that people had the access they needed to communicate, apply for jobs, learn more about technology tools, and provide themselves with entertainment. I have become less enamored of these stopgap measures in the past few years. That’s because I think they’ve allowed other community leaders to think, “The library has this covered, so we don’t have to worry about it.”
So, a question—are you asking about challenges the library faced? Honestly, the big challenge for many libraries were two-fold: did they have the money to upgrade their technology and broadband services as needed and to invest in technology? Did they have the staff expertise to manage that technology and help educate their communities? TSCPL had both, and chose to make those investments. Many libraries didn’t have the resources to do that.
Makes sense to me; thanks. Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?
I’m appreciative of the work that SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition] is doing and the fact that they are developing a strong coalition of key partners. They are giving a voice to public-sector needs that hasn’t existed before. I’m also appreciative of the work ULC [Urban Libraries Council] is doing with its Digital Equity Action Team that is working to educate and encourage library leaders to do more in this space than be service providers for the have-nots in our communities. There are a number of individual libraries in the U.S. and Canada that are engaged in excellent work—many of them as part of community coalitions. I’m more interested in those activities and think they will have a greater long-term impact than continuing to provide short-term services like circulating hot spots. Note I’m not dissing those efforts. Those are important because they are addressing immediate needs, but they’re not solutions.
Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?
They should become advocates for universal broadband. They should hold their local- and state-elected officials accountable for improving access to broadband for all residents. They should participate in the reframing of this discussion as one of social equity, not technology. Thank the community leaders that are showing an interest, support them. Learn more about the issues—the technology, the legislation, the players in the public and private sectors.
What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?
I think the main thing is that this is a community, state, and national issue. It’s not about consumerism, or not exclusively about that. It’s about ensuring all citizens have the tools they need to thrive in their communities. I also don’t want to appear as if I’m viewing the service providers as the antagonists, although that can happen—especially if municipalities are considering becoming providers. It’s going to take strong public/private partnerships to make this happen, but elected officials must be knowledgeable enough to write better laws, and visionary enough to understand that, like roads, electricity, and water, broadband should be viewed as essential infrastructure.
Our friend Maurice Coleman [a keynote speaker, trainer, and facilitator who also serves as host for the T is for Training podcast] has said that advocates and activists don’t necessarily “start out wanting to change the world. They usually start out wanting to change this…that one situation.” What was that “one situation” that first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?”
It actually started for me in the early 1990s, when I had the opportunity to work on the COIN (Columbia (MO) Online Information Network) project. It was the first ISP in the state of Missouri and was a collaboration of the University of Missouri, the City of Columbia, Boone County, the local school district, and the library I worked for—the Daniel Boone Regional Library. I was head of computer services for the library and also became the head of technical and end-user support for COIN because my library had the management contract for it. I saw, very early on, the power of shared online communication and information with community networking and what it could mean for public libraries, local government, and the community. Later, we included small private telephone companies who were often willing to let us locate modem pools in their facilities and whose owners could see the potential of the Internet before the big service providers figured out how to make money on it.
Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?
When libraries first introduced access to computers and then to the Internet, it became clear that there was and would be a huge divide in our communities and in this country—those who had access to technology and those who didn’t. The phrase “digital divide” is pretty hackneyed now, but when I saw how many people engaged with the library for the first time, it was an epiphany for me. I still remember a gentleman in his eighties—Mr. Belcher. His son lived and worked in Japan, but he was seldom able to connect with him because long distance calls were so expensive. When COIN went live, he was one of the first people to sign up. He had a Radio Shack computer with a 300 baud modem. He would call me with updates on how he could communicate via email on a daily basis with his son. It literally changed his life.
Also, when I realized that no matter how many computers we installed in libraries, in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t going to be enough, especially when PCs were so expensive and complicated. So it wasn’t just one story, it was how people saw this, wanted it, and ultimately needed it. It also continued and strengthened the equity work of public libraries. One of the reasons I’ve worked on broadband planning and advocacy so much in the past few years is a concern that libraries have inadvertently contributed to the digital inequity with the investments we make in digital content that isn’t available to those who aren’t digitally literate or who can’t afford the equipment or broadband services. The pandemic put a harsh spotlight on how flawed our systems are and how inequitable they are.
That raises an immediate question: what are some of those flaws and inequalities?
From my perspective, the flaws are attributable to the fact that local governments (and many states) haven’t owned this issue. Most of them have left it to the providers, whose business plans don’t align with all community needs. So, the gaps caused by where you live, how much money you have, how technologically adept you are keep getting bigger. I think internet should probably be regulated like a utility and the goal should be universal access.
Public libraries tend to be gap fillers. By that, I mean that needs like access to devices and broadband, have been left to that one institution while it should be a goal for all residents. There’s also a huge need for technology literacy. Even students who have grown up with computers aren’t necessarily information literate. We’ve focused so much on the technology that we’ve neglected what should accompany the use of these tools—critical-thinking skills, civic engagement, and understanding of what it means to participate in a democracy. The tools have become the endgame instead of a means to an end.
There also needs to be more action at the federal level—and I don’t mean just throwing more money at the big legacy providers who own all the fiber networks.
How can we work together to overcome the flaws and inequalities you’re noting here?
Planning and evaluation of the quality of services should be community-based. People need to be viewed as more than consumers. Part of our job as citizens is to participate in our communities, our country. To do that effectively, you need equitable access to the tools. So part of it is reframing this discussion to talk about investing in ourselves and our democracy instead of just upgrading to the latest Apple watch or Samsung phone.
