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Month: February 2020

Technology in Rural Schools: Addressing Digital Equity

The goal of digital equity is to ensure that all students have access to devices, high-speed internet, and opportunities to learn both in school and out.

While digital equity is a challenge for all school districts, Dr. Beth Holland, CoSN’s digital equity and rural project director, points out that it becomes a complex issue given the challenges within rural schools and systems.

In a recent edWebinar, Holland, along with Jennifer Austin, CETL, instructional technology coordinator at Lac du Flambeau Public School in Wisconsin; Michael Flood, vice president of strategy at Kajeet; and Tammy Neil, a computer science teacher at Suwannee Middle School in Florida, discuss the unique challenges rural districts face when providing students’ online access to their education.

Flood explains that when students don’t have equal access to devices and high-speed internet, it prevents them from having the same learning opportunities as their more connected peers.


Usually located in rugged terrains, near rivers, and wooded areas and surrounded by mountains, rural school districts like Suwannee Middle School and Lac du Flambeau Public Schools struggle to connect within the school.

Running internet cables across rivers and rocky terrain can be impossible feats, resulting in limited dedicated internet connections. Having to rely on service providers whose coverage can be unreliable and nonexistent in parts of the community does not ensure the students’ digital equity school districts want.

Socioeconomics also plays a huge role in digital equity for rural districts such as the Florida and Wisconsin school districts.

Lac du Flambeau’s student population of 93 percent Native American with 100 percent of students on free and reduced lunch affects the community’s priorities.

Austin explains that many parents in her community struggle with finances and prioritize food over the internet. In Suwannee, it is the case of the “haves and have-nots,” with both affluent and high-poverty areas within the district.

Neil sees the impact this has on the school community and is challenged to ensure digital equity when 25 percent of students don’t have the internet at home. One of Wisconsin’s struggles is digital learning days, where students with limited or no access to Wi-Fi at home cannot access their education.


While socioeconomics, district location, and availability of reliable and consistent Wi-Fi access may seem insurmountable, rural districts, along with CoSN and companies like Kajeet, are committed to both digital equity and digital equality.

Providing families with used school-issued Chromebooks, adding access points outside the school buildings, and collaborating with community partners on projects such as youth centers and public libraries give students and the entire community access to technology.

Pioneered by Google in partnership with Kajeet, rural districts in more than a dozen states use rolling study halls. Buses equipped with Wi-Fi devices turn normally unproductive time on school buses into homework time.

Even more widespread in school districts are LTE hotspots. Through a school library’s checkout program, these low-cost mobile devices provide students and households in need with secure, reliable, and safe access to the internet. Districts in remote areas where it is impossible to establish internet connections, such as a wilderness educational facility in Wyoming, are installing LTE routers outside of their school building to solve their connectivity issues.

Accelerators and hurdles

CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation report addresses this challenge of digital equity regarding how school districts ensure that students experience innovative, creative, and engaging learning experiences.

The presenters all agree that there are many hurdles–especially in a rural district–to meeting the digital equity challenge. However, the accelerators, including providing personalized learning opportunities for students, building community partnerships, and adopting more cloud platforms in school districts, are worth the hurdles they face to ensure digital equity for all students.

Originally Published: eSchoolNews

Transforming your Library into a Makerspace

In a recent edWebinar, hosted by, Michelle Luhtala, library department chair, and Donna Burns, technology integrator, both from New Canaan High School (NCHS) in Connecticut, showcased the transformation of the NCHS library from a collection of used reference and biography books into a living, breathing makerspace. Using mostly recyclable materials, equipment, and furniture, these educators provide learning opportunities for students and teachers that have changed the school climate and culture. “Making learning more real for students allows them to learn better in a much more energized school,” said Luhtala.

A multi-year redesign

Through a five-year radical book-weeding process from 2011- 2016, the NCHS library had eliminated all of the library’s free-standing bookshelves. This process created both an opportunity and a challenge for Luhtala and Burns to convert this newly created space into a makerspace. With minimal funding in the early stages of the makerspace, the duo salvaged discarded lab tables and art stools and recycled material from all areas of the school.

Related content: 5 ways STEAM is used in storytelling

Although this space was optimal for student making, organization and storage issues became the prime concern in the second year of the makerspace. Luhtala and Burns rescued much-needed shelving from the elementary school. They clamped the refurbished shelves to create an 80-bin storage system that provided teachers and students easy access to the makerspace materials.

The third-year was the most significant when the makerspace moved into a new area in the library. Windows and doors were removed to open up the entire space, teacher offices converted into soundproof video booths/virtual reality rooms, and the lower library furnished with flexible caster seating for double classrooms.

Collaboration is key to a better makerspace design.

However, the most significant changes happened when the school district began allocating funds previously earmarked for library books to the NCHS makerspace. Luhtala and Burns collaborated with the NCHS CTE interior design class on a design challenge project that focused on the makerspace overall area, materials, signage, and work stations while keeping spatial planning and traffic flow in mind. The students’ simple design became the inspiration for profound changes in the makerspace, including rolling carts, foldable tables, whiteboard walls, and reorganizing materials and supplies.

During the first year, the makerspace was stocked with basic craft and recycled materials such as butcher-block paper, markers, and LEGOs. By the second year, when the types of makerspace materials increased to 80, Luhtala and Burns painstakingly organized, labeled, and categorized them into alphabetized bins. However, they began to think about the organizational part of these materials and how to get students to plan their projects before they come to the makerspace.

