An Idea to Provide Student Resources as We Approach the 2nd Obstacle in the Digital Divide

Providing the resources to close the digital divide and bridge the homework gap for students doesn’t end with connectivity, I think that’s where it starts.

Preface about ideas

Before I actually do any research for this, I want to put down what’s floating around in my head so that I can reference it and share it with those who may care. I’m constantly coming up with ideas; in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, in the middle of meetings, and everywhere you can imagine. I used to keep a notebook by my bedside and wake up in the middle of the night and jot these ideas down, but that ended up in more chicken scratch than anything else.

The only thing more frustrating than coming up with an idea, searching out and finding that someone has already done it, is coming up with the idea and talking about it and then finding someone else doing it later down the road when you knew you could have been the one to do something about it.

Either way, I think it’s about time that I start posting up some of my ideas to see if they will get wings. The only difference with this one is that I want to write out what’s in my head before I look into it because I like my version of it. That doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t done it better or will do it better, it just means that I like where my head is at now before it gets clouded with any outside influence.

The Second Level of the Digital Divide: A reliable computing device

Over the course of an academic career, a student will go through multiple devices. From iPads and tablets to Chromebooks and laptops, to desktops, back to laptops or netbooks, and eventually a smartphone or two will be added to the mix somewhere. In a recent conversation with my wife, I asked her if she knew where her laptop from University was. The blank look said it all.

Connecting the Unconnected is a Great Start. Now let’s roll up our sleeves.

I have done a lot of work over the last 20 years of my life to talk about connecting those who don’t have access to Internet connections for one reason or another. It could be financial, it could be cultural, it could be simple priorities. The one thing that they all have in common is that on one hand they have a community marginalizing them and blindly failing to support them, while on the other hand, they are trying to integrate technology in every corner of teaching and education. It’s this crazy back-and-forth where the school district wants the best for every student but doesn’t have the resources to ensure that they can use the technology they are putting in their hands once they leave campus.

It has been a very bumpy ride over the last two decades and we are now finally starting to see some action in the places that it is needed most. I happen to live in one of the areas that are the most economically challenged in the nation and it is normally recognized as one of those “ground zero” locations for bridging the digital divide, closing the homework gap, and all those buzzword-like sayings (that I am totally using to make sure this article gets SEO’d and read!) you can think of. What it all boils down to is leaders at the local, state, and federal level realizing that in order to successfully integrate technology into education they have to find those people who are the least empowered and give them the tools, resources, and technology to keep them on a level playing field with the rest of the nation. The only way that their communities and citizens can compete for economic development, jobs, and contribution to the global economy is by raising the educational attainment level of the entire community and providing the technology to do so.

Connectivity as the Starting Point

While connectivity is one of the easy targets to pick, it does not end there. Making sure that each student has a computing device that is capable of supporting all of the software and educational resources the student needs to have access to is absolutely imperative. If a student doesn’t have a word processor, the capability to properly display a PDF, or the ability to properly display the webpage that they are trying to load to get their work done, all the connectivity in the world won’t save them from being able to get their homework done. At the same time if tragedy strikes and their computing device is lost, damaged, stolen or the student is simply grounded from using their digital tool, they lose access to their ability to get their work done, and usually the work they have completed up to that point.

The Need for the Correct Software.. (1/2)

As new curriculum develops and more software and programs are needed for students to compete educationally, it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers and educators to get students to acquire the licenses and install the software they need in order to get their assignments completed. Teachers struggle with this because even though their students may have connectivity and an equipped computing device, it’s up to the student to be able to acquire and install the app or application software needed to get their work done. Again, all the connectivity in the world doesn’t make a difference if they don’t have the right software to get their work done. If they don’t have the hardware to support that software, you are back to square one.

..and the Hardware to Run the Software (2/2)

As hardware is evolving and software has an ever-ending upwards trajectory for the amount of computing resources it uses, the student device can limit their ability to grow educationally. If their hardware isn’t sufficient then they can’t use the appropriate software. There is no way that a single teacher, classroom, or district can swap out hardware every year just to keep with the growing demand of the applications and software needed to allow the students to expand their coursework.

FYI, We Have an Amazing Resource in Every Community & School: It’s called the Library

The library has traditionally been a resource hub for the community and it is the same in schools. As more books have transitioned to digital versions libraries have become more transitionary as well. 3-D printers, virtual reality, and maker space equipment have started to make its way into the library. No longer just a resource for books and written material, the library has evolved become the central hub for knowledge resources, analog or digital. Librarians have had to learn vast amounts of new and exciting technology from robotics and STEM activities all the way through to scripting and programming languages. This knowledge enables them to support the tools and resources that schools and the community they server are hoping to get their hands on every time they visit. As the “resource hub” to students and the neighborhoods they serve, the library has become more essential than ever in what used to be referred to as 21st-century learning and is now just simply learning.

What I Am Proposing: One VM per Student.