This was a group that understood the importance of creating a welcoming tone and ambience at the beginning of any event, regardless of whether it is onsite or online. This was a group that didn’t overlook the small stuff behind any large, successful gathering. And this was a group that was using its commitment to engagement and interaction to be sure that participants would have few, if any, temptations to step away from “the room” before the event had reached its conclusion.
We often hear (and repeat) the idea that “the devil is in the details.” I would suggest that our ATD South Florida Chapter colleagues subscribe to the idea that “the angels are in the details,” and do everything they can to flood our virtual rooms with angels that beckon us to their gatherings. Those angels (volunteers, every one of them), during the weeks and days leading up to the conference, provided an appropriately steady stream of encouraging email messages designed to prepare participants—our co-conspirators in the learning process—for an event that focused on the content rather than the (virtual) setting and the technology needed to make that gathering successful. We were told that there would be a beginning-of-the-day session that included a “platform overview” for anyone wanting to explore the technology we would be using to interact with presenters/session facilitators as well as with each other. We knew the opening session would also give us plenty of time to interact with each other to, as much as possible, create the same levels of positive engagement we experienced at onsite gatherings before the shelter-in-place guidelines we have been following for nearly a year in response to the coronavirus pandemic pushed us completely into online interactions.
The series of pre-event email messages also included separate notes about each of the sessions, including the specific links we would follow to attend any of four breakout workshops and other events scheduled throughout the day; this gave us a chance to add those events and links to our own personal online calendars so, on the day of the event, we wouldn’t have to hunt through our archived email messages to find those direct links. And then, in an act that was possible because of the limited number of sessions, our “angels” resent those links, via email, shortly before each session began so that we could move directly from our email inboxes into the events. Recognizing that this would be an impossible and burdensome approach for organizers of much larger gatherings, I also recognize that this was yet another example of conference organizers thinking proactively of what they could do to make the virtual-conference experience—or any other online learning opportunity operating at a similar scale—as enjoyable and stress-free as possible.
Opting for a morning workshop on “Awesome PowerPoint Tricks for Effective Presentations” (led by BrightCarbon Director Richard Goring) after the conclusion of the opening session/platform review, I was expecting to pick up a few tips on how to up my game in PowerPoint. To say that the nearly two-hour session exceeded expectations would be to unforgivably downplay the breadth and depth of what Goring offered all of us: an overwhelmingly positive and impressive overview of numerous tips and tricks that included demonstrations of what he was describing, and the all-important assurance that we would have plenty of opportunities to return to an archived recording of the session so we could more fully incorporate what he was describing into our own work, e.g., how to mask and highlight elements of an image to more effectively use that image on a slide; how to quickly align disparate elements and images on a slide with one command rather than a series of actions involving every separate element; and locating and using sites (including pexels.com, pixabay.com, and lifeofpix.com) that provide numerous free images we can incorporate into our work.
For many of us, the anticipated high point of the day was the combination of a celebration of local (South Florida) colleagues’ work as champions of learning—those who, by example, remind the rest of us of what our most innovative colleagues are doing to make learning more engaging and transformative—and a keynote address by Elaine Biech, who has inspired many of us through her numerous books and other work in talent development (aka teaching-training-learning). Again, the chapter angels turned a challenge—having to move what is normally an onsite celebration into the online conference environment—into a “champions of learning” success story by having each nominee for the 2021 Champion of Learning awards provide a short, from-the-heart video describing the project. The result was a celebration within the main celebration—our celebration of how engagingly our colleagues embraced the video-presentation format to describe the successful projects so that we were as inspired by the playfulness of the videos as we were by the actual content.
And then there was Elaine: Warm. Engaging. Inspirational, as always. And right on target with a presentation and interactions with conference participants that reminded us of how to “Develop Your Best Self and Tale Charge of Your Career.” When it comes to your career, she reminded us at one point, don’t be beige; be brilliant. And develop your best self. Which is pretty much where she left us by the end of that session, as we headed into an afternoon of additional learning and interaction centered on the champions of learning among us.
Following Anne Beninghof into her “Caffeinated Virtual Training: How to Keep Your Audience Awake and Learning” session, I again learned as much observing a presenter’s approach to presenting virtually as I did from the rich content offered. It was as if she were somehow reaching cross-country from Florida to where I was sitting (in San Francisco) and knew just when to switch things up—as she did, approximately an hour into the session, by telling all of us to get out of our chairs, move away from our computers for a moment, and simply move around to keep from falling into a complete state of torpor from having been sitting in that country-wide learning space for several hours. That, and her focus on making everyone in the room a co-conspirator in learning, produced another memorably playful session and led us to the final two sessions—one for closing remarks and door prizes, the other a virtual happy hour that left us right where we started several hours earlier that day. Reminded that virtual conferences, when well designed and well executed, are no hindrance to fostering a sense of community and engagement. Reminded that spending time with our colleagues in online environments is, in and of itself, a learning opportunity we cannot afford to miss—particularly in pandemic, social-distancing times. And reminded that, when we observe and promise to build upon the positive experiences we have with our colleagues in online learning environments, we and the learners we serve are the real winners.
What are some of the more difficult, long-term largest barriers you continue to see to creating universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning throughout the United States?
I was at the last SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition] conference in October of 2019. A researcher from Michigan made a great point: He explained that the state is literally solid granite and that you can’t easily put cable in granite. There are definite geographic barriers to overcome. The second one is really at a policy level. I am hoping that with Jessica Rosenworcel as acting FCC chair, maybe some of these can be addressed.
