Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 2 of 2)

June 23, 2021

This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

In your paper “Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies,” you tell some wonderful stories about successful efforts to create broadband access within those four communities. What common elements string those success stories together?

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Within each of these communities, there are people who took up the challenge and saw opportunity there. They did not just focus on what they did not have, but on what they could do with better broadband access. This enabled them to write grants to show proof-of-concept projects, and they leveraged these initial successes to get larger funding opportunities. They also worked with the community to determine what the community needed and wanted. It was not about improving Internet access for the sake of improving infrastructure metrics, but about what community members wanted to do with better connectivity. The IT [Information Technology] and Planning professionals whom I interviewed really highlighted the importance of understanding the community strengths and how they could get to better Internet service with these strengths. They also were realistic about their financial plans, which meant they could develop networks that made sense for their communities.

A theme that runs through the stories in “Building Indigenous Future Zones” is “patience.” Success often required a decade or more of work and community-building at a variety of levels—which is something any broadband advocate needs to understand. Any tips to broadband advocates in how to develop and use that sense of patience to their advantage so they don’t become discouraged over the long period of time success requires?

It is important to stay grounded in the community, to be aware of how the community changes over time. There is always work to be done, and so it is good to focus your attention on the immediate needs of the community. This may be anything from distributing devices to coordinating with leadership for more opportunities. When funding opportunities are available, there is a better chance of success if plans are already in place and are “shovel-ready.” It is also helpful to stay connected to the wider digital-inclusion advocacy community to hear stories from across the country and to generate new ideas of what can be possible. There is always progress in little ways that might not first be evident, so it is necessary to take a moment to reassess how far you’ve come in a year, five years, or ten years.

Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I have been really impressed with the work of Matthew Rantanen from Tribal Digital Village. He is always willing to speak with Federal and Tribal government officials on Tribal broadband. He is quite an advocate for broadband and seems to always be at the forefront of broadband advocacy groups. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him a few times, and I have always come away with more ideas and more motivation to do the work that needs to be done. He is sometimes called the Cyber Warrior.

Marisa Elena Duarte, in her book Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country, has a section on “Common Impacts of Tribal Broadband Deployment Efforts” (pp. 101-103) in which she suggests that broadband “champions” including Rantanen, Valerie Fast Horse, Brian Tagaban, Gregg Bourland, and J.D. Williams, have “endured failed attempts and slow starts” in promoting broadband access in Indian Country. She then adds “It is important to frame failures and slow starts in a positive way, as opportunities to learn how and where to improve operations.” Can you tell a story about how you or a colleague have framed failures and slow starts in a way that produced positive results?

The story that comes to mind is from my conversation with Jason Hollinday at the Fond du Lac Band’s Planning Division. They spent years at Fond du Lac trying to develop a broadband plan, and they kept being turned down for grant funding. These slow starts, however, made them recognize the importance of describing what the community actually wanted from a broadband network. The planning division got more feedback from the community members and realized that they needed to dream bigger for their network. The wireless network that they had initially proposed would not work for the whole community because of the terrain and the capacity limits. They needed a fiber network, and by learning from all their failed starts, they were able to write a successful grant to secure funding for a fiber network.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Locally—Talk to your government officials. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to visitors to your community. Find out what your community values in an Internet  connection. Get involved with local advocacy groups for digital inclusion to distribute devices or offer digital skills trainings. Learn more about different types of devices and different types of broadband technologies.

Regionally—You should encourage your local officials to work with other communities nearby. It is important to keep an eye on funding opportunities and to make sure that smaller communities are not left out of broadband expansion plans. Keep an eye out for state funding opportunities as well.

Nationally—Keep track of what’s happening at the FCC. Remember that your local officials know your story, but that national organizations often do not. Share your ideas and your thoughts because they are valuable. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

Something that is very important that we haven’t fully touched on here: broadband access in Indian Country is getting better. We do not have great data available, but it has improved over the years. And one of the reasons for that is Native Nations building their own networks or collaborating with other local governments or local cooperatives to build this infrastructure. This is an exciting time with the recent allocation of the 2.5GHz Spectrum to Native Nations. There is more opportunity than ever for  improved broadband access in Indian Country. We are all learning and building together.

