Photo: Twenty20 / @benjamarkoword

For many districts, Labor Day marks the end of summer with a new beginning: the start of a school year. Each year is different for students moving up through grades, but each new school year also presents new challenges for educators. For educators, the year often starts behind the mark in access to technology, fair wages, and class sizes.

Teachers are long envied by non-educators for their “summers off,” but come Labor Day, many who are returning to the classroom are leaving their summer jobs—anything from teaching summer school, working at a camp, or other seasonal work. This is a byproduct of the fact that the Washington Post has reported on: teachers make 17 percent less than comparable college-educated professionals on a weekly basis. According to the National Education Association, that’s an average salary of $57,420.

While class sizes and the demand for students who can compete in a global market keep growing, teachers are turning to each other for support. In a world where nearly any answer imaginable is just a web search or voice query away, teachers are finding ways to help each other integrate technology in a meaningful way in their classrooms, despite barriers to access and quality.

Often times in Chicago, educators rely on local third party EdTech companies like ThinkCERCA, LEAP Innovations, and other for support because the necessary funding for standard classroom technology is just not there.

EdTech Outside the Classroom

Making technology available and affordable enhances the 21st century educational experience. While there’s something to be said for putting pen to paper, not embracing the internet and its many educational possibilities is a disservice to both teachers and students. Investing in technology to make it suitable and accessible to classrooms is investing in our educational future.

It is said that learning begins at home, and if learning can now take place online, it is essential that learners have access to high speed internet at home and school to maximize their learning years. Products like Comcast’s Internet Essentials seeks to provide the opportunity for affordable internet to eligible households, supporting education at all levels. Eligible households include families, senior citizens, community college students, and households receiving federal housing aid. Comcast provides internet and in-home WiFi without a credit check, installation fee, or requirement for a term contract in addition to an option to purchase a low cost computer and free access to XFINITY WiFi hotspots.

While many take internet access for granted, Internet Essentials is set to connect millions of Americans to the internet in their home for the first time. Affordable access at this price revolutionizes the role that technology can play in learning, both for those in school, as well as lifelong learners. Having that positive learning presence at home enhances the learning experience in the classroom by making homework, research, and learning new skills easier.

“Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has now connected four million people, in one million households, to the Internet at home, most of them for the first time in their lives,” says Karima Zedan, Executive Director of Internet Essentials. “What’s more, we continue to see strength in the program’s momentum, with the first six months of 2017 seeing more new connections than any other six-month period in our history.”

With online learning becoming increasingly common, the classroom is no longer limited to four walls within a school building. Learning should not stop when entering or leaving a physical classroom, which is one of the true benefits of having a tech-focused learning environment. However, this concept presents challenges in communities where free WiFi access is hard to come across.

Zedan also knows the importance of bringing digital access to people wherever they go.

“The cruel irony of the digital divide is that the more broadband technology advances, the further behind it leaves people without home broadband connections — who happen to be the very people who would most benefit from the equalizing potential of the Internet,” she says. “Crossing the digital divide is a life-changing transformation—conversely, being on the wrong side of that divide means being left on the sidelines of a 21st century global economy.”

The Next Big Thing

Many millennials, who have seen burgeoning educational technology explode into necessary learning tools, recall the introduction of Smart Boards to classrooms. Now a standard feature in many classrooms, interactive technology like the Smart Board proved that simply digitizing a textbook didn’t qualify as game-changing technology in the classroom. Integrating technology into learning requires thinking outside of the box to identify how technology can meet the needs of a student while transforming the way that they access information.

Now fairly standard, Smart Boards didn’t fully take off until the mid- to late-2000s, and even into the 2010s, despite the company starting in 1991. This gap of accessibility and tech development can cause teachers and students alike to wonder: what’s the next big thing that we haven’t even thought of yet? It is hard for many educators to imagine a classroom without a Smart Board now. What will be indispensable to learning in the future, and who is making it now? And how does that technology get into all classrooms– not just the ones who can afford it? These questions are on the mind of many educators as they return from Labor Day to their classrooms.

Educational technology—be it subject-specific applications, ways to integrate software into the learning process, or even taking learning fully online—is the next frontier for students and their teachers.
Whether it is in maker spaces, community education, or dedicated tech learning environments, there are many ways innovative learning is happening across the Southeast. This month we will be exploring exciting ways educational tech is impacting the region.