If the promise of mobile technology in classrooms has been to equalize opportunities for all students through access to the internet, that potential has yet to be realized.
National surveys consistently show that students in low-income schools are getting short-changed when it comes to using technology in school. A 2013 Pew study revealed that only 35 percent of teachers at the lowest income schools allow their students to look up information on their mobile devices, as compared to 52 percent of teachers at wealthier schools. And while 70 percent of teachers working in high income areas say their schools do a good job providing resources and support to effectively integrate technology into the classroom, only 50 percent of teachers in low-income areas agree.
The reality is that while some teachers have found powerful ways to use mobile devices -- both those owned by students and those purchased by the school -- teachers at schools in very low-income areas are often battling a persistent student culture of disengagement. Many students have learning gaps that make it hard for them to stay interested in grade level materials and little desire to be in school at all.
IN FAVOR OF MOBILE DEVICES
A common refrain among teachers successfully using mobile devices in class is that there is no excuse for failing to use any and all resources to help kids learn. “You can teach a kid from every background how to use a device responsibly,” said Yolanda Wilcox-Gonzalez, a middle school history teacher at the elite Beaver Country Day Independent School.
While Wilcox-Gonzalez now works in a well-resourced, private school that gives teachers the time and training to assimilate new technologies into teaching in authentic ways, she used to teach in the Philadelphia public schools where she also grew up. She believes that if kids are coming from poverty, poor schooling earlier in life or any of the other challenges low-income children face, teachers should not withhold any resource that might help them catch up and succeed. “I think it's really up to the comfort level of the teacher,” Wilcox-Gonzalez said. “I’ve always been comfortable with technology and with trying something new, so I’ve always been able to take kids to another level.”
Many advocates of using mobile technologies say the often cited issues of student distraction are just excuses not to try something new. Mark Giuliucci, a freshmen social studies teacher at Sanborn High School in New Hampshire, said it’s not the end of the world if a kid sends a text in class. “The way you discourage it is engage them in the activity so they don’t even think of sending a text,” Giuliucci said. “You’ve got to jump in and play their game or you’re going to lose them.”
A DIFFERENT REALITY IN THE POOREST NEIGHBORHOODS
Angela Crawford has heard all the arguments of BYOD evangelists, but doesn't see how they match the reality of her classroom. “BYOD is very problematic in many schools, mine included, because we have a prominent engagement problem,” Crawford said. She’s an AP English teacher at BC Rain High School in Mobile, Alabama, a school where all the students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.
"My first day on the job at this new school, my classroom door opens behind me and an adult from the street started beating a 10th grade girl,” Crawford said, in reference to a previous school.* It turned into a brawl. Crawford can’t keep track of how many of her former students have been arrested for murder, but she can point out which ones are known gang members or drug dealers. As a Title I school, BC Rain has the funds to buy lots of technology for use within school walls, but the administration doesn’t dare try a one-to-one take-home program for fear its students will become targets as they walk to and from school. Many teachers working in inner city or violent neighborhoods voiced that concern.
Crawford has found that in the high poverty communities where she has always chosen to work, there are low expectations for achievement from families and the community at large. “So many of our students are from very low achieving families, they are reading so far below grade level that behavior becomes a problem,” Crawford said.
Tactics to improve engagement like making work relevant to her students' lives or letting them use their phones in class to look up information, haven’t worked for Crawford, although she’s tried. She was originally persuaded by the idea that allowing students to work on the devices they like so much would increase engagement, but instead she found them texting, sending Snapchats to one another and tweeting about their personal lives. It was hard to reign them back in. “I’ve tried to make it relevant and for many of them it still doesn’t matter,” Crawford said. “The reason I’ve been able to thrive in this environment is because I don’t try to do things that I know will just frustrate me and make me question why I’m unsuccessful in the classroom.”
When she first started, Crawford was enthusiastic about jumping into collaborative, project-based learning. “I thought my colleagues were monsters because of how they were teaching,” she said of a school where she previously worked and where teachers lectured all the time. She tried to teach students through projects, but found it was a disaster. To her students’ parents, her efforts to make the classroom “student-centered” looked like she wasn’t teaching. “There is a different perception of what a teacher should be in different cultures,” Crawford said. “And in the African-American community in the South the teacher is supposed to do direct instruction.”
Crawford eventually gave into the parent pressure, reasoning that it was their school and their community -- she was there to serve them. In the ensuing years, she has found ways to be engaging and interactive that satisfy her own requirements for good teaching, while also maintaining a strict classroom with fairly traditional teaching methods.
“What works best for each student is really the heart of student-centered learning,” Crawford said. “Sometimes what the student needs best is direct instruction. They need that authoritative, in-control figure who is directing their learning and will get them where they need to go.” Many of Crawford’s students come from homes run by single mothers who rule with an iron hand. She tries to replicate that attitude and presence. “They respond to that; they like it,” Crawford said. “It’s comforting to them.”
BUILDING A CULTURE OF TRUST
That doesn’t mean Crawford has given up all attempts to be innovative, but it takes time to build a classroom culture of respect and to teach students new ways of learning. Many of them are coming from middle schools that asked them to sit and fill out worksheets all day. “You can’t yank it from them immediately because it makes them feel insecure in an educational environment,” Crawford said. Instead she tries to slowly build up students' confidence and trust in her so that she can do more engaging activities later in the year.
“It really depends on the teacher and on their ability to have really good classroom management and really scaffold students towards these kinds of activities,” Crawford said. She takes the opportunities when they arise. Like the time a common, everyday altercation in the hallways got written up in the local newspaper with hyperbolic language that made it sound like a war had broken out at the high school. Crawford used it as an opportunity to discuss connotation and the responsibility of journalists to accurately report facts, not rumor.
“It ended up turning into students choosing their own writing task,” Crawford said. Some wrote letters to the editor highlighting the article’s errors, while others wrote to the reporter with a more accurate introduction to their school. “Since they knew we were really going to mail these, they did work much much harder,” Crawford said. “If this is real, not just learning to take a test that’s disconnected from reality, they do care.”
Still, Crawford will not be experimenting with a bring-your-own-device program. “My problem with education innovation is we tend to want to take a new technology or a new idea and go forth with it as if it’s the silver bullet,” Crawford said. “What happens is that teachers who teach in my type of environment realize this would be a disaster in my classroom.”
A QUESTION OF PERCEPTION
Crawford is skeptical that kids in higher income areas aren’t misusing technology too. Her children attend school in a more affluent district and they tell her that kids are constantly messing around on their devices. They just switch screens when a teacher comes by. They get away with it because their teachers trust them to do their work.
“I think teachers may assume that the higher performing kids are on task because they are better at mimicking or getting by,” Crawford said. “Whereas students at lower performing schools aren’t able to pass.”
This issue of perception, or bias, pervades the school system and could explain the disparity in the Pew survey numbers. “I think kids in middle class or upper middle class schools are equally distracted as low-income students,” said Bob Lenz, director of innovation at Envision Schools, a small charter network that’s part of the deeper learning movement. “It’s just that because of the privilege of their background the content and the skills that they need to gain in school -- they’re coming with a lot of those skills already-- so it’s not as urgently needed.”
Ultimately, poverty and a persistent culture of low achievement that often begins in a student’s earliest school years are hard to overcome by the time he or she gets to high school. Administrators and education officials tend to focus on high school graduation rates, an important measure, but one that is affected by every year a child is in school from pre-k onwards. “I don’t think mainstream America wants to see my classroom,” Crawford said. “They are going to see some shocking things.”
*This article has been updated to reflect that the brawl did not occur at BC Rain High School, but rather at a previous school.