An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provides a nice thematic link back to <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p><strong>An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provide a nice thematic link back to my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! </strong></p> my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 1 of 2)

June 23, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Let’s start with the basics: What 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?

I have always been interested in Internet access. I grew up in a rural community without great access to the Internet, but it was functional. I learned Latin via list-serv and early videoconferencing programs. I got more involved in advocacy around Internet access when I started my first job out of college as an intern at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. That organization focuses on municipal and community networks.

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 I was in high school, I took some online courses and would routinely experience Internet connection problems. In at least one case, this was caused by my neighbor down the road cutting through the DSL line. It was a rural area, and the infrastructure was not necessarily well-marked. The Internet connection was also not always functional enough to do video conferencing that was required. It made learning very difficult. Because of this, I have been very focused on expanding broadband access (high-speed Internet access) in rural and Tribal communities.

I’m fascinated by that story of a lost connection because someone cut through the line. Can you recall the conversation you had with the neighbor and how that either brought you together a bit or contributed to some sort of division?

My parents had a conversation with the neighbor, who was apologetic, but it did not bring us closer. He had been performing work in the right of way, which was not permitted at the time. He also did not necessarily understand the importance of having an Internet connection.

Point of clarification: was this in Indian Country, and, if so, would you mind describing the setting and the community a bit?

My hometown is south of Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota. It is a rural community that primarily relies on tourism of the local lakes. Some of the nearby communities are more agricultural or connected to the Iron Range with a history of mining. My hometown has a current population of about 500 people. It has some paved roads, but mainly dirt roads. The telephone and Internet service is provided by a cooperative, and they have, in the past five years or so, upgraded to a fiber optic network.

The example of the cut line is clearly a compelling and engaging example of what you and others in rural areas face, and your description of your hometown helps create a strong image of that community. What are some of the other short- and long-term problems and challenges people in Indian Country face in terms of accessing the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively?

Broadband access in Indian Country is not just a product of it often being rural and remote. Broadband infrastructure often relies on access to other forms of infrastructure, such as electric lines or cell towers. The short-term problem is determining what kind of technology makes sense for each community because Indian Country is not a monolithic whole. The challenges that are faced in Alaska are very different than the challenges faced in southern California. We need policies and programs that can respond to this diversity. The long-term challenge is infrastructure development generally in Indian Country, from the mapping and development of improved road infrastructure to the further expansion of water lines. We need to consider broadband infrastructure as just one piece of the puzzle and ensure that communities have the planning capacity to determine what works best. 

Another piece of this question is about what tools people need in Indian Country in order to use Internet access effectively. Some of this is basic digital literacy of how to open a web browser, how to recognize an email scam, etc. But there is also a need to recognize all the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives. I have heard great stories about local Facebook groups enhancing the sense of community and allowing for easier exchange of local goods and services in Indian Country. There is a need for devices beyond just cellphones—and these device needs may be different from household to household. My father much prefers a tablet or a kindle; it serves a different need than a laptop, because he’s not using the tablet for typing emails, just for reading. People need to know what options are available to figure out what best meets their community needs.

You’re making several very important points here, including one that centers on levels of engagement and empathy in any discussion about broadband access. To talk about “broadband” is to carry on a conversation that lacks emotional impact. To talk about “the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives” moves it into the realm of storytelling for engagement and inspiration. How do you routinely incorporate storytelling into your work as a broadband advocate?

