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July 31, 2014, 1:24 am

Symposium focuses on digital learning

The locally-based nonprofit Urban Affairs Coalition will address a burgeoning education-related issue when it convenes a teacher-only symposium, “Educating in the Digital Age.” The day-long semester is scheduled for Wednesday at Drexel University’s Bossone Research Center.

Comcast, one of the leading sponsors of the event, has teamed up with UAC and Drexel University for the effort, which will also feature keynotes and sessions by nearly a dozen education and technology specialists, including Philadelphia Works, Inc. President and CEO Mark Edwards and Knight Foundation Program Director Dr. Aroutis Foster.

Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. will also attend, as will Drexel University Provost for University and Community Partnerships Dr. Lucy Kerman, and International Society for Technology in Education Board of Directors President Holly Jobe.

“Part of what we’re doing is talking about the digital divide and how we can get [parents and families] connected to the Internet, but at the same time, it is a very practical continuing education event for teachers across Philadelphia,” said Comcast Regional Vice President of Community Investment Bob Smith. “There will be a number of workshops were teachers can earn continuing education credits to keep them current in their classrooms. We’ve worked with experts to craft topics for the workshops so that they are relevant.”

Smith has said he has reached out the School District of Philadelphia – a prime partner in the event – and to the archdiocesan schools. Teachers throughout the city’s charter school network have also been invited to the symposium.

The overall topic, Smith said, is teaching in the digital age, and will take into account several revolving issues – paramount among them is convincing low-income families to invest in a computer and an inexpensive Internet connection.

Data provided by digital divide analytical outlet Anson Alex lends alarming credence to Smith’s call, as it shows that while six million students nationwide are taking online classes, a full half of the poorest households do not own a computer. Further, the data sets show that minorities have a significantly lower rate of Internet access, as compared to whites. White households, at 72 percent, by far is the largest demographic enjoying the Internet at home, followed by Hispanics at 57 percent. Black households trail both, as only 55 percent of their households have Internet service.

Also highlighting the importance of this discourse is that 80 percent of teachers feel that e-learning increases the quality of education.

“The main idea is that teachers are trusted, and this prepares them for the future, and the future looks very technology oriented,” Smith said. “The school district made tools online for students, and also made those tools available for parents to get engaged, so they understand how important it is to be connected. This really becomes critical for the economically-disadvantaged students.”

But for this to truly work all the way through, it will still boil down to at-risk families taking on another sacrifice to obtain even a low-power computer and Internet service. To that end, Comcast Executive Director David Cohen created the “Internet Essentials” program, which provides Internet access to qualified families for $9.99 a month. Smith believes, when it comes to educating their young, even the most pressed families can squeeze out ten dollars a month.

“The problem we have with low-income families is that the parents don’t use the Internet for work, so they don’t think the Internet is needed for homework,” Smith said. “And then they also have to make financial decisions. It’s a choice between maybe a pizza a month for the family or the Internet.”