Currently, internet is considered a service and not a utility. Therefore, that’s how it’s regulated. There really isn’t the financial incentive or pressure to run broadband to every community—especially the hard-to-reach ones. There are some advocates calling for internet to become a utility so that the country can be wired in a fashion similar to the electrification project in the 1930s. Finally, and this is tied to regulation, we really have to remember cost. Even low-cost options could be too much for a family to afford. The argument can be made for internet to be considered as part of the life-line program that ensures phone access as a matter of public safety.
The learning part is a totally different question versus the access part.
So, I think it’s important to remember that digital technology in education has really been around for centuries. Audrey Watters has a book—Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning—coming out soon from MIT Press. She traces this idea of technology back to Sidney Pressey in the early 1900s. I’m thinking about digital tools that really started to take shape and influence what could be possible with learning to the 1980s. Not only did people like Seymour Papert introduce tools like MindStorms[which inspired Lego MindStorms], but there were others, like Alan Kay, who advocated that students should be learning to control computers and not the other way around. However, technology has been slow to adopt at scale. In their book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America, [Allan] Collins and [Richard] Halverson explain that there has always been technology in education, but digital technology fundamentally threatens the systems and structures on which schools and teachers base their identities. Basically, digital tools mean that students can learn anywhere, any time, and from anyone. This creates a real system of threat. For decades, technology has been that add-on that some kids might use. However, COVID has changed that and made technology almost synonymous to learning because of the need for remote/hybrid contexts. The real barrier is now what kind of learning will happen as we move forward. Since teachers have become more comfortable with tools, does that mean that they can now start to rethink instruction? There’s a ton of potential now that a lot of the actual physical barriers to access have been decreased (though still 12 million + kids unconnected), and some of the lack of familiarity reduced. I hope that education policy and district initiatives will continue to focus on helping teachers, leaders, and also broader school communities reimagine what learning could look like if these tools are harnessed to create more personalized experiences where students have agency and choice in how they demonstrate their learning and how their learning needs are met.
Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?
Nationally, there needs to be policy changes to make broadband access seen as a public good—like electricity or water. There also needs to be funding to support both school and home access for students. For an immediate thing to consider, CoSN, ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], and SETDA do an annual ed-tech advocacy event where educators receive training in the latest policy recommendations and then spend a day meeting with their representatives’ offices to ensure that the message can get through. It’s virtual again this year and also includes conversations at the [US] Department of Education and FCC.
Regionally, I guess this is tricky because regions are so diverse in this country. A lot of states have regional education groups. A big thing to consider is how regional groups can band together to have more collective bargaining power. Each regional group may have a different acronym (BOCES, LEA, etc.), but all can work together. I know that in Colorado, the regional groups file for E-Rate together so that they can get better rates to offset their costs.
Locally, I think it’s important to be aware of who does/doesn’t have access. Teachers may either over/under estimate the amount of connectivity that their students have. Matthew Hiefield, from Beaverton, Oregon, helped me write a post a while ago about questions to ask students. Teshon Christie in Kent, Washington made a great point about not only assuming students have access, but [about] the danger of assuming that they don’t. He’s found that some families prioritize access while others may not. His district has been very deliberate about finding out who needs support from the district instead of using a general metric like free or reduced-price lunch to drive assumptions.
What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?
I think that there are two critical considerations. First, digital equity is incredibly nuanced and complex. Simply getting access does not solve the problem. It is also going to continue to morph as technologies change. For example, as AI becomes increasingly ubiquitous, there are a host of new considerations for school and community leaders. Second, this comes back to the empathy comment that you made earlier: any solution really needs to consider the context and community. What needs to happen beyond access and digital literacy to also address broader issues of media literacy and even algorithmic literacy? I’ve been thinking about the issues of Pandora’s box. We can open it and let things out, but if we haven’t considered the potential unintended consequences of throwing out access without helping students and adults fully develop an understanding of the implications and connotations, then the potential exists to further inequity and not address it. The NDIA has been having this conversation a lot lately, and I think that it’s an important one.
Dr. McIlwain presents a historical narrative of the evolution of technology and of the digital divide. If you go back to the 1960s, a lot of technology was used for aggressive policing (aka, discrimination and criminalization of the Black community). He even connects the spread of technology in Silicon Valley to the spread of cocaine to crack in the 1980s in California. Additionally, he highlights the innovations of the (Black) Vanguard, the leaders who created a more culturally-aware version of the Internet that was eventually quashed by white influence and money. Being aware of that should drive decision-making and get people to deeply consider the unintended consequences of adoption and access.
This connects to Dr. Watkins’ work. Particularly in schools, implicit/ unconscious bias impacts how educators perceive student technology use. The white student is seen as innovative for the exact same behavior that could have a Latino student labeled “a hacker.” Additionally, teachers need to really think not just about whether or not students have access to devices and tools, but whether they feel ownership of those tools to customize them to meet their needs as learners. For example, can a student change the voice in the text-to-speech function or adjust the fonts? This makes a difference. Similarly, are the tools valued and respected at home and school? This is a two-pronged issue. If a student is comfortable using a particular tool or app at home, is it valued in school? The example from the book was that students liked using the Notes app on iPod touches because they could take their learning with them wherever they go. At the same time, teachers need to understand students’ home cultures. These same technologies could be viewed as “toys” or “not academic” in some communities. The teacher then has a responsibility to help communicate with families about the educational value of technology and connection—particularly for younger students who may not be able to do so for themselves.