In my work, I center the voices of the people that I interview and their perspectives on what matters to their communities. These stories form the foundation of the work that I do when I dive into data analysis or mapping. I focus on stories of solutions rather than of deficit. There are many stories about how Native Nations have built their own broadband infrastructure or improved cell service in their communities. But we often do not hear about them because they are local projects that the national media does not pick up on. When I do my work, I try to ask not just about the problems, but on what people have already tried or accomplished to change the situation, to change the narrative. Indian Country has a lot of stories of resilience and creativity, and broadband access is one of them.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 2 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

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.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Gina Millsap (Part 1 of 2)

March 23, 2021

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Gina Millsap, retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

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. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Beth Holland (Part 3 of 3)

February 11, 2021

This is the third part of a three-part interview conducted with Dr. Beth Holland, Partner at The Learning Accelerator, Digital Equity Advisor to CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. Two articles drawn from the interview are available on the ShapingEDU blog.

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?

Beth Holland

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. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Beth Holland (Part 1 of 3)

February 11, 2021

This is the first part of a three-part interview conducted with Dr. Beth Holland, Partner at The Learning Accelerator, Digital Equity Advisor to CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking), and a longtime advocate of broadband access for work and learning. Two articles drawn from the interview are available on the ShapingEDU blog.

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.

Yes! I actually had a similar conversation with someone a few months ago. Too many assumptions get made about whether access in itself will solve the issues. However, we have to remember the diversity of this country. It’s going to be very different depending on the culture and context of each community. I was just reading a new report [Looking Back, Looking Forward: What It Will Take to Permanently Close the K-12 Digital Divide, January 27, 2021] this morning from Common Sense and BCG [Boston Consulting Group]. They touch on this idea that a barrier to adoption could be more cognitive than financial or geographic/physical (e.g., no service). 

Another point: Have you seen Dr. Charlton McIlwain’s book on Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, or Dr. S. Craig Watkins’ work in The Digital Edge: How Black and Latino Youth Navigate Digital Inequality? Both of them, in different ways, touch on the white narrative surrounding technology adoption. Particularly for non-white communities, adoption could look different. Universal access needs to be considered from a more universal perspective, and all voices need to be honored and valued in designing solutions (e.g., stop saying that underserved communities could get served with refurbished devices that the white/affluent community doesn’t want.).

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference, Day 1: On Homecomings, Digital Literacy, and Lifelong Learning

August 7, 2015

For trainer-teacher-learners with backgrounds in journalism—and I suspect there are plenty of us—attending the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC)  98th Annual Conference (held here in San Francisco this year) is a bit of a homecoming.

AEJMC_2015--Logo[2]It’s not just the joy of being around more than 2,000 thoughtful, innovative colleagues from all over the world as we explore trends, challenges, and developments in journalism and mass communication; it’s an opportunity to see how our training-teaching-learning colleagues in a vitally important part of our contemporary world are continuing to hone their own skills while fostering the next generation(s) of professionals who will shape the face of the industry and the world it serves.

As is the case with any ambitiously-designed conference, the number of sessions to explore is overwhelming and hints at the importance of incorporating at least a couple of digital-literacy skills into the experience of treating conferences as part of our lifelong-learning experiences: the skill of sifting through torrents of information (in this case, to initially identify what is most likely to contribute to our own lifelong-learning needs), and an ability to use digital resources to enhance our learning. These skills, I might add, are clearly essential not just to the journalism and mass communications colleagues whose company I’m currently enjoying, but to any of us involved in the constantly-evolving world of training-teaching-learning.

The sifting, in this case, takes place at a variety of levels. Access to the online schedule before arriving onsite at the conference gave us an opportunity to make preliminary decisions regarding which sessions would most likely meet our learning needs. Receiving the printed copy of the 270-page conference book onsite allows us to fine-tune those choices a bit more. Following the Twitter feed from the conference draws our attention to colleagues’ recommendations for opportunities we might otherwise have missed. And hallway conversations add the icing to the conference cake by giving us opportunities to meet presenters whose sessions might otherwise not have made it onto our must-attend lists.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicUsing digital resources to enhance our learning not only while we’re here but long after the conference formally concludes is something equally worth noting and exploring. The simple act of tweeting highlights from sessions we attend pays off at several levels: we produce a set of online notes to which we later can return to continue our learning; we see onsite colleagues’ tweets from those sessions and others we are not physically able to join, thereby increasing the breadth and scope of our conference/learning experience; we occasionally engage online with colleagues who couldn’t be here physically but feel less “left behind” because of our online exchanges; and the natural inclination to occasionally, while a session is underway, go online to find a site that further explains what is being discussed means we are extending the reach of these physical learning spaces well into the virtual world to create an onsite-online classroom that is limited only by our imaginations and access to the Internet.

