Future of Learning: A multicultural tech helpline

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Javeria Salman

By Javeria Salman
Working with some of the most vulnerable families in her community last spring, Sharonne Navas saw first-hand why some families of color needed more than just a tech hotline to help them with their online learning troubles.
In Washington state, where Navas is the director of the Equity in Education Coalition (EEC), many families either didn’t know how to access the tech support provided by districts and companies like Apple, or didn’t feel comfortable because of language barriers. 
There was a “lack of understanding from government agencies” on how to respond to the needs of communities of color, Navas said.
So EEC launched its own call-in center. Navas described it “as an additional supplemental supportive system where we can ask our families, how are you doing getting online?”
The TechConnect Washington Community Helpdesk is multilingual and multicultural — its four staff members are all people of color. Launched in February 2021, the center was fielding around 200 calls by its second week. By week six, the number had increased to 600 to700 calls.
Families asked questions that included everything from “What is Zoom?” or “How do I get into Google classrooms?” to “How do I turn on my internet?” The staff also asked questions: Did callers need help with rent? Food? Finding mental health or health resources?
Members of the help desk team are recent high school grads, familiar with the learning management systems used by schools in the area. And, between them, the staff members who take calls speak a total of eight languages.
“That sort of holistic triage is not something that is offered by the school district,” Navas said. “They just want to know what's broken, how we can help it. Can you bring it in? Let's get you back on school online. And for us it was more important to make sure that our communities were doing well, so that they can survive this.”
Navas said her staff has “been able to work with the school district[s] in a really good partnership” by making sure families districts might otherwise overlook are connected to the schools and resources they need, including free and reduced-price lunches.
TechConnect is just one of the initiatives launched as part of the Connect Washington Coalition, a group of statewide digital access advocates and community organizations trying to address the digital divide for low-income and communities of color across the state.
“I think one of the things that really happened was our community-based organizations found themselves in this position of having to explain a lot of stuff to our families,” Navas said. “My hope is the call-in center will be that first step into the digital literacy world and digital navigation and really getting our parents to not be afraid of technology and really understand it.”
She also hopes that districts maintain their embrace of community partnerships post-pandemic and continue outreach to communities of color.
“This is a really complementary service to all the stuff that the school districts are doing, but they also know that they can't do it all,” she said.
Send story ideas and news tips to salman@hechingerreport.org. Tweet at @JaveriaSal. Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report. And, here’s a list of the latest news and trends in the future of learning.
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The Shortlist 
1. Training librarians to help students navigate the media landscape. Over the past year, many parents and teachers have struggled to find the right educational apps or websites. The research and innovation nonprofit New America recently released a report and guide that suggests an easy way for families to overcome digital learning issues, using a resource that already exists — librarians. The report, which focuses on librarians as “media mentors,” is the culmination of a year-long Illinois initiative aimed at providing librarians across the state with mentorship skills and providing students and their families guidance on how to seek out and use digital materials. According to New America, librarians are “often well-positioned to do this kind of mentoring,” since they are knowledgeable in information and technology sciences. The guide, “Lessons from the Illinois Media Mentor Project,” includes recommendations on how to train librarians to become media mentors, lessons from the Illinois program and an earlier Maryland model, and survey results from parents and staff on their needs. The guide’s author notes this could also be an opportunity to train librarians to work with parents and educators from underserved or non-English-speaking communities.
2. Ed tech spending in the billions with no centralized reporting or analysis. According to an analysis released by University of Virginia’s EdTech Evidence Exchange last month, the federal government, states and school districts spend an estimated $26 to $41 billion per year on education technology. The wide range in the estimate results from the lack of a centralized method of tracking how much the U.S. spends on ed tech materials. And even the rough estimate is out of date, based on the year prior to the pandemic; current spending is expected to be as much as $50 billion. While the report isn’t meant to provide a solution to the lack of an ed tech tracking system, it does offer a list of discussion questions to help educators and policy makers make informed decisions on how to spend ed tech dollars. “We are spending billions of dollars on technology with almost no information about which tools actually work, where, and why,” Bart Epstein, CEO of the EdTech Evidence Exchange, said in a press statement.
3. A whole-child approach by incorporating food education. A new report, released today, calls for schools to prioritize a whole-child approach to learning, focusing on food education and integrating student voices in decision making. The report is a follow-up to a 2019 study by FoodCorps, a nonprofit that connects kids to healthy meals in schools. The report argues that to address all the social and emotional needs of students from the past year of social isolation, economic hardship, and health crises, a “holistic” approach is needed. Food education is about more than providing healthy food — it can be an interesting way to engage students by giving them hands-on learning opportunities. The report includes recommendations on how schools can incorporate culturally responsive food education with lesson plans and tips that can be used in the classroom and outside.
More on the Future of Learning 
Education secretary Miguel Cardona says schools have to be 'redesigned' post-pandemic,” Newsweek
Online schools are here to stay, even after the pandemic,” The New York Times
A solution to the cycle of poverty?” The Hechinger Report
COVID learning loss requires a national edtech response,” The Hill
Rural schools have a teacher shortage. Why don’t people who live there, teach there?” The Hechinger Report
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