SXSW EDU: Educators nurture innovation to bridge digital gap, grow workforce in a time of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, having disrupted many elements of society, also helped to further expose problems affecting students and educators, including the digital divide and struggles to grow the educational workforce pipeline.

Experts addressed these and other issues at South by Southwest (SXSW) EDU, the education-centric portion of the annual Austin-based SXSW festival

The pandemic’s emergence last spring caused the abrupt cancellation of all SXSW activities in 2020. This year, SXSW EDU and main SXSW occurred completely online, March 9-11.

Some SXSW EDU presentations touched upon the digital gap, where people mainly in low-income and rural areas have little to no internet access and lack access to digital literacy resources.

Round Rock-based Dell Technologies sponsored one presentation, “Moving from the Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion.”

Tara Nattrass, education strategist with Dell, said there is still a need to not only ensure students have the right devices and broadband capability to learn remotely, but also have knowledge of and ability to use digital literacy skills safely and securely and with proper technical support.

“We have students who were unable to engage in the last year, some did it intermittently, some were able to engage more deeply than when we were in school,” she said.

More than 50 million students across the United States have been learning remotely. According to Dell’s data, 30% of students nationwide lacked adequate internet service or devices when the pandemic fully arrived in March 2020.

Tara Nattrass, education strategist with Dell Technologies, leads an SXSW EDU panel about how the digital divide affects students.
Tara Nattrass, education strategist with Dell Technologies, leads an SXSW EDU panel about how the digital divide affects students.

By January 2021, that rate had dropped to 24% thanks in part to school districts, businesses and organizations donating devices to local school systems.

But even Michael Dell, company chairman and CEO, admitted students in rural and low-income areas are still struggling to learn effectively from home, putting disadvantaged populations at an even greater disadvantage.

Dell’s company reported that 33% of Latinx students and 19% of Black students nationwide in kindergarten through 12th grade have no internet access or reliable permanent e-devices.

Also, 52% of students from households earning total incomes of $50,000 or less are disconnected or have limited access.

“Technology should be an equalizer, not another source of division,” Dell said.

Nattrass said only short-term solutions are in place, adding that long-term solutions can help to bridge the digital divide in many socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. Out of 5.5 million students in Texas, 3.3 million students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Dell’s response to the digital divide has included providing solutions for boosting broadband service, helping states and school districts to offer digital literacy resources for families, student-led help desk programs, and enabling devices specifically built for educational purposes.

When the pandemic hit and schools were forced to close their doors and resort to virtual learning, Operation Connectivity, a Texas Education Agency program, helped to put 4.5 million keyboard electronic educational devices into the hands of Texas students.

“We effectively have 1:1 (device to student ratio) across the entire state,” Gaby Rowe, Operation Connectivity project lead, said in another presentation. But she added a significant number of Texas students - probably more than 30% in Texas - lack broadband access.

“We have a big mountain to climb there,” Rowe said. “We’re leveraging technology as a friend to assess the need.”

Rowe also said smaller and rural districts, particularly, need technical support upfront from agencies, businesses and organizations helping to close the classroom digital divide because those school systems cannot afford to staff technical support on the ground.

Western Governors University presented “Offline and Left Behind: The Lost Generation” with former Florida Governor and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush.

Bush said there’s a need for a massive investment in internet infrastructure nationwide on a scale not seen since President Dwight Eisenhower championed the task of developing a formal interstate highway system.

“The digital interstate superhighway is so essential for people’s ability to rise up, to learn, to have better health, to have better wage jobs, and yet we still have huge gaps in the digital infrastructure in this country and I don’t know anybody who thinks that’s appropriate,” Bush said.

Bush added, given Americans’ reckoning with the country’s racial issues, it’s more important than ever before to close the digital gap, especially in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

The coronavirus outbreak has also exacerbated school systems’ efforts to lure promising candidates toward a teaching career and retain quality educators.

Texas Education Agency presented a panel discussion about how three internal programs - Grow Your Own, Texas Lesson Study and the principal residency grant - are designed to develop a diverse educator workforce by building on and integrating with existing school district and campus systems.

Ron Coleman, an educator specialist with TEA, said one challenge for Texas is that interest in teaching has declined over the past few decades.