This plays out nicely, as I saw during a “State of the Industry” panel discussion—the first session I was able to attend at the conference—yesterday afternoon. At the heart of the learning experience was a first-rate set of panelists: panel moderator Bob Papper, Director, RTDNA (Radio Television Digital News Association) /Hofstra University Annual [Industry] Survey; Teri Hayt, Executive Director, American Society of News Editors (ASNE); David Smydra, Executive Producer, Google Play Newstand; and Robert Hernandez, Associate Professor of Professional Practice at USC Annenberg. Adding to the experience was our ability, while tweeting highlights of the session, to see tweets from colleagues in other sessions where subject matter occasionally complemented what we were absorbing—which provided an opportunity, at a limited level, to actually create a much larger virtual learning space than any of us might have anticipated. Another element—common to what I experience while attending conferences these days—was the opportunity to extend that virtual classroom to include online resources that could provide additional background to unfamiliar topics the panelists were presenting.

Connected_China--FathomThe online-resources-as-extension-of-learning-space opportunity was particularly rewarding when Smydra introduced us to the concept of Structured Journalism—something he described as being “what digital media wants journalism to be” in that it makes the various bits and pieces of data (in various media) collected by journalists and the numerous resources going into news stories more accessible and reusable than they otherwise might be. While he was valiantly attempting to describe this somewhat complex concept in a brief period of time by providing visually-appealing examples (e.g., the Thomson Reuters Connected China project), I continued to listen to him and glance at his slides while also doing a quick online search to see whether he had any online resources providing a more in-depth exploration of the topic. And there, among the gems, was the article “Structured journalism offers readers a different kind of story experience,” written by Chava Gourarie for the Columbia Journalism Review and including quotes form Smydra, including this one that captures the concept beautifully: “It not only produces incredible stories but creates this reservoir of material that reporters and readers can call upon for future stories.”

AEJMC_2015--logoIt was at that moment that I realized I was experiencing a key learning moment described by so many of our best training-teaching-learning colleagues: that moment of learning that builds upon what we previously learned. As a blogger (as opposed to the broader role of writing articles and co-writing a book), I’ve come to appreciate the obvious and unique art form online writing offers: the ability to develop a cohesive piece of work that, through hyperlinks, allows readers to read start-to-finish or take as many detours as they care to take—and if I also make the piece more visually stimulating by embedding photographs or images of videos that include live links, I’ve further taken advantage of what this particular art form offers me and those who read my work. Smydra’s comments inspired an instantaneous building-upon-previous-learning leap from what I have been seeing in blogging to what I was beginning to see in Structured Journalism: a form that includes writing, imagery, video work, and more combined as unique, innovative, creative mash-ups providing another cohesive form of work/writing/journalism—with the added benefit of producing additional unique elements/source material that could be repurposed elsewhere.

As I continue thinking about what Smydra and his colleagues provided through their presentations, I continue taking advantage of the numerous streams of information and other resources that make conferences so richly rewarding as part of our lifelong learning landscape. There are the tweets. The conversations over a meal during an opening-night reception last night. The Storify recap of conference highlights from sessions yesterday. The bookmarked websites I accessed to write this piece as well as the websites to which I haven’t yet had time to return. My own stream of conference-related tweets (August 6 – 9, 2015) through my @trainersleaders Twitter account. And links to PowerPoint slide decks and other resources allowing us to draw upon our digital-literacy skills to continue the learning that is proving so rewarding in this and expanded moments of learning. All of which makes me suspect that Structured Journalism is already claiming a place in my training-teaching-learning-writing world.

