Ideas for making distance learning more accessible

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Writing about public education is not my normal topic. I searched my writings on merchanstand.com from the last 12 years and found only two posts with the word education in the title. Both were related to distance education. So I’ll preface this post with the disclaimer I am not an educator, nor have I received an educator’s training. I am married to a professional educator, which provides me with good information about the local public education system. 

As a technologist, I’m intrigued by some of the challenges public school systems have with creating environments for distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have the technology necessary for distance learning, but there are accessibility challenges created by economic disparities across schools even within the same county.  My wife teaches in a school zone that is in a lower-income area of the county. Her largest barrier to providing content and support for distance learning is student accessibility related to income and language. 

Some examples:

  • Families with no computer or tablet in the home for the child to use. For some, the only device they have is a cell phone. This is compounded if the family has multiple children.
  • Families that do not have high-speed internet at home. For some, their data connection is cellular data from their phone plan. 
  • Many of the families have parents that are not fluent in English, creating an additional logistical hurdle for enabling distance learning.

Considering the size of the challenge, our school district has done a great job creating the framework to deliver to content to students. About 180,000 students! But some families need a bridge to help them access the digital content. 

I have some ideas for doable solutions:

* Ask families across the school district to donate unused tablets/computers to those students who don’t have one. Like cell phones, it’s likely many households have tablets or laptops that have been replaced with newer equipment. Unused equipment is often stashed under the bed, in a drawer, or in a closet.

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* Ask schools that have already equipped all their students with a computing device to help those schools that have not. Create a grant or designated gift from one PTA to another to buy tablets or Chromebooks. This isn’t typical for sibling-schools within a district but why not? These are unprecedented times and it’s the same concept as supporting a local community non-profit. 

* Have schools extend WiFi zones around the school perimeter to reach the parking lot. Many may already have this while others could be equipped by repositioning or adding a WiFi access point. Create a designated parking area and time of day when parents can park their vehicles while kids do work. For security, give students the security access key via email and set hours when the WiFi will be available. 

* Similar to schools, partner with the local library to extend WiFi zones into parking lots. For security, use a time-based password or library card. 

From a technology perspective, these ideas are easy to implement. From a budgetary perspective, these ideas require little or even no additional investment. The hardest part of implementing ideas like this would be to overcome resistance to change. 

Typically, I would finish my post at this point and declare ‘onward and upward.’ But for this idea, I should note I submitted my ideas to our local school district. Maybe it will call attention to the challenges of economic disparities with distance Learning. I hope it will create a discussion. I offered my time to help implement and of the ideas. Since distance learning may be called upon more in the future we should work to help make it accessible by as many students as possible.

Onward and upward!

Rethinking Furloughs

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What’s the right balance?

While Covid-19 related furloughs and unemployment numbers continue to rise (26 million in the last five weeks), I’ve been thinking about better ways to handle furloughs to reduce the financial strains on people and their ability to maintain necessities in life such as housing and food. 

As we all continue to weigh monetary costs versus the health-safety of longer shelter in-place orders, we know strains on economic inputs will lead to more employment problems in the future:

  • Payroll based taxes support social security and unemployment benefits. How does the government continue to fund income to seniors and relief aid to the unemployed? 
  • State and local tax authorities will start to feel the effect of the furloughs as more people are at home and spending less in the economy. Could this lead to a second wave of furloughs and layoffs for government agencies?
  • Covid-19 will be a threat through the end of the year without a vaccine as medical professionals race towards creating a treatment. Just what is the right balance between immediate health safety versus the long term social and economic impact to individuals as they try to survive with little to no income? 

Consider this. 

Many companies say they have a core value of ‘respect for people’ while other companies use statements like ‘our people are our most important asset’. Certainly, companies don’t take the task of putting employees on furlough lightly. It’s emotional. It’s uncomfortable. It puts more strain on those still working to do more. Is the act of furloughing people during a downturn in company revenue congruent with the core value of respect for people? Or is it smart business to protect the safety and security of some employees to keep the business afloat during tough times? Just as you can tell what a person values by looking at their expenses for a month, so you can tell what a company values from their actions.

What if?

Could we lessen the economic strain on people, employers, and government by rotating furloughs among employees instead of picking some employees to go on unbounded furloughs? Think of it as furlough-sharing. 

Simple example: You have a workgroup of 6 employees. Instead of furloughing a single member, what if you all 6 members rotated a furlough for a pay-period?  This has the same net effect of cost reduction while creating a number of benefits.

Impact:

  1. If someone is furloughed indefinitely, it sends a contradictory message about people being the most important asset. If employees rotated a furlough for one pay period, it sends a message to employees they are valued and can work as a team to weather the storm. This is a great way to strengthen the culture and allow the team to fight together towards a common goal.  
  2. If someone is furloughed indefinitely, they will most likely apply for unemployment. If employees rotated a furlough for one pay period, they have a more reasonable chance of taking the financial hit and not filing unemployment. 
  3. If someone is furloughed indefinitely, they will most likely try to seek other employment. If employees rotated a furlough for one pay period, they would be less likely to look for other employment. 

It’s a simple idea I think many employees would rally-behind. It’s an idea with action better aligned to a core value of respect. It’s an idea to reduce economic pressure on local and state governments. There’s always a better way if we search for it. 

