COVID-19 creates a new internet culture for schools
Before the COVID-19 pandemic closed down the Nome schools the seeds of distance learning had already been planted. The district had invested in Chromebooks, an inexpensive laptop which can retail for as low as $160. A Chromebook runs Google Chrome as its operating system and utilizes Google’s suite of educational software. High school students were somewhat familiar with Google Classroom, the teaching tool now being used the most to connect teachers with their students. But once it became necessary for students to begin working over the internet from home new problems appeared.
“No matter what the socio-economic status of a student is the schools are required to give equal opportunity,” said Nome-Beltz Principal Jay Thomas. School administrators estimate about 20 percent of the students have no internet in the home. Among those households that do have internet there may be a number of people who need to use it. Limited bandwidth and limits on data use can put a squeeze on a student’s ability to access and complete lessons. To ensure that all students are getting instruction, the system of delivering and picking up packets of lessons evolved.
“I would say probably 75 to 80 percent of our students have some access to the internet,” said Nome School District Superintendent Jamie Burgess. “However, what that looks like can vary widely from a family that has unlimited internet to a satellite or TelAlaska to another family whose only connection to the internet may be through a cell phone.” If the cell phone belongs to a parent and the parent leaves to go to work the internet goes out the door with that phone.
The packets are used more heavily at the elementary school level because the children are younger and less likely to be sophisticated about the internet. Also, it’s appropriate for the elementary students to be doing pencil and paper work. The older students, in junior high and high school, had been using the online software on a limited basis and were able to expand on that knowledge to participate effectively in online class sessions. “I’d say that both students and teachers have improved technical skills,” said Burgess. “We hope that when school gets back to normal those skills will still be utilized.” Students travelling for sports, medical reasons, or for family vacations will be able to pick up their assignments in real time. Burgess says the internet has brought school personnel into contact with parents they’ve never been able to build a relationship with.
Internet equity, equal internet access for all students, is one of the big issues. How can the school district ensure that all students are getting the same opportunities to learn? “We still have families where it’s a challenge because multiple family members are all competing for the same devices or the same bandwidth,” said Burgess.
GCI, the largest internet service provider in the region, offered free upgrades to those who already had their service and free basic service to those who had none. There have been complaints that they were left out of the offer but both Jamie Burgess and Ray Thomas report that a lot of households have been able to take advantage of the upgrades.
Quintillion, the undersea cable people, recently gave extra bandwidth to the school district to avoid congestion with so many more people accessing the school servers. Previously, they’d provided free additional bandwidth to TelAlaska, who provides internet access to several hundred households in Nome. Bandwidth is similar to a pipe for a liquid. A bigger pipe allows more liquid to flow. More bandwidth means more information flowing. “The bandwidth is on the school’s network,” said Burgess. “It’s not bandwidth that’s available to the teachers in their own homes.”
A lot of states decided to do distance learning by reviewing material already presented. But Nome schools are offering new lessons. “When we saw that we could deliver classes online we just kept going,” said Jay Thomas. “Because the kids are not getting socialization they are hungry for that discussion. Some of the discussions the teachers are having are really tearing it up. They’re doing a really good job.” The participants tend to be the better students. Some of the less motivated students have simply faded away. According to Thomas after an online class a teacher will sometimes log off and leave the students to visit with each other for a while. A lot of them will stay on and chat because they miss each other.
One discussion which has intensified nationally with the pandemic is how to make internet access more like a utility. A number of areas in California have mounted routers on utility poles so that entire neighborhoods are served for free. As learning is increasingly delivered over the internet this approach will probably become more common.