If you’re responsible for technology in Arkansas schools, the past year has been a mixed message
By Don Benton
MY WHOLE CAREER has been about educational technology. Of course, as I embarked on this journey 27 years ago, neither I nor anyone else had any idea what was coming. I remember the first day I used the Internet. Wow, I thought, this is really cool. And later, when I became a middle-school teacher, I remember thinking how great it was going to be to be able to work in a field that’s ever-changing.
Today, rather than just being “cool,” the Internet has become a necessity. It has become as important as electricity. We rely on so many things that are wrapped around bandwidth, electricity, devices, all of the social media that infiltrates our lives—tools we can use for very positive influences. So everything my colleagues in educational technology have worked toward over these past three decades has finally come to fruition.
But it took a pandemic to put things into perspective. It made us realize all the resources we have at our fingertips, if we’ll just use them. It also showed us the gaps we still have in our abilities, our readiness. Boy, did it show us. In those areas we thought we were good in, many of us knew we weren’t—but we’d had the luxury of not having to be as good as we wanted to be. Then came the pandemic, and we had that luxury no longer.
My wife, Brandie, and I are both educators—she’s associate provost at Henderson State—and we were at home watching TV on that Sunday in mid-March when Governor Asa Hutchinson came on and announced that the Arkansas public schools were closing due to COVID-19. We’d been waiting and watching for the announcement, because even though I work in the Department of Education, I didn’t know the word until the word came out of the man’s mouth. And when he said, “We’re closing schools,” Brandie and I both had this feeling of…“What can we do? We got to do something.”
Fortunately, in Arkansas we had already passed some legislation providing for alternative methods of instruction. That helped us understand that there was still a way to reach kids and to keep education going—that school may be closed for physical attendance, but it wasn’t closed for education. So that very Sunday afternoon, my wife and I created a Facebook page called “AMI for Teachers,” the purpose being to share ideas and resources for Alternative Methods of Instruction.
Initially, we thought, Let’s get a few hundred of our friends we’ve worked with over the last 25 years and talk about technology and education. We had no idea that within a few weeks that Facebook page would have more than 25,000 users.
I mean it just blew up, because people wanted to keep working and they wanted to keep educating their kids, but they didn’t have anywhere to go. So this Facebook page became a valuable resource. And then all the things we were doing at the Department of Education became so much more important. The technological advancements we’d made became so much more in the limelight. When I look at what’s happened in the educational arena compared to where we were in 1994 when the Internet was really kind of getting traction in education, I realize we’ve been preparing for this for a really long time. You know how it is when you know something’s a good idea but you just don’t pull the trigger because you’re not sure if you’re really ready? Well, the pandemic forced us to pull the trigger.
ON REMOTE LEARNING, it forced us to do something that we were already dabbling with a little bit. I have a group called Team Digital that works at teaching teachers and working with schools on implementing blended learning approaches in the school setting. Their training is really in-depth—they go from how to create a blended learning plan to implementation, to budgeting, to professional development. Prior to the pandemic, they might’ve trained 300 to 500 teachers a year. Since March, they’ve trained more than 13,000 and are continuing to train more each week.
So that was something we were already working on in little bites—and all of a sudden it became a huge thing for the state of Arkansas. But before COVID, we didn’t fully appreciate the potential of this resource. Now, with our priorities changing so quickly, we were able to tinker with it and make it better.
Also, about a decade ago I had started a group called Schools Without Walls, which focused on using mobile technologies and mobile devices for education. It was for teachers who wanted to learn how to implement and integrate technology into the classroom, but not just during the class day. We wanted them to look at technology and applications that would allow them to teach kids 24/7/365. Because kids learn as much at home, on their mobile devices, as they do in a school day. It may not be what you want them to learn, but they’re still learning something.
So the premise of Schools Without Walls was to make sure we’re pushing kids in the right direction. When they’re at home, alone with their mobile devices, are they doing something constructive, or something not as constructive? “When they’re on their Internet device, whatever that device is, let’s lead them into meaningful applications,” I told the educators. Because most of the things kids learn in a school day from the books or from the content, they can get on one of these devices. They can get it anytime, anywhere.
The true value of face-to-face learning and the school setting is on the social-emotional side. So how can we give the learning experience that face-to-face engagement even when we’re not actually face-to-face, or when we’re in a mixture of the two? In the ed tech world, we’ve been working on that question our whole careers, but we didn’t know how influential and how important it would be until we had this pandemic.
So when I’m looking at this cup, I’m not seeing it as half empty; I’m seeing it as half full. This pandemic has finally shone a light on something that we knew was important, that we knew we needed to invest more time and money and resources in, and now we’re doing it. I wouldn’t give us a grade of A-plus. We’ve still got a lot of things to work out, but we’ve taken teachers who’ve always taught in a very sterile, face-to-face, normal environment, and we’ve turned them all into first-year teachers again. Back in March, every teacher in Arkansas became a first-year teacher again, whether they’d been in education 35 years or five minutes.
It was terrifying for a lot of teachers. On that weekend when my wife and I heard the governor say the schools would be closed, we had countless numbers of teachers calling and texting us, saying, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” We realized then that the next so many months were going to be really, really, really hard, but that we were going to be better because of this. Our state was going to have a better educational system because of this.
