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The good, the bad, and the buggy: Technology in Philly schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For the first time, the Notebook focused an edition on education technology.

Our main findings: Some Philadelphia schools have pioneered technology use in several ways. But its overall use is spotty, often dependent on school leadership, teacher training and buy-in, and overall District stability.

Funding problems, as with most other issues in Philadelphia education, play a big part. The District leads the nation in securing federally subsidized E-rate money for high-speed broadband access in all its classrooms but can’t always afford to keep up with the hardware and maintenance requirements necessary to make full use of it.

For instance, a study released last fall showed that among the nation’s biggest school districts, Philadelphia ranked second from the bottom in the average age of its computers and fourth from the bottom in the number of devices per student.

Despite the lack of an overall tech focus in the District, many educators are doing great things. Philadelphia’s savviest principals find ways to take advantage of the latest trends and equipment, seeking out grants and keeping up with the most promising educational software. But students’ technological skills aren’t tested or measured, and school ratings don’t account for the technological environment.

Blended learning, an approach that combines teacher-led and online instruction, is catching on in classrooms where adequate technology is present. The District is providing professional development and a list of recommended online materials by subject and grade level.

The District’s most public and well-known foray into technology, High School of the Future, has accomplished much, but has also had a rough go of it. Designed with the aid of Microsoft to create a replicable model for urban schools, it has been plagued by leadership instability and most recently by a merger with the closed University City High School. This year, for the first time since it opened in 2006, it does not have a one-to-one laptop program. It is spending the year regrouping, rethinking its mission, and reengaging partners like Microsoft and Comcast.

A growing number of schools, led by Science Leadership Academy, have switched over to Chromebooks, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. When Lingelbach Elementary got a windfall donation, that is what school leaders decided to use it for. There are concerns, however about whether Chromebooks are the right answer going into the future.

"Assistive technology" can also be a game-changer for students with disabilities, but schools often don’t have the equipment and parents often don’t know their rights.

Many schools are also making do with older, donated computers that have been reconditioned with the help of outside donors. But, according to answers to an informal Notebook survey, others have obsolete hardware taking up space.

For sure, students today are "digital natives," who use technology in their daily lives. Many of the city’s schools are still struggling to catch up, and that is an urgent challenge.

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