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Beyond Devices, This Telecom Giant Delivers Educational Equity

Verizon Innovative Learning provides free technology, free internet access, and hands-on learning experiences to help give under-resourced students the education they deserve. The initiative provides every student in the school a device equipped with wireless service and pre-loaded with digital learning apps (including, at some schools, ST Math). The students take the devices home, giving them 24/7/365 access to learning resources.

Michelle Joseph, a former high school teacher, now manages the Verizon Foundation’s healthcare and education programs, including the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative. We recently chatted with Michelle about the role of technology in the classroom and why Verizon is helping schools get 1:1 devices. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.

MIND: You’re in 100 schools now. Where do you see 1:1 learning heading?

MJ: In education, we start with the end in mind. For Verizon, our end game is the kids. We are partnering with school districts around the country, implementing tools, access and opportunities for these young people and there are three things we hope will happen:

First, we want to level the playing field. Under-resources schools on the outskirts of Chicago should have the same benefits, access and opportunities as schools in upper class communities of New Jersey. With Verizon Innovative Learning schools, every student has a device, with that device comes access, and every teacher gets trained. That’s equity.

Secondly, to move forward we need young people to see themselves as creators and innovators, not just consumers. As a result we will have future customers, future business leaders, and future employees.

The third piece is ensuring we understand every single person is unique. Personalization in education should not be a privilege.

MIND: Why is it important to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom and the hours of the school day?

MJ:  The pain point has been that you can’t take your teacher home. In some under-resourced communities, you can’t even take the book home. So what access and technology provide is unlimited opportunity for kids to learn. Verizon Innovative Learning is not your typical 1:1 program. We’re a 24/7 initiative, providing a way for all students to take home their devices, because we fully understand learning does not end when the bell rings.

If a teacher flips her classroom [where lectures are delivered online after school, and typical homework is tackled in class with the teacher] students can prepare for the next day by looking at video content. They can do enrichment activities that reinforce what the teacher covered in class. They can connect with their teacher from home and ask questions if they didn’t understand something. So all of a sudden there are great implications with extending the day because you’re giving young people access. This is powerful.

Verizon Innovative Schools Lab in Bethesda

"Verizon Innovative Learning Schools is not your typical 1:1 program. We’re a 24/7 initiative, providing a way for all students to take home their devices, because we fully understand learning does not end when the bell rings."
-Michelle Joseph, Verizon Foundation

MIND: What are the challenges that go along with this expanded accessibility?

MJ: The education system is a legacy system, and sometimes it takes a while for them to disrupt themselves. One of the challenges we face is that many constructs are not even in place for mobile devices at the district level. If we give a kid a device to take home, we have to work with school districts to get content filters that will ensure a level of digital safety beyond the school day.

Another challenge is that now that you have a device that is unlimited—camera, app store, musichow do you limit distractions, the same way you would in a classroom? Having an effective and robust mobile device management tool is important.  

Many schools around the country embarking on a 1:1 device program for the first time are facing these challenges.  Part of our Verizon Innovative Learning initiative is to bridge that gap, in partnership with the schools.

MIND: Besides the 24/7 access, what benefits do you see to digital learning?

MJ: Students learn in a variety of ways, and sometimes one teacher in a classroom doesn’t have the ability to meet every kid’s learning needs. Digital learning now gives you the ability to customize the experience.

Also, you can assess better because of the back-end analytics. As a teacher, I spent the bulk of my time trying to assess, “Did he even do the homework?” Teachers don’t necessarily have to deal with those pain points any longer in large part because of technology that’s personalized. They’re not doing this solo any longer.

MIND: What does that mean that the teachers are “not doing this solo?"

MJ: Teachers are now in collaboration with designers, developers and artists who are making the experience of learning so much more powerful than in the traditional realm.

I was trained as a content teacher. I got my degree in secondary social studies, and I knew my content. But when you get into a classroom, you have a lot of other dynamics that impede learning, like engagement. I’m not a gamer or an artist, so what tools do I have in my arsenal to get kids interested in history? With technology, you’re able to develop innovative lessons and memorable experiences for young people. Teachers can bring in augmented reality and let students listen to and see Abraham Lincoln. So now the teacher’s role is really a curator, a facilitator and a supervisor.

"Teachers are now in collaboration with designers, developers and artists who are making the experience of learning so much more powerful than in the traditional realm."

-Michelle Joseph, Verizon Foundation

MIND: But sometimes all of these digital choices get overwhelming for teachers.

MJ: Yes, I call it the Wild West. But I’m all for a wealth of developers challenging and trying to disrupt each other. The challenge that we face is that the gatekeeper should be teachers and parents, and how do we best equip them to have a much more critical lens so that they can develop a level of sophistication to know quickly whether or not something is going to work? We have to do better as a school system and in higher ed to train teachers for this curator role.

MIND: So how is Verizon partnering with schools get to that end-game?

MJ: We have a philosophy, we execute on that philosophy, and we ensure that we’re on the ground with that work. Some schools are underfunded, under-resourced or have other limitations. Verizon is a corporate and socially responsible company and our philosophy is that in our communities, “We’re in this with you.” To execute on our philosophy, we’ve partnered with best-in-class nonprofits like MIND Research Institute and Project Lead The Way.  And we’re on the ground with that work every day, out at school sites, making sure that we have a direct impact on our end-user, the students. We feel a true partnership with our schools and look forward to expanding to 350 more by 2021.

Verizon, in partnership with Digital Promise, has provided a guidebook for schools rolling out 1:1 devices. Read the guidebook here.

Christine Byrd

About the Author

Christine Byrd writes about STEM and education issues for MIND Research Institute.


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