Thanks. Tremendous food for thought. I do want to dive more deeply into barriers to access and tips on how to overcome those barriers, but let’s backtrack for two questions to set some context. Here’s the first: Please tell us [readers of this interview] a bit about the CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking)Digital Equity Initiative and the work you are doing, as director of the project, to promote universal broadband access throughout the United States.
Thanks. The second question: The newly-released CoSN 2021 “Driving K-12 Innovation” report exploring the use of emerging technology in K-12 education to transform learning highlights “Digital Equity” as one of the hurdles to learning innovations in that sector. Would you mind summarizing that section of the report and offer insights into what can be done to overcome that hurdle?
Confession: I haven’t read the final version. What I can say is that there’s language around the expanded definition of digital equity that the advisory has helped to craft. (I have an advisory of about 20 district leaders, researchers, and ed-tech folks.). A big piece is that we are thinking of digital equity as an iterative framework. First, there are digital foundations—literally, the devices and connections. Without addressing that, the conversation can’t really go anywhere. Once there’s access, then we can start thinking more about equity. What are the conditions for learning? Meaning, do students have access to accessible content that is multimodal? Do the students see themselves represented with and by the content (think cultural responsiveness)? Are students empowered to use the technology in creative ways so that they are constructing their own knowledge and demonstrating their learning in powerful ways? Finally, what are the opportunities afforded by the access. I’m sure that we can all think of high-tech instances where students are basically demonstrating low-level knowledge and skills. Instead, how are students experiencing more personalized, mastery-based learning that connects them to authentic contexts and helps them to really develop the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and aptitudes that they need for their future success? Make sense?
Yes. Thanks. Let’s dive back into the challenges facing us as we continue promoting universal broadband access. What are some simple-to-overcome barriers you continue to see to creating universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning throughout the United States?
It gets trickier when the geography comes into play. In a blog post [describing the Boulder Valley project], a district in upstate New York [is mentioned because it] created a “neighbor-to-neighbor” network to connect kids. The ISP said that they could not afford to run cable to many houses because they are so far apart from each other. Instead, the district got a grant to find houses with connections and then put antennas on top of barns/grain silos/roofs. They could then broadcast Wi-Fi for up to five miles from one house to another.
Hotspots can be any option when there is cell service, and some districts such as Ector County in Texas have started experimenting with satellite connections for really rural locations.
Let’s dive right into the substance of what you’re doing. What first drew you to the challenge of providing broadband Internet access for work and learning?
When I was working on my dissertation, I was taking a class in Disciplinary Approaches to Education. It had us examine our problem of practice through multiple lenses. At the time, I thought that the “problem” was lack of access to high quality professional development to help teachers transform education. (I dropped that, but it’s a different story). In looking at the problem through a sociological lens, I started thinking about the role of the digital divide. If teachers—and thus schools/students—do not have access to the Internet and technology, then why would they even think about using it in education? This was sort of a wake-up call for me.
The literature that I explored touched on both the actual digital-access and also the emerging evidence of the digital-use divide—the finding that students in schools in underserved communities may have similar access to computers/Internet as their more affluent peers, but typically use that technology for more rote/remedial learning, test prep, and content consumption rather than in more creative and cognitively demanding ways. At the time, my dissertation advisor recommended that I not go in that particular direction with my research. However, the second that I finished my dissertation, I circled back around to it. So, since 2018, digital equity has become a primary research focus.
Let’s take this down to the human/personal story level: how has lack of adequate Internet access and access to the tools needed to use the Internet for work and learning affected you and those you know?
So, I am going to admit my privilege here. Where I am geographically located, I have full cell service and access to high-speed Internet. I’ve had a laptop, plus numerous other devices, since the late 1990s. However, I think the real wakeup call has happened in a few different instances. First, my husband and I like to do a lot of hiking. When we drive places, I’ve become incredibly attuned to whether or not we have cell service—not because I want to be online, but because I’m trying to get a sense of the magnitude of the disparity of access in a tangible way. We drove from Salt Lake City to Escalante National Park a few years ago, and I counted miles between cell signals and any place of business that might possibly offer Wi-Fi to kids. It made me realize how some possible solutions to the digital divide really aren’t feasible. Last fall, we were driving in rural New Hampshire with no signal. At one point, a Dollar Store was the only major business, and it was about 30 minutes to find a gas station. I saw satellite dishes in yards, so I am guessing there was no cable. I was thinking about conditions of schools and the feasibility of getting access. It made me very aware of the need for policymakers to take a ride and recognize the challenge that so many are facing right now to get access.
One last story: A few years ago, I was doing research in pre-schools as part of my post-doc. I got a text message on my phone that there was a new message in the medical portal from my doctor. The portal didn’t work on a mobile device, so I logged in when I got home (privileges #1-3: cell signal, home Internet, and a computer). Apparently, I was at high-risk for measles, and there were ongoing outbreaks at the time. I could schedule an appointment for a blood test to see if my vaccine was still good. Turns out that it wasn’t, and I needed a new vaccine from CVS. Everything was coordinated through the portal and took no time, but what about the person who didn’t know to sign up for the portal, who couldn’t access it, and who might not have the digital-literacy skills to navigate it? Understanding all of this has made me hyperaware of the digital-equity challenges—not just in terms of physical access, but also the necessary skills behind having that access.
What you have just said makes me aware of another overlooked aspect to the issue of promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States: the importance of empathy. That’s such an important starting point for any successful movement to increase Internet access.