By creating a worksheet template, students spend less time deciding on materials and more time on making.

They also wanted to encourage students to take ownership of the space and put elements back in an organized manner. Larger labels were put on material bins, supply carts got wheels, and installed pegboards were hung with frequently used materials such as pencils, erasers, scissors, and paper. By organizing the materials by workflows, such as coding, circuitry, and electronics; needlecraft; and 2D and 3D elements, Luhtala and Burns discovered that the materials used the least amount of time were the most expensive.

Impact of transformation

The NCHS library is used every period as classroom space, and students with free periods stop by to create in the makerspace. In the first year, the makerspace became a popular location for students to build dioramas, monster trucks, and child development sensory boards. However, it did not get much attention from teachers until that summer when NPR posted the NCHS makerspace edWebinar about a year in the life of a makerspace on its Facebook page. NCHS teachers began to explore the makerspace and the second year’s start brought more teachers and classes to the makerspace for whole-class making.

At the end of year three, when Luhtala and Burns saw that coding, robotics, and circuitry workshops were a little bit elusive, they started experimenting with augmented and virtual reality and robotics. With a new “techxperts” one-credit course, students are empowered with leadership through independent projects and are running well-attended lunchtime workshops. One techxpert created a website that demonstrates coding and robotics resources for the classroom. This student-designed website communicates to the school community how the makerspace resources can be integrated into their curriculum.

Luhtala said teachers are now bringing their classes to the makerspace with very intentional goals and revamping and redesigning classroom projects with high- and low-tech options. She emphasized that if a student or teacher is attracted to a makerspace idea, it is critical to feed that interest because it is usually a minimum investment and may spark other makerspace enthusiasts’ attention.

Originally Published: eSchoolNews

Student Data Privacy: Our Weakest Link

Technology in schools promotes active learning, provides countless online resources, analyzes student performance for immediate feedback, automates processes like attendance and grading, offers assistive technology options, and develops life skills critical for our students. Yet, the benefits of collaborative, engaging, personalized learning experiences are counterbalanced with the possible exposure of student data to unauthorized parties.

“Student data privacy is only as strong as its weakest link, and it behooves a district to understand their school community, reevaluate current practices, and institute measures that protect our most vulnerable asset…”

Much like the leaks in a Holland dike, CTOs are always on the move plugging security holes to keep out intruders who are eager to steal student data.

According to the CoSN ‘s 2019 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report,  cybersecurity is the top priority for IT leaders. “Rather than focusing on corporate targets, which are devoting increased resources to cyber defenses, the group [data breachers] focuses on more vulnerable sectors such as school districts, universities, and nonprofits, which the group likely believes are softer targets.” 

The Goldilocks Effect

The Goldilocks Effect has hackers looking for the most susceptible access to student data, and in many cases, the “just right bed” is with classroom teachers. With edtech software available at the click of a mouse, enticements of free teacher accounts by software companies, crowdfunding financial resources, and easy access to student data, well-intentioned teachers, are unknowingly exposing both their students’ and their own personally identifiable information (PII) to unknown sources.

Teachers are eager to find new ways to engage their students and clickwrap on software agreements without understanding the potential ramifications.

Edtech software companies’ data privacy policies are swimming with legal jargon that can put teachers into a false sense of safety and security without a law degree or extensive understanding of the policies. Most software companies intend to be transparent about their data sharing, collection of information, and adherence to FERPA and COPPA regulations. However, without a clear understanding of student data protections in place, teachers’ data to set up student accounts can become vulnerable to third-party exposure. 

When asking a group of teachers about the data privacy safety of edtech software, their responses reflected the vulnerability of student data privacy in classroom settings. The question of ‘If it is an educational app, it is safe to use?” garnered answers such as “My students are only using the app in class,” “I saw the product in a workshop at an edtech conference.” “It’s an educational app, so it must be safe for my students.”.

These responses are red flags that all CTOs should be addressing in their districts.

Educators are in the business of nurturing, supporting, teaching, encouraging, and providing learning opportunities for students. Edtech leaders cannot expect classroom teachers to understand federal and state privacy regulations, interpret vendor data privacy policies, and disseminate only directory information without education, guidance, and support.

What You (We) Can Do About It

Using resources such as Common Sense Media and, the school community can participate in online data privacy courses. These courses create scenarios and opportunities for the entire school community to reflect on current practices and implement new data security practices. 

Without the entire school community’s collective efforts, student data will continue to be vulnerable and unprotected. By adopting responsible use policies, school districts can move away from the restrictive acceptable use policy and put data privacy responsibility on them.

This collaborative approach to technology use in the district educates all stakeholders on the importance of protecting data. Tom Whitby, the author of “The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning,” argues that schools should move away from the restrictive filter of acceptable use policies. He suggests, “Teaching kids responsible use is the best form of control. It is a lifelong skill.”

School districts also need to reflect on their practices to support data privacy initiatives in their schools. Using Common Sense Media privacy reports, edtech leaders can access the safety, security, privacy, and compliance of current software used in the district.

Partnering with organizations such as the  Student Data Privacy Consortium (SDPC), districts can share standard practices on app vetting and contracts, student privacy app integration, and “governance” supporting data privacy. Chrome extensions such as LearnPlatform monitor, organize, rate apps, and software used in school districts to ensure transparency and compliance with student data privacy regulations.

Student data privacy is only as strong as its weakest link. It behooves a district to understand their school community, reevaluate current practices, and institute measures that protect our most vulnerable asset—our students. 

Source: EdTech Digest 
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