Carnegie Mellon University
April 24, 2020

CMU Team Supports Local School Districts

Experts in education and technology come together to find permanent solutions in time of crisis

By Caroline Sheedy

Julie Mattera
  • Marketing and Communications
Virginia Alvino Young
  • School of Computer Science

Carnegie Mellon University experts are helping local school districts be more successful in their transition to remote learning as students and teachers remain at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CMU team consists of members from the Simon Initiative, CREATE Lab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and the School of Computer Science (SCS). Through virtual office hours, they are helping educators solve immediate and long-term issues — even starting a pilot program to provide access to Wi-Fi in a community that otherwise would not be able to keep students learning.

“Past research tells us that it's really important for educators to be able to work together on problems in practice. Teachers and principals tend to be really isolated, especially right now,” said Maggie Hannan, a learning scientist who leads the Simon Initiative’s K-12 work. “A big picture goal of our work is to find ways to build coalitions and help educators and leaders work with and learn from their peers.”

After seeing the success of the office hours that CMU’s Open Learning Initiative offered to help university instructors move to remote learning, Hannan realized there was an opportunity to connect teachers, principals, technology directors and others in the K-12 community in a similar way. Hannan launched the semiweekly virtual education office hours with the CREATE Lab’s Jessica Kaminsky and Jordan Mroziak, ETC’s John Balash, and Ashley Williams Patton and Jonathan Reynolds from the SCS Dean’s office.

Educators have used the office hours to get assistance with immediate trouble-shooting issues, and express their concerns about technology access for their students.

Patton said the COVID-19 crisis has made the digital divide obvious.

“COVID-19 has put a spotlight on things that have been a problem for over a decade,” said Patton, the director of the CS Pathways program, which helps to build equitable computer science education pathways in partnership with school districts. “The ability to have access to wireless internet or devices to do homework at home is a huge divide, and the students who are going to be left behind are those who most need to not be left behind because of systemic inequity.”

After learning of one such urgent need for access to technology, the CMU team started a pilot program in the Cornell School District in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania to keep students learning. They are working to build a permanent, durable Wi-Fi network for families in need. The pilot was made possible by redistributing funds from a grant from the Hopper-Dean Foundation and partnering with Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, but the team hopes to continue to engage partners as they work to scale the program.

Balash, Director of Educational Engagement at the ETC, said that sometimes he and the team solve problems that come up in the virtual office hours by removing technology altogether.

“We were talking with a teacher who was teaching photography principles in Photoshop, but not all of the students in the class were able to access the software,” he said. “We had some great conversations thinking through exercises the teacher could show the class so when they finally get back to Photoshop, the design principles will make sense.”

For each member of the CMU team, the crisis support is merely an extension of the work they do year-round.

“Success for me does not just mean we are able to distribute hundreds of iPads or Chromebooks to students,” Mroziak said. “Success is equally about ensuring the community has a place to feel heard and respected and have their needs met.”

His colleague in the CREATE Lab, Kaminsky, agreed.

“My biggest goal for this is to think long term. I hope that this makes us a better network of people working together. I think that this is a moment for us to rise to that occasion,” she said.

The office hours, which started with people already in the networks of the CMU team, continues to grow. Hannan said the team is working to develop specific quantifiable criteria for a need-based model to help the communities most in need, but she welcomes all community members to join. 

“There are a lot of benefits of creating more connections and more community around educators who are going through really, really hard things and have few opportunities to connect with one another to support one another,” she said. “We use these meetings to get a better understanding of the landscape and where we can be impactful and give the team a structure for how to move forward.”

Find more information about the virtual office hours for the K-12 community from the Simon Initiative.

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