There are conferences that start and end on a pre-announced schedule; you step away from work, you attend them, you enjoy them, and then you go back to work. And then there are conferences that feel as if they are already underway long before you arrive onsite or online for the first formally-scheduled event and seem to continue for days, weeks, or even months after the final formally-scheduled session concludes—which pretty much captures what I experienced nearly a month ago (January 5-7, 2021) during the Arizona State University ShapingEDUthree-day Winter Games online conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.
You could, at the beginning of the Day 3 (January 7), already see it happening: through the discussions and plans for action that were forming and through the intersections between participants, you could see Winter Games transforming itself into part of a longer-lasting series of conversations and efforts to foster positive action extending far beyond what was happening. Attendees were engagingly interacting with presenters and panelists including elected officials, nonprofit and for-profit business representatives, educators, and a variety of other people exploring how collaboration across a variety of sectors might lead to short- and long-term positive results to everyone’s benefit.
Feeling as if I am (a month later and after having participated in yet another virtual conference) still very much participating in Winter Games and looking back on the final day and everything I saw and learned, I’m not at all surprised by what we accomplished. Nor by what we laid the groundwork to accomplish. The discussions during keynote sessions, during smaller, more intimate breakout sessions, and during a final late-afternoon wrap-up gathering were Frans Johansson’sIntersection (explored in his book The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures) coming to life: people from a variety of backgrounds gathering to talk and listen to each other, exchange ideas, and then return to their own communities to disseminate those ideas in world-changing ways.
As Samantha Adams Becker—one of our community leaders—observed that day, a dreamer envisions a better future. A doer makes it happen. And a driver scales it so that the future is more evenly distributed. Which, to me, serves as an acknowledgement of the community’s increasing attention toward placing lifelong learning within the larger context of social change, social justice, and social challenges we are facing and attempting to address through the work we do. It’s a community of educators as activists—where learning is a tool rather than an ultimate goal or achievement.
My own notes from that session—captured in the form of tweets prepared while the session was underway—in no way fully capture the depth and nuances of the conversation, which you can watch and hear in its entirety through the archived recording on the ShapingEDU YouTube Community Channel. But they do offer a gateway to a world of thought well worth exploring. Mayor Woods, for example, talked at one point about how the city of Tempe uses data to determine what services stay open; he also noted that city officials are known for making city-government decision based on data, including data related to diversity and inclusion. Another panelist wryly and repeatedly noted that short questions often reveal the need for long, thoughtful answers influenced by data sets as we attempt to address the challenges we face. Collecting data, the panelists suggested, is one step in better serving citizens (and, we might add by extension, learners); it’s about creating networks to look at data, to ask critical questions, and being able to better meet people’s needs by drawing upon and using the data we collect.
Leaving that session with my head still swimmingly in a wonderfully deep pool of ideas, I next moved onto more familiar ground—at least for me—in a session exploring some of the latest upgrades offered through Zoom. Listening to Zoom representatives talk about everything from incorporating PowerPoint slide decks into virtual backgrounds within Zoom to campus-wide integration of communications (telephone) systems and security systems into Zoom demonstrates, once again, that this is a company and product that is far from being content resting on its already well-deserved laurels. The entire session did what I want any great learning opportunity to do: it made me hungry for an opportunity to explore some of what I was learning was possible, and I have, since leaving that session, been exploring ways to build what I learned into the work I am continuing to do with learners.
The final session of the morning, for me, was an intriguing, intense look into the ever-evolving world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have remained of interest to me (and, apparently, others) ever since their brief moment in the spotlight several years ago. Led by Arizona State University Director of Digital Innovation Dale Johnson, the “Global Adaptive Instruction Network: Building a Collaborative MOOC Model” was a stunning look at how MOOCs in theory and in fact continue to evolve in ways that offer learners and learning facilitators intriguing ways to create more personalized, engaging learning opportunities than might otherwise be available.
“MOOCs have really become more like the McDonald’s of Higher Ed…” Johnson noted at the beginning of his session. “A lot of people are served but of some questionable educational value….How do we enhance the MOOC?….We are moving from a mass production world to a mass personalization world….The challenge for us is how do we move, in education, from mass production…to mass personalization?”
As we move to delivering the right lesson to the right student at the right time, he suggests, a collaborative MOOC model offers us interesting and intriguing possibilities. (Those interested in learning more can view the archived recording on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel.)
There is so much more to say about Winter Games. About that fascinating intersection/Intersection at the heart of the event. And about the conversations that are continuing even though nearly a month has passed—including one I had earlier today with Stephen Hurley during a “ShapingEDU and Community” segment of his VoicEd Radio“Hurley in the Morning” program. There is much we can learn about organizing effective online learning opportunities/Intersections along these lines, as we see in the ShapingEDU “ShapingED-YOU Toolkit” available free online. And there is much to be said for innovative, playful communities of learning that operate seamlessly throughout the year face-to-face as well as online.
But the Intersection we have reached at this moment is one where looking back, looking forward, and relishing the present moment bring to mind a line I’ve found in poems and many other pieces of writing I have absorbed over the years: The end is the beginning. And if that remains true for Winter Games, the best is still ahead of us.
There is no going back; there is only going forward, a panelist suggested during the opening keynote event on Day Two (yesterday) of the Arizona State University ShapingEDUthree-day Winter Games conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And, like much of what we heard, saw, and experienced yesterday, those words were, before the day was over, provoking entirely different thoughts than what the speaker had intended when he voiced them during a dynamic, thoughtful, and wide-ranging discussion of “The Future of Sports and Entertainment.”