Using the library as a resource center to provide all the computing power a student needs to succeed with a Virtual Machine for each student.

Instead of just solving the digital divide and homework gap problems by giving people a connection to the Internet, provide one virtual machine for every student. Set up a data center at every library, in every city, across the country. Allow the students to host their virtual machines there so that the virtual machines grow with them over their entire academic career. The same virtual machine that they use in elementary can be the one they use in middle school, and then high school and even through university.

Because of the virtualized architecture, they never have to worry about upgrading their hardware. All they need is a way to get to their virtual desktop. It can be a $5 Raspberry Pi, a $100 android tablet, an inexpensive Chromebook, or a full-fledged PC. All they need is a way to connect to their VM.

Wait, What is a Virtual Machine?

The description of a Virtual Machine is easy and difficult to explain at the same time for those who aren’t everyday tech nerds. The way that I try and explain it is to imagine if you had your computer turned on and plugged into the Internet at all times. Let’s say it’s sitting at your house, always connected to power and the internet. Anywhere you are, at any time, using any device, you could simply connect to it and you would see your desktop as it sits on your machine.

When you want to access your software, programs, files, etc. you just connect to your laptop over the Internet and voilà everything that is yours is there. You can double-click on any of your applications and use them as if you were sitting in front of your computer.

A virtual machine is exactly that same experience however instead of a laptop that’s plugged into power and electricity at your home, it is a process running on a server somewhere in the data center. Yes, in “the cloud”. As long as that server is online, you have access to your virtual desktop. Since that server lives in a datacenter with uninterrupted power and multiple connections to the internet, you don’t have to worry about it becoming unavailable.

VMs Can Scale REALLY Well

If you need more resources the server administrator can just slide a bar to the left or right to provide more drive space, more memory, or even more processing power. You’re no longer limited to the confines of a single machine and it’s capabilities: you are a process running on a server that can be infinitely upgraded and everyone who has one of their virtual machines on that server can take advantage of those upgrades.

Demolishing the Barrier of Entry to Computing for Every Student

All a student has to have is hardware that meets the bare minimum requirements to launch a session that allows the student to login to their virtual machine. Again, that could be a $5 Rasberry Pi Zero, a refurbished PC running Linux, a laptop donated by community members etc.

It Makes Life Easy for Educators, Too

If a teacher wants to supply a new software application they click one button and push it to all of their student’s virtual machines at the same time. If they need more processor requirements, more memory requirements, or more storage, that can all be done for every single student simultaneously and simply, across the board.

Added Resiliency to Student Devices

There is no longer a worry that the students’ computer or hard drive may crash, that their device will get damaged, lost, or stolen, or that they will lose all of their data in one-way shape or form. As an added extra, their data will be able to travel with them across their entire academic career. This gives them access to every bit of research, bookmark, paper, research, and piece of information that they have referenced since they started school.

Libraries as Data Centers?

By hosting these virtual machines in data centers or in server farms at local libraries, you take advantage of the fact that the library is the resource hub for the community. Also, it is a neutral ground in the community that has no preference to which school, grade level or university a student is going to. As long as they have an account at the library, they will always have the virtual machine.

Moving Into Higher Education

When the student gets older and wants to take their virtual machine with them or move it to another host it’s easy to transfer. Geography plays no part in their access because of the magic of the internet; they can simply take a snapshot of their virtual machine, transfer it to their new host and get instant access to it. The student can archive it or spin it up whenever and wherever they need to.

Is it cost-effective and feasible?

It could be. In depends though, what is the “cost” to you? What is the cost to your community? What is the cost of having students that DON’T have access to the same learning opportunities other cities, states, and nations have? Is there an ROI to empowering students? Can you put a price tag on that? Is it giving your community a more affluent workforce? Is the cost measured by the dollar amount spent? What about additional grants, funding, and revenue that the libraries can receive for this? Membership fees that make that library card worth more now?

I know what you mean though, is it expensive to do this?

With server technology getting more cost-effective and the ability to host multiple machines with minimal hard drive space (you only need enough for the virtual machine to spin up and whatever applications are installed on it) I think it’s absolutely possible. For the student files, documents, email, etc you could partner and use cloud storage offerings like OneDrive, Google Drive, Box.Com, Dropbox, etc. Setting up data centers at libraries might be the most difficult part, but I would only imagine cost would be an issue. Librarians are very resourceful people and I know that if they are interested they can find a way to make just about anything happen.

Wrapping up..

Now that I have written all of this out, I’m going to start to look around online and see who has the same ideas and concepts. Again I’m not saying that this idea is the best, I just wanted to put down what my take on it is and see how it compares to others. Thanks for taking the time to read this and let me know if there’s anyway I can help implement this if you think it something you want to do!

As an update:

I threw this out on the table at a recent meeting of the Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley stakeholders and it looks like a local Texas School District is willing to give it a go. We’re gonna start small, but how awesome is that? At least it’s a start.

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