“You chose to be a teacher for the kids,” we told the teachers, “so you have to do whatever it takes for the kids.” We stressed that our goal as educators is to save kids’ lives. That may mean taking them out of a situation that’s not a good situation, or if they’re in a good situation already, making it better. Whatever you have to do to give your kids a better path for opportunity. When you become a teacher, it’s a calling. Those who do it for the money don’t last long.
Number one, I told them, it’s okay to make a mistake. We’re all going to screw up. But guess what? We’re all doing it together and we’re going to figure it out together. In the meantime, we need to collaborate with one another, give one another grace every chance we get, and share our resources. “Let’s compete on Friday night,” I told them. “On Friday night football, we don’t share the playbook. But Monday through Friday, let’s share every single play in our playbook for how we’re educating kids.”
I also worked a lot with the behind-the-scenes technology people. Their stress level went through the roof, because now access to technology wasn’t just a kind of luxury, it was a necessity. Overnight, these people were thrust into the limelight. One minute they were just the amiable tech guy working comfortably in the background to keep the servers running, and the next minute they’re the first responder making sure education is happening. So their lives changed considerably, as they suddenly had the world of Arkansas education on their shoulders.
EARLIER, I SAID that the pandemic had exposed the gaps in our readiness, and one of the biggest gaps was connectivity.
Back when I was a technology director working in K-12 and higher education, we periodically did surveys to see how many kids had access to the Internet. That was kind of fun in a naïve way, because all we were thinking about was whether they did or didn’t have a home Internet connection. Then when the pandemic hit, we realized we hadn’t been asking the hard questions about the quality of those Internet connections. Okay, this kid has an Internet connection—but is it stable? Is it robust enough to handle the demands of online and remote learning?
We also had to confront a lot of equity issues throughout the state. If you go to Northwest Arkansas, there’s a lot of connectivity up there because there’s more money and more enterprise business in that region. But if you go to Southeast Arkansas, it’s just field after field after field. There might be a cell tower 10 miles down the road, but a kid would need to go two or three miles to get connection to it. We hadn’t realized how many of our state’s kids rely on the local McDonald’s to get their Internet so they can do basic functions like checking email or maybe looking at their homework—or just having some fun time on the Internet. We hadn’t realized that.
By now I was interacting with many departments in our state government, having more meetings than I’d ever had in my life. Governor Hutchinson was already talking about this connectivity issue, even before we knew how much the state would receive in emergency CARES money. He initially earmarked $25 million to go toward expanding broadband. Then after the CARES money came, he added another $100 million to that. He also added $10 million for us to buy hot spots to send to schools to use for the next two years to help the neediest kids. That certainly helped, but very quickly we saw that just sending a hot spot home with some kids wasn’t a solution, because either they weren’t close enough to a tower or they didn’t have adequate technology devices at home.
It’s the old story of the haves and the have-nots. One kid might have broadband and a personal computer at his house, but three miles down the road another kid may be just barely getting an Internet connection with a Pay As You Go phone that isn’t even functional enough for him to have an online class.
The CARES money will certainly make a difference, but how big a difference I can’t say without having more numbers from Arkansas State Broadband Office (ASBO). If we can move the needle 10 points, 20 points in the right direction, that impacts a lot of students—maybe 10,000 to 20,000 of them, and that’s a big difference. Of course, we want all 470,000-plus kids in the state to have the same equitable educational opportunity, and we’re not there yet. We’re not even close. But we’re headed in the right direction. The collaboration with all the different government entities at the state level has really started coming together, whereas before the pandemic they tended to work in silos.
For example, I’m talking a lot with the folks at ASBO, which is doing a good job of mapping where the Internet service providers are and their coverage areas. Before, a company would say, “We cover the state of Arkansas,” and they would show you this big, pretty map of all the area they supposedly covered. Then you’d drive over there and there’d be no connectivity.
There’s a lot more accountability now than there was before. Today when these little mom and pop service providers around the state say, “We have full broadband in this area,” the ASBO people say, “What does that mean? Are you talking about just this little square block? Are you talking about this entire city? Are you talking about this street and not this street?” So they’re trying to make sure that they know more definitively, more granularly, where the coverage areas actually are.
They’re also holding the Internet Service Providers more accountable in terms of speed. When they say they have 25/3, which is kind of the basic broadband, ASBO says, “Do you mean 25/3 for 24 hours, or do you mean 25/3 just during this hour? Today the State Broadband Office is saying, “If you propose 25/3 broadband, it’s got to be for 95 percent of the time.” And that’s huge progress in that arena, because if you’re an ISP, it’s less expensive to run slower Internet.
We understand that they have to make money to survive this—we’re not asking them not to. We’re just asking that when they tell us they’re running a product, that it’s a true product, one that will go as far as we can go to meet the needs of those kids and those families down that last mile of dirt road.
Although I’m pleased that we’re headed in the right direction toward creating an equitable learning environment for all kids in Arkansas, we have a whole lot more work to do. It’s going to take an enormous amount of collaboration between the private and public sector to make this happen. But we can do this. We must do this.