One central element of that panel discussion was a series of reflections on how the shelter-in-placesocial distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic are continuing to force major adjustments regarding how teams and fans interact, and regarding how technology is providing possibilities, short- and long-term, that weren’t much under consideration before the pandemic began—virtual interactions between players and fans, apps that extend the experiences of the games themselves, and virtual gatherings of fans who are geographically dispersed.
Where the pandemic erected barriers, creativity (and tragedy and necessity) fostered innovation. When it became impossible for fans and teams to be together onsite, many—including panelists Robert Mathews; Collaboration Strategist, AVI Systems; Rick Schantz, Head Coach, Phoenix Rising FC; Mark Feller, VP of Technology, Arizona Cardinals; Salvatore Galatioto, President of Galatioto Sports Partners; and Stephen Rusche, Sr. Director, Smart Communities, COX Communications—immediately began engaging in large-scale rethinking. Followed by innovation. Followed by success stories that are already creating a new normal. And, possibly, to be followed—in the months and years ahead of us—by a long-lasting new-and-better normal. One that combines the best of what we had with the best of what we are developing during the pandemic.
Which pretty much carries us to a theme flowing through much of what the “digital immersive experiences” of the Winter Games has offered: the idea that, in digital-age lifelong learning, we are experiencing massive shifts caused by situations many of us were too comfortable to anticipate or acknowledge, and to which we now are responding—sometimes creatively and sometimes successfully—with innovations that are well worth nurturing and preserving after the need for social distancing becomes less necessary.
“Systems shape our behavior” and “our behavior shapes systems,” Haymes observed at one point, and those words, like the sports panelist’s remark about looking forward rather than back, seemed unintentionally prescient less than a few hours later…because that’s when many of us, during a scheduled break in the Winter Games conference, became aware of and tried to make sense of the actions of the seditionists who had forced their way through the meager and ineffectual security forces in our nation’s Capitol and had temporarily disrupted our legislature’s attempt to formally count and certify the votes cast through the Electoral College.
It’s impossible to try to capture even a small portion of all the thoughts and emotions we had during that three-hour mid-day break. I am, however, left with the memory of one stunning contrast in terms of reactions I observed. Away from the Winter Games (in the sense that I was talking with my wife and absorbing news reports), I was skimming email messages and came across a notice that, because of what was happening in Washington, DC, a local San Francisco Bay Area bookseller I very much admire was cancelling an online author event that was to be held that evening—a decision with which I have no disagreement because it was the right decision for the community served by that bookseller. In contrast, moments later, I was back online with others in the ShapingEDU community at the scheduled time for the resumption of the Winter Games conference. Because I knew that this was a community that would see, in the act of moving ahead as planned rather than postponing or cancelling our interactions, a reaffirmation of all that is at the core of our community. A commitment to working together. To finding solace and encouragement by remaining together during this latest time of national tragedy. And to thinking about all we had been hearing, seeing, and doing together—looking toward and helping shape the future rather than being frozen by looking back. Considering how systems and behavior are interwoven and equally important elements in our efforts to foster positive change among ourselves, our communities, and those we serve.
In that moment during which divisiveness was on display in all its ugliness in our national capital, we couldn’t miss the irony—nor could we have been any more appreciative—of the fact that the Winter Games session we were about to attend together was centered on the theme of inclusivity. Nor could we have been more appreciative for the realization that we were about to hear about and explore possibilities for healing ourselves through that session, facilitated by Alycia Anderson, on the power of inclusivity. But most stunning of all—in the most positive of ways—was the ease with which one of our community leaders and Winter Games organizers, Samantha Becker, stepped up to the plate to introduce that session. She immediately acknowledged what was happening in the Capitol. How the situation was touching each of us in the most personal and emotional ways possible. And how, through what we do, we continue to light and carry the equivalent of an Olympic-sized torch to light the way toward the bright future to which our community is so strongly committed. It was yet another in an enormously long list of moments in which I’ve been proud to be part of the ShapingEDU community. Inspired by people like Anderson who join us in an effort to help us broaden our horizons and remember the importance of what we are doing. And (somewhat) hopeful, even in our darkest moments, that we might continue looking forward and improving our systems and our behavior in ways that lift to one step closer to living up to our highest and most cherished ideals.
You would think, after all of that (including the very moving presentation Anderson offered us in that tremendous moment of need), that we would be ready to call it a day. But no. As is a tradition within our nearly four-year-old community of dreamers-doers-drivers, we weren’t quite done with each other yet. So we moved into the final event of the day—a stunningly positive online concert featuring seven tremendously diverse musicians who not only reminded us of the importance of the arts in our lives, but demonstrated, through their adaptability, the innovative way our artists are responding to the challenges and changes caused by the pandemic. The performers very effectively dealt with Zoom-as-a-concert venue from the beginning segment (which featured a series of one-song-per-artist performances in our main virtual concert hall); into a second segment where were able to follow a few individual performers into breakout rooms that served as smaller, more intimate recital halls for short sets; and then back into the main hall for activities that culminated in a final set of one-song-per-artist performances by each musician. And it was through this very effective combination of live music online and the social connections fostered among audience members who communicated through Zoom’s typed-chat function that the session became so much more than it might otherwise have been. A musical event. A chance for the same sort of online interactions many of us have during evening events at onsite conferences. And a chance, using and observing the technology, to be immersed in and simultaneously step back from the environment to see what it was providing.