N.B. – This report from the AEJMC 2015 Annual Conference is also the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


ALA 2015 Annual Conference: Digital Literacy, Onsite-Online Learning, & No Colleague Left Behind

August 6, 2015

Helping colleagues learn how to create blended onsite-online learning spaces by actually creating blended onsite-online learning spaces is an exercise we are far from exhausting, as I saw once again while facilitating a session at the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco a month ago.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicBeing able to foster this sort of blended interaction seems to me to be another critically-important digital-literacy skill along the lines of what colleagues are exploring in our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course; is not at all difficult or costly to do if we creatively use tech tools readily available to many of us; and actually becomes a fun and engaging way for many of us to extend the size of the learning spaces we typically inhabit, we again saw during that “Blend It” session sponsored by ALA’s Library and Information Technology Association (LITA).

The concept, which I’ve explored with colleagues in a variety of settings, is straightforward: using little more than a laptop with a webcam, a projector and screen, and some form of audio system (either a small, portable set of speakers or a connection to an existing sound system within the onsite space that serves as the anchor for our efforts), we create real-time multiple levels of communication between learners/colleagues in a physical setting and colleagues who join us via their own online access points anywhere in the world. This quickly transforms those offsite learners/colleagues from being part of a “left behind” group to being active participants in a learning space that can be thousands of miles wide if those colleagues come from a variety of countries.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoWhat makes this personally rewarding for all involved is that we continue to learn through experimentation. The earliest effort I was lucky enough to help design and facilitate used Skype as the tool uniting an offsite presenter with approximately 200 colleagues here in San Francisco for a dynamic and tremendously rewarding exchange. The experiments continued a few years later when two colleagues and I used Skype and Twitter to connect onsite and online participants in a wide-ranging conversation about how we could incorporate these tools and these blended spaces into effective learning spaces. New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker and I continue to push this particular learning envelop via Google Hangouts in a variety of settings, so I was ready, at the ALA Annual Conference this year, to carry it a step further by adding a “bring your own device” element to the conversation.

After introducing onsite participants to the concepts we were exploring, Harford County Public Library tech trainer Maurice Coleman and I demonstrated the concept by having Maurice step outside the room, use his own smartphone to join a Google Hangout I had started with my own laptop and was projecting onto a large screen that everyone in the room could see, and carry on a brief conversation that those in the room could join by addressing questions to him via the microphone that was embedded in the laptop.

LITA_LogoThe magic moment came when he physically returned to the room—it’s worth noting that by remaining visible and audible via that smartphone, he had never really left the room or the conversation—and we offered onsite participants a challenge: quickly identify someone you know could not be here at the conference, try to reach them using your own mobile device, and bring them into the room now via a Google Hangout. It was learning at its best: those unfamiliar with Hangouts helped others try to set up individual sessions; those familiar with Hangouts tried to initiate their own. And those who were successful let the rest of us know that had eliminated another member of the “left behind” corps through that virtual contact.

ala_leftbehindAt its peak, we had nearly a dozen individual hangouts happening simultaneously, and those in the room completely made the learning space their own: some explained to their friends what they were doing and what others were accomplishing; a few kept those sessions live for the remainder of the time we had together. And one particularly creative learner left her seat and gave her offsite colleague a virtual tour of the room by walking around and introducing our offsite colleague to others who were onsite.

It may have been gimmicky. It may have been far from pretty. But it was an exploration of digital literacy and educational technology at work in a way that provided a visceral example of how far we literally have come together. How easy it is for us to foster those levels of training, teaching, learning, and collaboration when we’re not afraid to risk failure in seeking small and large successes. And how easy it is to have fun while creating memorable, meaningful learning experiences that will continue spreading long after that formal session ended.

N.B. – This is the fourth (and final) in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco and the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


ALA 2015 Annual Conference: LITA Top Tech Trends, Digital Literacy, and Conversing Fast and Slow

July 31, 2015

LITA_LogoOne interesting tech trend that didn’t seem to draw any attention at a first-rate “Top Tech Trends” presentation at the American Library Association (ALA) 2015 Annual Conference here in San Francisco last month is inspiring me to write about the panel discussion nearly a month after it took place: the trend toward (and digital-literacy skill of) using online resources to extend a moment of conversation over a potentially very long period of time. The extended moment we’re going to have as a case study here is the one that began with that session on June 28, 2015, continues as I write this on July 31, 2015, and extends further into whatever day you’re reading and, with any luck, joining the conversational moment by responding to it.

