COVID was the impetus for a variety of new, flexible work and social interactions facilitated by technology. At the same time, the pandemic exposed the totally inadequate and inequitable technology resources available to Chicago’s public school students. While CPS cobbled together some resources for most students during remote learning, those resources were insufficient.
Sufficiency is not the only issue. Standardization is another. As one technology teacher commented:
CPS’s vision for the district’s digital future is clearly one of centralization: one where all students are using identical devices (inexpensive Chromebooks or iPads for younger students purchased through CPS vendors), using identical platforms (Google Workspace for Education and a very short curated list of non-Google online platforms), with identical centralized curriculum (Skyline curriculum designed by and for CPS).
COVID exposed CPS technology weaknesses
As with other aspects of education, technology access is inequitable. In 2002, 93% of wealthy families owned computers, compared to 40% of low-income families. In 2021, those numbers were virtually the same. In 2014, a National Digital Inclusion Alliance analysis found that more than half of Chicago’s low-income households had no internet access at home. As the map below from South Side Weekly shows, things have not improved much.
NBC news reported in September 2020 that 110,000 Chicago students did not have access to broadband. COVID forced CPS to start playing catch up, and it ultimately distributed devices to many students who needed them. However, the devices were often poor quality and did not last long. Many had defective cameras and/or were unable to stream classroom videos. Additionally, large percentages of families in neighborhoods like Englewood (46%) and Austin (33%) were without Internet access.
During remote learning, everyone learned how valuable the schools’ technical coordinators (TechCos) are. Every school should have a TechCo, but CPS wants to centralize and privatize these positions instead. The disastrous result of privatizing custodial staff should give CPS pause. Schools with wealthier students and bigger budgets will probably keep their TechCos, because they can afford to provide their students with highly qualified professionals to diagnose and address tech issues. At poorer schools, students will have to wait until someone from central office can get out to the school to take care of tech problems.
Lack of access to useful tech tools
Districts across Illinois have joined a coalition that makes it straightforward for teachers to enter into agreements with online services, as required by the Student Online Personal Protection Act (SOPPA). CPS, on the other hand, insists on creating its own application with onerous requirements that are particularly burdensome on free vendors. This widens the digital divide. Wealthy schools can afford excellent edtech tools that cost money and have gone through the SOPPA process, while less wealthy schools cannot purchase these tools and are forced to make do with the relatively small number of free tools that have gone through the process or go without digital tools entirely. Many CPS schools end up being limited to Skyline, while wealthier schools have access to a wide range of curricular resources.
Students are limited in Computer Science classes that are stocked with Chromebooks and iPads, instead of Windows or Mac computers that have the capacity necessary for tasks like programming. Teachers are also limited by their degree of tech proficiency, which CPS does not adequately address. In wealthier schools, Tech Cos and teachers are paid for afterschool work to run seminars for teachers and families on the use of new technology tools. CPS is shortsighted in their view of technology needs and always playing catch up. At a minimum, every school needs a Technology Coordinator to help meet the needs of this century.
Instead of CPS’ one-size-fits-all (really “no one”) plans, we need to build students’ capacity to use technology, not just for school work, but for the benefit of society. For starters:
- Every student should have broadband access. A student’s ability to access the internet shouldn’t depend on their zip code, but at this time, it does.
- Every student needs an up-to-date, working device.
- Teachers and paraprofessionals need training on how to use technology in a way that enhances learning. Always turning to technology is as harmful to learning as never using technology. And the misuse of software increases surveillance of students and teachers, which can further the school-to-prison pipeline. Students also need sufficient time to engage with people and nature.
- Librarians and technology coordinators, as well as technology teachers, are a crucial part of this process, and CPS must reverse its pattern of layoffs of these workers and instead expand their presence to every school community.