The latest Scholastic Aptitude Test data shows about 4% of U.S. high school students have been interested in pursuing an educational career.

Christine Bedre is assistant superintendent at Westwood Independent School District in Palestine, Texas. She said there has been some improvement there after WISD received from TEA a Grow Your Own grant, which is awarded to applicants who propose solutions to address challenges Texas currently faces in recruiting and retaining teacher candidates.

“There’s definitely been an increase (in interest among high school students) over the past two years,” she added.

The grant enables such interested students to spend time on a campus with teachers and students and personally learn how they engage each other every class day.

The result, Bedre said, is that many students who had been interested in pursuing an educational major in college become more assured about entering that career field.

The panel touched upon a second program, Texas Lesson Study, which is designed to boost Texas’ efforts toward enhancing educators’ professional development.

According to the New Teacher Project, only three in 10 new or newer teachers demonstrate substantial professional improvement year to year.

Texas Lesson Study is an inquiry-based, job-embedded initiative where teachers work collaboratively to develop, teach, and assess research-based lessons.

Denton Independent School District teacher Angeles Munoz said before TLS, professional development had been contained to the grade-level in which she taught.

TLS allows for collaboration across grades, and assesses data from that work performed at the school district or campus level, not just at a specific grade level as had been done prior to the implementation of TLS.

“So, we really went big vs. small,” Munoz said.

Denton ISD teacher Angeles Munoz talks at SXSW EDU about the Texas Lesson Study, a fledgling professional development program created by the Texas Education Agency.
Denton ISD teacher Angeles Munoz talks at SXSW EDU about the Texas Lesson Study, a fledgling professional development program created by the Texas Education Agency.

A third challenge, according to the panel, is teachers’ perception of a lack of career development opportunities and low compensation, both of which Coleman said cause educators to quit.

A 2018 Gallup poll showed 71% of U.S. teachers quitting for professional reasons, and 60% of teachers citing their departure to a lack of career development and advancement.

TEA’s principal residency grant program seeks to provide local education agencies with a chance to build strong campus leaders and help support internal leadership pipelines through full-time, year-long principal residencies.

Westwood ISD received the grant and thus far identified nine teacher-leaders.

“It has been really neat to see the process because after year one, there was a residency cycle added where a teacher came out of the classroom and was what we called an assistant principal intern,” Bedre said.

“They gained that on-campus knowledge as they were getting their degree and certification here in Texas.”

Elsewhere in the world of education, students are helping to directly help the less fortunate in their community.

The Rather Prize, developed by Rice University alum Martin Rather and his grandfather, journalist Dan Rather, awards a $10,000 prize annually to a student, teacher, or administrator in Texas who provides the best idea to improve Texas education.

There were a total of 83 applicants this year. The Rathers announced this year’s prize winner, Houston-based Alief Independent School District teacher Erin Rodriguez Gilbert.

Gilbert leads a project to maximize production in her school garden to help benefit community members.

According to Gilbert, Youngblood Intermediate School students tending to the campus garden provides them a sense of leadership and responsibility, which in turn could better inform them of the potential career and technology careers that could pique their interest when they arrive in high school.

The 2021 Rather Prize, co-presented by journalist Dan Rather, went to Alief ISD teacher Erin Gilbert Rodriguez, whose students care for a community garden on campus.
The 2021 Rather Prize, co-presented by journalist Dan Rather, went to Alief ISD teacher Erin Gilbert Rodriguez, whose students care for a community garden on campus.

“By that, students take an active role in the community as growers of food, promoting our community garden, and donating food to help fellow students just themselves through our Communities In Schools office, as well as surpluses going to the WOW Project,” Gilbert said.

The WOW Project uses a community refrigerator, among other assets, to raise wellness awareness and to address food desert issues in the Alief community.

Dan Rather said the Rather Prize is in part a way for he and his family to give back to Texas educators. Born in Wharton, Texas, Rather spent his formative years in Houston schools.

“Texas public schools and the Texas school system gave me all the information I was capable of absorbing at the time, and I’ve never lost a feeling of gratitude or debt to the teachers, principals and administrators and everybody who was involved,” he said.