“I’ve had the honor of seeing [him] play this IRL,” one colleague observed in a comment via chat near the end of the evening. “And it’s awesome in any format.”
“I love the reference to ‘in real life,’” I immediately responded as if we were chatting across a table in a coffee house where musicians were performing, and I was thinking again of how the pandemic has inspired us to redefine what we see as “in real life.”
Is it only physical, face-to-face interactions, as some continue to assume without considering how our world is rapidly evolving? Or has “in real life” matured to the point where we can see our blending of onsite and online interactions as a magnificent opportunity to interact in almost magical, mystical ways, that have never before been possible in sports, the arts, and lifelong learning?
I look at my three-day in-real-life experiences at the Winter Games—which I’ll continue to describe in my next post, covering Day 3—and at all the small and large transformations the experiences are nurturing within me and other members of the community. And I’m inspired to continue looking forward. Trying to make sense of what I see. Hungry to make music and foster positive change at every possible level. And committed to helping shape a brilliant future in collaboration with these cherished members of our community and anyone one who wants to join us on this journey.
With my head exploding from a week’s worth of thoughtful, transformative experiences packed into a single day, at least one thing is clear to me: If we were to diligently look for communities that have rapidly evolved and managed to thrive during the current coronavirus pandemic while remaining grounded in their core work and values, we would have to place Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU at or near the summit.
The community opened its first-ever three-day “digital immersive experience” of Winter Games earlier today—an ambitiously innovative set of offerings designed for “an international community of changemakers (educator leaders, smart city experts, students, faculty and technologists) engaged in a breadth of activities designed to surface the best in emerging approaches for shaping the future of smart campuses, cities and education—during and after the pandemic.” And you would have had to have been completely immobilized, beneath an avalanche, to have been left feeling unmoved.
I knew, even before taking advantage of an extended lunch break, that Day 1 of the Winter Games was going to be another transformative experience for me and for the other teacher-trainer-learners who form the core of this community of dreamer-driver-doers. And when the activities resumed mid-afternoon Pacific Time (as opposed to mid-morning “tomorrow” for those colleagues and presenters on the other side of the world—including singer-songwriter Biddy Healey, participating live from Australia), I was even more energized and inspired by the combination of an hour-long social event that continued the Winter Games conversations and the subsequent, more formal, early-evening panel discussion that was conducted in a way that fostered the creation and strengthening of connections. Connections between the panelists and those watching/listening to the panel. Connections between viewers/listeners who contributed to what the panelists offered. And connections between viewers/listeners who used the online chat function to reach out to each other to initiate conversations that will continue long after the formal three-day event ends and have positive impacts of members of the communities we serve. For connections are what ShapingEDU and the Winter Games are all about.
It’s simply that kind of community and that sort of event: the preparation and the follow-up are as important as what transpires during the run of the event itself.
This was a virtual gathering that began the day at the top of the virtual ski slopes and never really stopped so we could catch our breath. The “Opening Ceremony + Olympic Keynote” (“Learning Futures: Designing the Horizon”) brought us together with a trio of engaging, forward-thinking educators from Arizona State University: Dr. Sean Leahy, Director of Technology Initiatives, MaryLou Fulton Teachers College; Dr. Punya Mishra, Associate Dean and Professor, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and Jodie Donner, Lead Technology Strategist and Head of IgnitED Labs. The thoughts were so rich, the resources so numerous, that we could (and should) spend several days reviewing notes, following links to the resources cited, and broadening our view of our world by reading and absorbing the reports and texts on websites as diverse as those representing the Future Today Institute, Arizona State University’s Learning Futures Collaboratory and IgnitED Labs (the latter a project that pivoted magnificently from onsite to online environments without giving up its commitment to hands-on learning experiences in pursuit of technology, creativity, and learning), and many others that you can learn about through the archived recording of the session. (The fact that the archived recording was already posted online on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel before the end of the day, and that a lovely, playful 3.5-minute “View from the Chair Life: Tuesday Evening Recap” was among several other videos on that same channel before mid-evening, is yet another sign of how efficiently and effectively this community functions.)
“We are not predicting the future,” Leahy said at one point in a comment capturing a theme running through much of what I saw and heard. “We are designing in a principled manner to build resilient educational systems to address that uncertainty.”
Moving to a different part of the Winter Games slopes for the first of two mid-morning break-out sessions I attended, I was completely taken by what CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) CEO Keith Krueger and Technology Innovation Design Entrepreneurship Sustainability Coordinator Kim Flintoff provided—both intentionally and unintentionally—provided during their 45-minute Innovating the Future of Learning: Schussing Downhill With Driving K-12 Innovation session. The intentional offering included a wonderful preview of CoSN’s 2021 Driving K-12 Innovation report, which is scheduled for formal release before the end of this month. The report, a summary of which is available online, includes a survey of hurdles (digital equity, scaling & sustaining innovation, and evolution of teaching & learning), accelerators (personalization, social & emotional learning, and learner autonomy), and tech enablers (digital collaboration environments, untether broadband & connectivity, and blended learning tools) to the expansion of the use of technology in K-12 learning environments. The unintentional offering—at least for me—was the reminder, as I absorbed these observations about a part of the learning sector I don’t normally visit, of how much overlap there is between the hurdles, accelerators, and tech enablers in that sector and other sectors with which I am much more familiar in my overall lifelong-learning environment. And, again, it reminds me of the gift ShapingEDU provides by bringing such a diverse group of lifelong learners together for an exchange of ideas that we, in turn, will help disseminate through conversations, presentations, and posts such as the one you are reading—to the benefit of those we serve.