There were plenty of notable tech trends covered during that session (viewable in an archived recording) sponsored and facilitated by the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA), and I’ll return to those by drawing from what we might call a Tweeter’s Digest version created in the form of an edited Storify transcript of the tweets coming out of the session.

ALA_San_Francisco--2015_LogoBut let’s focus, for a moment, on the larger, paradoxical situation/long-term trend in which we are, at the same time, driven to respond as quickly as possible online to what we encounter and yet, at the same time, are equally at ease finding something that has been online for an extended period of time before we discover and—more importantly—respond to it as if it were newly created rather than disdainfully treating it as something waiting for someone to breathe new life into it. That’s what we might call “conversing, fast and slow” if we were to puckishly name it by modifying the title of Daniel Kahneman’s thoughtful treatise Thinking, Fast and Slow.

At a time when we are sometimes (mistakenly) encouraged to believe that responses to online posts (e.g., in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a variety of other social media tools) must receive immediate responses if they are to receive any response at all, I’m encouraged to find that responding to older posts, articles, or other resources leads to some amazingly reflective and rewarding exchanges creating those very long moments I’m attempting to describe here. And that’s what is inspiring me to return to what some might consider to be “old news”—a brief summary and reaction to an event that happened last month—with the understanding that the delay in calling attention to the panel discussion is far less important than the act of extending the reach of that conversation via this article, the link to the archived recording, and the link to the Storify transcript which includes attendees’ initial in-the-moment reaction to the descriptions of the tech trends under review.

An interesting and important theme connecting the various panelists’ tech trends descriptions was something library staff members often try to foster: collaborative efforts combined with a commitment to providing access to useful resources. As we heard about continuing efforts to provide “free, ubiquitous internet access in cities,” we had the visceral example of the LinkNYC project, a collaborative effort between City Bridge, New York City officials, and others; it’s designed to provide around-the-clock free Internet access and touchscreen-tablet interface with City services and other resources. As we heard about cross-sector collaboration as a tech trend, we had the possibility of previously-unimagined sharing of data between a variety of organizations in ways that served those using services provided by those organizations. And when we heard about an apparent renaissance in podcasting, we had colleagues jumping into the onsite-online conversation via Twitter to suggest partnerships between library staff and podcast producers, and other colleagues tweeting podcasts that might be of interest to those engaged in the session.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicThere is plenty more to explore in the Storify transcript and the archived recording, but what brings us full circle here is the realization that by reading this article, following the links to resources of interest to us, and responding, we immediately become part of the extended moment that transforms a one-time panel discussion into part of a continuing conversation that enriches all of us, fast and slow. And adds to what we as trainer-teacher-learners can foster.

N.B. – This is the third in a series of reflections inspired by the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference in San Francisco and the fourth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


Rethinking Digital Literacy: Collaborating, Hyperlinking, and Owning Our Learning

July 30, 2015

With my ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” co-conspirators (AKA learners) currently exploring the broad question of “who owns the learning” in digital environments, I saw at least one obvious answer while co-hosting and participating in a tweet chat about hyperlinked learning last night: anyone willing to be a collaborator/co-conspirator in the learning process owns the learning.

Rethinking_Digital_Literacy--Course_GraphicThe question about ownership of learning—engagingly examined by Alan November in a book and a TEDx talk we’re exploring in Rethinking —is important and double-edged for any trainer-teacher-learner working within a digital environment. It makes us think about who retains (or should retain) access to all our discussions, learning objects, and other tangible aspects of the online-learning process that are usually lost to us once a course formally concludes and the course learning management system is closed to learners. The question also makes us think about who has responsibility for nurturing and sustaining the (lifelong) learning process that is an essential component to fostering digital literacy.

