NYC Connected Learning: Creating the Digital Village in Urban America

CFY Family Workshop

One of the hottest topics in American education these days is extending the learning day and with good reason. As Americans stare down what Tony Wagner terms the “global education gap” and contemplate the possibility that our entire K-12 education system is slipping into obsolescence, many educators and families alike are searching for ways to improve learning by devoting more time to it. One glaring fact is that by the time the average American student graduates high school, she or he will have spent a mere 13% of her or his waking hours engaged in some form of classroom instruction.

Experiments in increased instructional time abound: policy driven efforts like Mass 2020, after-school programs like Citizen Schools apprenticeships, extended day kindergarten, year round schooling, urban boarding schools like The SEED School and rural alternatives like the Eagle Rock School. The overt focus is how to get kids more instructional time. Lurking behind that objective is the thornier and more tangled question of how that time is spent. In fact, the question of extending learning time cuts to the heart of the debate about the quality of our schools. It makes little sense to extend classroom minutes or to add enrichment if schools are not already maximizing the time they have or if their core pedagogical practice is moribund. As researcher Elena Rocha notes, “Successful implementation of expanded learning initiatives occur in tandem with other reform strategies and practices that take place through the (school) redesign process.”

What fewer educators are talking about is how the technology revolution has already altered the concept of learning time. As schools increasingly put content online to create blended learning opportunities or as students go entirely online for school, technology is a key factor in extending learning time. Much of kids’ “extended learning time” is not school driven. Young people are online starting non-profits, posting to forums, composing music, and writing collaboratively in addition to socializing and sharing music. These are all learning events. For most American school children, the ascendancy of mobile computing and the evolution of Web 2.0 has provided a vast array of learning tools which render old forms of classroom instruction quaint by comparison. Kids are learning. The question is what and from whom?

But the digital revolution has not expanded every child’s access equally. Even as broadband adoption accelerates, the “digital divide” persists and many talk about digital exclusion. A recent analysis by the Commerce Department noted that “94.1 percent of households with income exceeding $100,000 subscribed to broadband in 2009, compared with 35.8 percent of households with income of less than $25,000.” More than 600,000 New York City households still do not have broadband internet connection. The education gap mirrors the income gap in terms of broadband adoption. The same study notes that “84.5 percent of households with at least one college degree subscribed to broadband last year, compared with 28.8 percent of households without a high school degree.” Lack of access begets more lack of access. What is the disadvantage to these “have-not” children in terms of their education? What are the economic, social and educational costs to entire families? It’s safe to assume that the learning gap tied to socioeconomic status can only widen given these conditions.

Enter the New York City Connected Learning Project, a broadband adoption project conceived by the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Funded through the Recovery Act by Commerce Department grant, NYC Connected Learning aims to place 20,000 desktop computers with broadband access in the homes of low income 6th graders throughout the city over the next two years. 72 high needs schools in all 5 boroughs are participating. The project is structured on the knowledge that simply placing connected computers in the home is not a transformational strategy. Project partners are providing a host of support services which wrap around the home computer placement. Computers for Youth (CFY), which supplies the computers, preloads them with a suite of over 50 learning programs and tools called their Home Learning Center. In order for families to take the computer home, parents and their student must attend a Family Learning Workshop where they train together on how the computer works and how to use the software to enhance learning. Common Sense Media is providing families guidance on selecting appropriate online content for their students and offering schools a digital citizenship curriculum which teaches kids how to be safe, responsible and savvy navigators of the online world. MOUSE is setting up student tech squads in participating schools to help support school infrastructure and to teach kids the technical side of 21st century skills. The City University of New York is placing technology interns in all participating schools to help ensure that school based tech systems are running smoothly so that teachers can use and model technology based instruction. Into this mix, Teaching Matters brings its unique expertise in fostering technology based education.

Teaching Matters consultants are working in 36 Connected Learning partner schools to engage teachers and administrators in rethinking and redesigning curriculum so that it extends from the school to the home. That means coaching teachers on technology use in the classroom, thinking creatively about what “homework” should be and creating digital workspaces that students can access both at school and home. Extending learning time by reaching into the home through technology requires a re-imagining of not only the work kids are doing but also the means by which they do it. Connecting families to the school through a focus on their childrens’ work means re-casting the family school partnership. Rather than occasional communication typically driven by student behavior, NYC Connected Learning seeks to engage families in an ongoing, technology driven cooperative effort to create the richest educational opportunity possible for the system’s most challenged students.

By seeking to improve both the quality and quantity of family engagement and by providing 21st century tools for students to extend practice of academic skills, the Connected Learning project seeks to address the achievement gap in an innovative, thoughtful and comprehensive way. The adage that it takes a village to raise a child has become iconic because we recognize its increasing truth and relevance in our high tech, globalized world. NYC Connected Learning seeks to carve digital villages out of the vast landscape of New York’s schools and, within those villages, to create new educational opportunities one child at a time.

By Nick Siewert, Senior Educational Consultant