Veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker Soledad O’Brien tells how technology can help overcome barriers and close achievement gaps.
Seventeen-year-old Maria Castro had a dream: to attend Stanford University and study solar engineering. The sixth of seven children in a working-class immigrant family, Maria was a standout honors student at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix. Maria was in her sophomore year when she discovered that her school did not offer calculus, a class she needed to be considered for admission to Stanford.
Determined, Maria set out to get the course she needed. She wrote up a proposal for the class, persuaded 31 of her peers to take it with her and pleaded with the administration to get a teacher and funding. It worked. The school added the two-semester course, and Maria and her classmates attended it every day after school.
Unfortunately, despite Maria’s hard work, her story didn’t have a fairy tale ending. Twenty-four of the original 32 students who signed up to take the class dropped it, citing that the material was too difficult. Even more disappointing, Maria never made it to Stanford. She had the grades; she did not have the right courses.
This is “unfair” and “criminal,” said veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker Soledad O’Brien. The former CNN news anchor told Maria’s story to more than 5,000 educators during her opening keynote address at this year’s ISTE show and conference in Philadelphia.
“Maria should have access to online classes and high-speed wireless networks to do research,” said O’Brien. “It’s insane that she’s battling to get a teacher for a classroom in Phoenix when there are millions of students that take calculus every single day across the United States. She’s obviously engaged. She’s working really hard. She’s single-handedly trying to get herself to be educated. I think that’s criminal.”
Education today is the next civil rights battle, O’Brien said. In her keynote, she outlined four ways technology can level the playing field and “bring real opportunity to schools.”
Personalize the learning experience
Lavon Longstreet was a second-grade student at an elementary school in Minneapolis. By the time he reached the second grade, Longstreet had attended four schools. He was nearly two years behind in reading and math. O’Brien showed a clip from her 2013 documentary “Great Expectations: A Black in America Special,” during which she attempts to read with Longstreet. Even with O’Brien’s help, the 7-year-old student was unable to identify simple words.
This is a serious issue, said O’Brien. In a news conference with media, she explained that if children aren’t reading on grade level by grade three, they run a high risk of dropping out by grade seven and, later, incarceration. “So the debate over whether Lavon can read or not is not just a specious ‘Oh goodness, it would be so nice if he could read!'” she said. “We actually know that Lavon’s not reading is directly correlated to what Lavon’s future looks like.”
Technology can create new paths for students like Lavon, O’Brien asserted. Devices, applications and adaptive-learning systems can provide valuable intervention and personalize the learning experience. “There is no excuse for a 7-year-old not to know the words ‘the’ and ‘at.’ Technology should be able to close that gap,” she said. “Technology could be leveraged to help Lavon learn in the way he learns best.”
Close the information gap
Kids like Maria Castro don’t suffer just financial disadvantage but also information gaps, O’Brien said. They simply don’t have the same exposure to information as do students in more affluent school systems. Technology can change this. With a mobile device and high-speed wireless access, kids like Maria can have virtually unlimited access to courses, information and research. Without it, though, these students can fall behind and might not be able to catch up, O’Brien maintained.
“Technological solutions for Maria and thousands of students like her could literally change their lives and expand their opportunities,” said O’Brien. “Marias exist across the United States. They work hard for a chance. It shouldn’t be up for a crapshoot.”
Self-expression and voice
In 2008, O’Brien traveled to South Africa with 30 teenagers from New York as part of a program called “Journey for Change,” which was developed by Malaak Compton-Rock, ex-wife of comedian Chris Rock. The group spent roughly two weeks in Diepsloot and Soweto volunteering in homes, schools, hospitals and orphanages. At the end of each day, students blogged their experiences on laptops donated by Dell.
“The goal was not to give a laptop to each kid,” asserted O’Brien, “but to give a platform for each of these students to take their learned experience and turn that into a point of view.” The students learned to write about their experiences, explain it to various audiences and defend their positions. They blogged their stories across multiple platforms. They wrote letters to their hosts in South Africa and to various politicians, expressing their concern about social issues.
The laptops enabled the students to practice self-expression and find their voice, said O’Brien. “The focus was on an emotional and difficult experience that they had to navigate through,” she said. “The technology leveraged that experience into something bigger, more powerful and more important.”
Exposure and mentoring
Many students, namely those from disadvantaged backgrounds, lack knowledge and exposure to different life and career opportunities, O’Brien said. She demonstrated how technology could help fill this gap. She brought a group of educators on stage to test-drive Google Expedition (see sidebar below), a new virtual reality product used with a Google Cardboard headset. More than just watching a video clip, the headsets put the users inside the surgery room with the veterinary surgeon and let them watch over her shoulder as she performed a procedure on a cat.
Tools like Google Expedition give students a glimpse into worlds they otherwise might never see, O’Brien said. They can also provide ways for professionals in different fields to give students practical insight about their occupations and the roads they took to get there. This type of exposure and mentorship fills an important gap, especially for students from disadvantaged background.
“We expect people in poverty whose parents don’t have careers to magically self-mentor themselves into understanding a career path,” O’Brien explained. This is beyond what they know, she said. But with the right devices and applications, she told the audience, we can expose them to new opportunities and give them “the tactical, pragmatic story — the hours, the pay, the classes, the job, the joy, the work.”
While O’Brien maintained that technology can bring powerful, important experiences to schools and students, she also emphasized that “technology for technology’s sake is a complete waste.” As she concluded her speech, she encouraged attendees to look for ways tools, devices and applications can open doors to opportunity and bring equity to all students.
“Do not give up on the kids who need you,” she urged. “It is never about the technology. It is about the problems you can solve and the huge dilemmas we have in education that we could tackle. Technology is a tool, a powerful tool. In the right context, it could really change the world for the students who rely on you to change it.”
Just announced in May and set for launch this fall, Google Expedition aims to give teachers the ability to take students on immersive virtual reality field trips. According to a Google for Education blog post, teachers use the Expedition app on their tablet to push three-dimensional, 360-degree panoramas to students, each outfitted with a Google Cardboard device. The app enables the teacher to guide students through the panorama, in real time, and pause when needed to provide additional explanation. To see Google Expedition in action, visit Google for Education’s YouTube Channel.