TAMPA — Schools spent a fortune on laptop computers in the early weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, hoping to level the playing field for home learning.
But teachers say the strategy has revealed something surprising: Students of all ages, including those in elite high school programs, are struggling with simple tasks like uploading a photo or creating a Word document. These gaps had gone largely undiagnosed in many of their classrooms.
“What I am experiencing with my students is a strange unfamiliarity with the technology we all thought they were so proficient with,” said Nancy Velardi, an English teacher at Pinellas Park High School.
Kids are masterminds of social media and have made texting an art form, she said. But they panic over simple setbacks, such as having to change a password. “If I direct them to another site to find an assignment, it’s terrifying to them.”
A learning curve exists, for some, because they are using borrowed devices. But even those who already had computers at home are not always adept at using them.
“Everything, for them, is the phone,” said Denise Thomas Ford, a reading teacher at Tampa’s Young Middle School.
The upshot, at least in these early days of distance learning, is frustration as teachers, students and parents try to adjust before the clock runs out on the 2019-20 school year. “It took me 35 minutes to explain to two kids how to open two files,” Ford said.
Longer term, educators wonder if older students have the discipline, motivation and basic knowledge of technology that they will need to survive in college and the workplace.
“This has been an amazing eye-opener," said Hillsborough School Board member Karen Perez. She said it provides a lesson on the district’s strengths and where it needs to improve.
Researchers for decades have explored society’s digital divide, mostly in the context of who does and does not have access to devices and internet connectivity.
The Pew Research Group reported in 2019 that, among households with incomes below $30,000, between 30 and 40 percent did not own any digital device, not even a smartphone. Close to a third were “smartphone dependent,” meaning that was their only way to access the internet. By contrast, Americans with household incomes of $100,000 and above had multiple devices and broadband service.
Those differences create equity issues when the state mandates that learning take place online, or when teachers assign homework that requires a modern computer and a printer.
When Florida schools closed on March 17, local districts made tens of thousands of devices available to students to check out.
Almost immediately, they ran into problems of over-stressed platforms that slowed and crashed. The districts worked with their vendors. Teachers and students figured out when they were most likely to get a good connection.
But some teachers also found that tasks the kids had been able to do in class were, for some reason, tripping them up.
“I’ve spent 30, 40 minutes on the phone trying to walk them through how to log into Clever,” said Spoto High School social studies teacher Jeff Woollard, referring to a platform that stores learning materials. “I covered this in class while I was in front of them.”
Explanations vary widely, with some teachers now realizing that they, too, are learning new systems and making simple mistakes — like posting the wrong start date on a homework assignment, which makes it impossible for students to find. “What we have here is a little bit of the blind leading the blind,” said Velardi, the Pinellas Park teacher.
In Hillsborough, young children are being taught through Edsby, a platform that, until now, was used mostly for middle and high schools.
“I’m trying to figure out Edsby,” said Amy Stoffer, a third-grade teacher at Edison Elementary in East Tampa. “I had to take training for it, during spring break. Why would we expect an 8-year-old, or their mom and dad or grandma, to know how to use it?”
Teachers in all grades are surprised at the lack of consistency in how students turn in their work. Does that happen because skill levels are different? Or because, as Stoffer realized through her eighth-grade son’s experience, some home computers have software that is out of date?
Is it, as others suspect, because students are not as savvy as they appear, and rely on classmates at school?
“Some kids, they’re good at masking what they don’t know around other kids," Ford said. She will ask them to download a file, open it and look at it. “They’ll say, ‘Well Miss, I don’t know how to do that,’” she said. “And I’m amazed because they do it in class all the time.''
Scott Hottenstein, who teaches civics at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, wonders if the problem is deeper than technical knowledge. He has come to believe that teachers are not good enough at letting students problem-solve.
“There’s kind of a learned helplessness that we’ve had throughout public education,” Hottenstein said.
“We’ve always put the burden on the teacher. We haven’t required a lot of grit, a lot of figure-it-out."
There might also be a lack of motivation, Woollard added, now that students do not have to study for state tests or final exams. The same students struggling to turn in their homework, he said, "can take a video and post videos on any platform in the world.”
Optimistic teachers say their students will adjust to this new way of work and learn skills that will stay with them after returning to the classroom.
But they would like to build on that momentum.
Kendall Nickerson, a Strawberry Crest High School social studies teacher, would like to see students learn typing as early as elementary school.
Most agreed that schools should be equipped with a computer for each child, instead of shared laptops on carts. And, they said, students should be better schooled in widely used tools such as spreadsheets, slide shows and Microsoft Word.
Some, aghast at the writing they are seeing, want more attention paid to grammar, spelling and punctuation. Velardi said at times she cannot understand the questions students type into the comment section when she teaches through Microsoft Teams, a tool that enables video conferencing and instant messaging. The experience has reinforced her belief that elementary schools must do a better job drilling students in the basics of proper writing.
Ford said she showed one poorly written message to a child’s parents, to make her point that kids need to be reading and not just playing video games in their spare time. ”It’s a reality check for a lot of parents,” she said.
Lisa Mazza, who teaches at Wesley Chapel Elementary, hopes her third-graders will emerge from the pandemic with a sense of empowerment, as they are learning more ways to share information.
It’s a far cry from the years when computers were used mostly for standardized tests, she said. “Now they’re experiencing technology for a positive reason. So they’re finding their individuality in that sense.”