Google Tries To Bridge Digital Divide In Schools

Oct 28, 2013

Across Vermont, schools are experimenting with ways to help students, parents, and teachers communicate online, and use the Internet for school projects.  Many are turning to a free system offered by Google that includes email and interfaces with other classroom software.

But it’s taking time to integrate all this technology into cash-strapped school districts.

Just after lunch at Hartford High School, history teacher Mike Hathorn welcomed about a dozen students into a classroom equipped with plenty of laptops and a 3-D printer.

“You all know exactly what you need to be doing today, we need to be through lesson 6.2.3 by the end of the week, you two are going to be printing buildings by the end of the week, okay?” Hathorn told his historians.

By “printing buildings” Hathorn means loading data about Hartford’s most historic structures into a 3-D printer, making plastic scale models that will eventually create a whole miniature town.

Senior Nolan Viens started the machine.

Hathorn’s students have already done loads of research on the buildings, and even interviewed some of the inhabitants. They post all that data on a Google map that is accessible to any Internet user. 

“Go into Google Earth, turn on the 3D building layer, click  on the building and you can see the building that is photo-realistic and have the history of the building in a little text box that is associated with it,” Hathorn explained.

Although Google and some other vendors make this kind of technology available to schools for free, along with a whole suite of communication tools including email and online grade books, it still takes a lot of additional training and resources to weave all that into a curriculum.

As he took his tiny building out of the 3-D printer, Hartford senior Nolan Viens said he’s happy that his teacher has forged ahead, soliciting donations to equip this high-tech room and take students to conferences. 

“Yeah, it just gets us ahead of the game,”said Viens.

Other schools—an estimated 30 percent in Vermont—are also going high-tech with Google.

Dan French, superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, introduced Google email and other classroom technologies into his system seven years ago. Parents can closely monitor their children’s academic progress. French believes schools need to safeguard student privacy as they commit their own resources and time to keep up with new technologies.

“Once we deployed the learning management system that works with Google, that brings a whole other level of use to it, so it’s something we’re always working on,” he said.

Then there’s the issue of equity. Some students have computers at home, and others do not. That’s why John Downes, director of UVM’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, is urging schools to provide a laptop or similar device to every student.

“If you really want to embrace 21st century learning environments then the devices really do have to go home,” Downes said.

Matt Dunne, Google’s head of community affairs, says he wishes more schools in Vermont were embracing Google’s free technology because he’s seen what it’s doing for Mike Hathorn’s Hartford High School classes.

“What Mike Hathorn discovered is that some kids who aren’t so good at reading, they may be dyslexic, it may not be something that was commonplace in their home, can go to these more spacial types of mechanisms for communication and they just soar,” Dunne said.

By giving away some of its products, Google builds a thankful customer base. But Dunne concedes that until all schools can find the resources to augment the free technology and to pay for training, some kids will soar higher and faster than others.