With my tweet-chat colleagues in the Educational Technology & Media massive open online course (#etmooc) community, the answer to both facets of the question is obvious and openly accessible. All of us involved in that particular community of learning retain (and openly share) access to the artifacts produced through our learning—e.g., through blog postings that occasionally connect to and interact with blog posts from other members of the community; through archived recordings of our interactions during  the course and those that continue to take place in Google Hangouts and any other accessible online tool we can find and explore as part of our continuing learning efforts on the topic of educational technology and media; and through tweets and the Storify learning objects we produce.

Storify_LogoMore importantly, we shape those discussions and artifacts collaboratively and through our own initiative—this is learner-centric, learner-driven learning at a very high and productive level. We have learned to take the responsibility for asking what we can do rather than relying solely on others to facilitate our learning process. For the tweet chat last night, a couple of us prepared the script with questions to be used during the tweet chat. We facilitated the session. I then edited and posted the Storify transcript of the event so other members of the community could be part of the effort to use and disseminate that resource. The result is that while learning, we also made—and are continuing to make—it possible for others who want to learn more about hyperlinked learning to do so while also seeing how a self-directed community of learning operates.

Owning the learning at this level always seems to produce results far beyond anything we anticipate. The hyperlinked-learning tweet chat, for example, produced numerous examples of hyperlinked learning in action. There was the magnificent “Tutor/Mentor Learning Map,” with more than 2,000 hyperlinks to other resources, prepared and shared by #etmooc community member Daniel Bassill. There were exchanges about tech tools some community members had not yet tried. There were informal attempts to define hyperlinked learning, including Daniel’s suggestion that it “is like island-hopping in a huge ocean of knowledge. You can go from place to place in any direction”; Shuana Niessen’s suggestion that it’s “non linear responsive learning”; and my own observation (based on our source material from Michael Stephens) that it’s “what we did/do in #etmooc: connecting, exploring, playing, collaborating, learning experientially” and what I’m fostering among my Rethinking Digital Literacy co-conspirators.

etmoocWhat made the session particularly interesting was how often the discussion about hyperlinked learning actually became an example of hyperlinked learning. There was the moment, for example, when we had a unexpected appearance from Alec Couros, who with his own original group of co-conspirators designed and facilitated that MOOC that inspired us to assume shared ownership (without in any way excluding Alec) of the #etmooc learning community. And there were plenty of other moments when learning by hyperlink drew in new colleagues as well as a few we hadn’t seen in quite a while. Nothing could speak more viscerally and meaningfully to the topic of hyperlinked learning than a community so completely hyperlinked that interactions continue to grow rhizomatically—a theme we explored during the formal course and continue to explore and nurture with every new action we take.

Rereading the Storify transcript a few times led to additional reflection—and learning—for me throughout the day today as I continued to produce this article. I repeatedly was struck by how the act of collaboratively shaping our learning experiences means that we hone other digital-literacy skills at the same time: being able to work within ever-changing online environments; being willing to contribute to our own learning and to the growth of our learning communities; and being able to capture discussions, learning objects, and other aspects of the learning process so they remain accessible rather than locked away in something akin to the storage crate housing the Lost Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

oclmooc_logoAs I return to my Rethinking Digital Literacy co-conspirators—those learners who are so creatively and effectively crafting their own learning experiences—I look with admiration at the ways they are, in Week 3 of our four-week course, continuing to expand the ways they interact across as many digital platforms as possible. They—we—will leave distinct traces, if not much larger artifacts, of our time and collaborative learning efforts. It’s what was done in #etmooc; it’s what some of us have done in the Open and Connected Learning MOOC (#oclmooc) and the Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses); and it’s what is creating the possibility that what we create during our four formal weeks of shared learning will remain accessible to current learning community members as well as to others who might want to learn from what we are accomplishing together.

In these dynamic, digitally-literate learning communities driven by hyperlinked learning, connected learning, connectivist-learning precepts, we are all co-conspirators. And we all own the learning, in every possible sense. 

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of reflections inspired by our ALA Editions “Rethinking Digital Literacy” course.


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