Onward and upward!

How has your view of Wikipedia changed?

Has your view of Wikipedia changed?

I’ve been drawn to the Wikipedia concept since I was first introduced to it in 2005 while taking graduate courses. It was (and is) a simple and quick way to retrieve data for reference, learning, exploration, cross-checking, and can I say fact-finding? But the accuracy of Wikipedia at the time was under scrutiny because who ever heard of crowd-sourcing information back then? In academia it was (and still is??) a no-no to cite Wikipedia as a credible reference source. But why? Is the thought the processes for content submission and review at Wikipedia are inferior to the old encyclopedia model of writing and editing? Or is it that paid workers from classic encyclopedias somehow had access to better information or were more likely not to misrepresent the truth?

In 2006 Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics wrote, “For the record, I like Wikipedia just fine, as long as people understand what it is and what it isn’t. What it is: a useful and engaging enterprise in user-generated content about a mind-blowingly diverse range of subjects. What it isn’t: a dependable substitute for a reference work, at least not in many cases. “

We are nearing two decades since the start of Wikipedia. Have attitudes changed?

Will you tell me your view of Wikipedia?

Richard Cooke provides a thought-provoking exploration of this question in the February 2020 issue of Wired magazine with subtitle

People used to think the crowdsourced encyclopedia represented all that was wrong with the web. Now it’s a beacon of so much that’s right.

Cooke suggests Wikipedia is still mired in comparisons with Encyclopedia Britannica and then discusses some of the limitations of the Britannica model including:

  • Length of articles shortened over time because of physical limitations of print and distribution.
  • Age of information from research to writing to print to distribution.
  • Lack of diversity of the Britannica writers

I asked myself the following questions to help me think about the value of crowdsourcing an online knowledge repository vs having a paid organization gather and publish the data:

  • Which model is more likely to record accurate information?
  • Which model creates more accountability for accurate information? 
  • Which model is more likely to record information that is not tilted towards a particular political or religious viewpoint? 

We live in an era of “Fake News” where internet publications are often confusing, misleading, partial, or intentionally misleading. So how much better could a forum like Wikipedia be where content is open for review, debate, and editing. I know my view of Wikipedia has evolved over the years and I’ve come to appreciate the process of refining information through public accountability and cross-checks. What’s your viewpoint?

Onward and upward!

By the way, if you are interested in the story of Wikipedia you would enjoy the interview with Jimmy Wales on the How I Built This Podcast. 

Write, Stash, and Wipe. A Reuse Plan.

I love productivity hacks.

Last year, at about this time, I retired one of my paper notebooks used for tracking notes and to-dos. I never liked putting old notebooks in drawers or on shelves (clutter). I dislike even more discarding old notebooks (waste).  So I researched a few options for reusable notebooks and ended up purchasing a RocketBook.  My one-sentence description of RocketBook is a portable whiteboard that uses a scanning app from your phone to store data in popular internet locations. It solved my requirement to find a reusable notebook because the pages will wipe clean with a little water and a cloth. RocketBook has 7 predetermined storage instructions that will auto-save the page(s) to a designated location in one of the following locations:

Why take time to blog on this topic?

RocketBook is a productivity hack I’ve kept. It’s simple and reusable. It integrates with electronic formats. It adds value to my work routines. 

In an earlier post, scribble scrabble, I highlighted some of the advantages of writing over electronic note-taking. Writing notes by hand allows me to slow down and think about my subject. Writing helps me engage more with the subject material. But once I put some of my thoughts down on paper, I prefer to store them electronically to make them easier to search, reference, and share.

It’s worth a blog post because I believe handwritten notes contribute to self-reflection and learning which leads to continuous improvement. 

Happy new year!

Onward and upward!

How much are you willing to pay for internet service?

Viable options for satellite based internet service are getting closer! I read this piece from Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica on a peaceful Sunday morning and had a quick vision of internet service competition driving price down like what we’ve seen with cell phone service over the past several years.  Has Internet service become a consumer staple? You tell me if internet service matches this definition of consumer staple from Investopedia:

These goods are those products that people are unable—or unwilling—to cut out of their budgets regardless of their financial situation.Consumer staples are considered to be non-cyclical, meaning that they are always in demand, year-round, no matter how well the economy is—or is not—performing. As such, consumer staples are impervious to business cycles. Also, people tend to demand consumer staples at a relatively constant level, regardless of their price.

But internet competition is light to non-existent depending on your address. At my home, I have broadband options from Spectrum or traditional DSL. AT&T fiber internet isn’t available. Verizon Fios isn’t available to me either. 

Since I cut the cable TV subscription a few years ago my monthly internet fee has increased twice. But I’ve been ok with it because I know this is one utility that is heavily used every day. I consider the value my family receives to be worth the monthly price.

But I do wonder what internet service would cost if everyone had four or more providers with enough bandwidth to support at least basic video streaming. With competition and availability, monthly service prices should come down. It wouldn’t surprise me to see internet providers start to bundle content with their services like what T-Mobile has done with Netflix. 

So how much are you willing to pay for internet service? What do you think is a fair price for monthly internet based on the value you receive from it?

Onward and upward!