Rejoining the Winter Games for the mid-afternoon “Fireside Chat: State of the Smart Region” social hour brought yet another set of surprises—not the least of which was how smoothly event organizers combined an informal conversation about how The Connective—a consortium of 23 city, town, and county local governments organizations collaboratively creating the nation’s largest and most connected Smart Region—with a live musical performance that was seamlessly interwoven with, rather than being a diversion from, the offerings of the Winter Games. As we made the transition from Smart Regions to what event organizers described as “part entertainment and part exploration of the event’s themes,” singer/songwriter Biddy Healey began a live online performance of solo-acoustic versions of a few of the songs from her recently-released album Salt River Bed(recorded with a nine-member band) and one new song that has not yet been recorded. Her rendition of “Patterns of Your Mind,” a song directed to someone lost to Alzheimer’s, was so hauntingly beautiful and meaningful to anyone who has experienced or is experiencing that loss that it immediately becomes something we want to be singing to our own lost loved ones; and it’s true to the spirit of commitment ShapingEDU community members have to individuals/learners in a world where technology often seems to be given precedence over people/learners. And her rendition of the new song about a stolen river—Australia’s Murray-Darling, where “more than 2 trillion litres of water…has gone missing”—became, in this context, much more than a song about a river; it perfectly captured the challenges we all face in so many of the “rivers” we traverse. And a great call to action for those of us in the ShapingEDU community.
So many wonderful moments. So much to absorb. So much to do. Yet through all of this inspiration, it is, perhaps, one of the most unplanned and, therefore, most unrehearsed moments that stays with me at the end of Day 1 of the Winter Games. That moment when Healey, between songs, stopped long enough to tune her guitar and apologize for its having gone out of tune because of the heat there in Australia. At which point one of the Winter Games participants (Deputy CIO and BI Strategist at Arizona State University John Rome) responded, via the online chat, “We tune because we care.” Which, for me, captures the spirit of how ShapingEDU community members thrive by continually tuning every figurative instrument we encounter and every situation we face: because we care.
This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted with Lev Gonick, Chief Information Officer, Arizona State University, one of the driving forces within the ShapingEDU community, and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview will be available on the ShapingEDU blog.
Let’s move to another area where you’ve been active—the annual Broadband Communities Summit. Would you tell me how you first joined that summit and describe what you and your colleagues do there each year?
Before there was Broadband Communities, the same collection of national leaders were organized under the name BroadBand Properties. They generously awarded me a national recognition for our community vision of connecting the community in Northeast Ohio in 2011. Thereafter, I was invited to share some of our work at the annual meetings and met a number of broadband leaders who were working on what would become known as the National Broadband Plan and the National Broadband Coalition. I had an opportunity to support both efforts through my experience at Case Western Reserve and our work at OneCommunity, which later became DigitalC.
Jim Baller, one of the nation’s foremost legal authorities on broadband, has convened a “blue ribbon” panel each year on Economic Development at the Broadband Communities conference for at least the last eight or so years. I have had the pleasure of being the moderator for that panel for most of those sessions. The topics typically include a review of where we’ve come from over the past year, and the opportunities and challenges ahead. This past year, as we were remote, Jim chaired the panel and I was happy to share some of the great work that we are doing at Arizona State University (ASU) on economic development and educational attainment by leveraging community networking partnerships.
Obvious follow-up: what is some of the work you’re doing at Arizona State University?
2020, for all the tragedy of COVID and the toll of human life and collective anxiety, is the year that universal broadband access moved from being a quixotic call in the wild to a near table stakes reality, especially for education needs. At ASU itself, we have provided thousands of laptop and hotspot loaners to students in need, including hundreds of students from American Indian reservations in rural Arizona. We have also worked to develop a coalition of partners working on digital equity including incumbent providers, new entrants, community anchor institutions like the State Library, healthcare organizations, K-12 school districts, the Maricopa Community Colleges and, of course, the remarkable breadth of talent across ASU itself. We have also worked with key education broadband network organizations, like the Sun Corridor Network, which provides network connectivity to universities, colleges, and schools across the state. Recently, we started working with cities and the State government to align policy objectives to integrated network architectures to the priorities and needs of the community, as the community itself has articulated. What took a decade in Northeast Ohio is happening here in Arizona in under a year. The big difference is COVID-19 and the realization that broadband being provided to advance remote K-20 learners across the state, especially in our inner cities and rural communities, can also be used for health and wellness needs, next generation workforce development and skills, business attraction, and economic development. That has always been the promise. Now we are seeing the coalition coming together in unprecedented fashion. ASU is a strong and capable partner, and we are advancing the needs of Arizona in alignment with our mission.
As we continue making that transition from “a quixotic call in the wild” to positive results, how optimistic are you that the current situation will continue to lead us on a path to universal broadband access throughout the United States?
If not now, when? If not us, who? This is our time and our calling. There is strong non-partisan support across most (but not all) of the actors from policy to providers, to community interests. I am bullish that we will see significant progress in the next calendar year.
Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?
There is a role for everyone interested in and committed to broadband equity. There are personal and organizational investments of not only cash, but also equipment, policy and community coalition building, legal work, broadening an understanding of community needs and, of course, volunteering to support the orientation to and education of the more than 30 percent of Americans who do not have access to nor use the Internet. Something for everyone. The regional and national angle is about identifying existing forces working to address access, equity, adoption, and use and supporting them, whether those are libraries, community centers, the national coalition digital inclusion and so forth.