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Draper Journal

Canyons’ new TechConnect program bridges the technology gap

Apr 26, 2019 10:00AM ● By Julie Slama

Canyons new TechConnect program was unveiled at Hillcrest High, allocating 120 computers and hot spots for students who lack digital devices in their home to check out for their school work. (Photo courtesy of Canyons School District)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hillcrest High School senior Sydney Larsen is looking forward to attending the University of Utah next fall, but she still has a few weeks left of assignments, some online, to complete before graduation.

“Most of my classes are a mix between paper and technology, but I can definitely say that I need the use of a computer for every class,” she said. “For example, in my AP stats class, we use Canvas almost daily to watch video lectures in order to keep up with the curriculum. I also use a computer to keep up with my grades and look at due dates for different Canvas assignments. In addition to this, many of my teachers use Remind to answer our questions and send out different notifications outside of class time.”

While Larsen has access to a digital device at her home, not all of her classmates do.

“Technology is being incorporated into education more and more every day. This makes not having access to a computer an increasingly detrimental factor in a student’s education because they aren’t able to do their school work on sites like Canvas at home,” she said. “Having a computer means being able to research your assignments wherever you are and having so many more resources to get the help you need. It’s a way to boost your education.”

This spring, Canyons Board of Education approved a plan proposed by Canyons School District Information Technology Director Scot McCombs to aid those students, more than 3,500, or 10 percent, who don’t have access to computing devices or the internet at home.

“In the rush to making sure our schools are equipped for the high-tech demands of a 21st-century education, we need to be careful about leaving some students behind,” McCombs said.

Through a T-Mobile Empower 2.0 grant, the new district program TechConnect is making Chromebooks available to these students. In April, starting with 120 devices at Hillcrest, students were able to check out the devices much the same way that libraries check out books, except for a more extended period of time. After Hillcrest, the Chromebooks will be available to the 400 other traditional high school students this spring. 

“We’re rolling it out in order of need: Hillcrest, Jordan, Alta, Corner Canyon, Brighton — starting with high schools who tend to have more online homework and use,” he said.

Families who show a need to school administrators, similar to the school free and reduced lunch program, will sign a contract to participate in the program. Chromebooks will be limited to one per family, McCombs added.

The grant also will cover half the cost of making hotspots available to the students so they have internet access at home. Internet access will be filtered using the same technology used to limit browsing at the district’s schools. The remainder of the costs may also be partially covered through Utah’s Digital Teaching and Learning Grant.

Both T-Mobile and Canyons will pay about $125,000 per year for the device and internet access for these students, McCombs said.

 “I see a great return and difference in these students’ lives and in the lives of their families. Technology is ubiquitous. It’s how we access knowledge, connect with one another and make daily decisions, from crunching spreadsheets at work to finding a doctor or ordering pizza for delivery. I take it for granted that I can access the Library of Congress on my phone, but some of our students don’t have that ability. Without internet access, how can we begin to address other technological inequities?” he said.

Results of a survey of Canyons District families conducted by McCombs last fall revealed that the reason students who don’t have access is largely due to the unaffordability of devices and Wi-Fi. 

Hillcrest senior Ediann Cruz said she is aware of classmates who don’t have access.

“(Some) come from different countries so it’s hard for them to find high-paying jobs to buy a laptop for school,” she said.

McCombs said he anticipates seeing students’ lives greatly improve with having a computer and internet at home.

“If students don’t have access to a computer or the internet from home, it’s harder for them to complete assignments and keep up with homework. I don’t see how students can graduate high school if they don’t have access to a computer. I think with this program, we will improve graduation rates. I foresee a vast improvement in lives of our students and their families who now will have access,” he said.

The program already has been piloted with 15 Crescent Elementary special education students and English language learners who had no internet access at home. The results showed having the devices at home helped boost their performance at school, McCombs said. 

In November when they received the Chromebooks, none of these students were on track to meet grade-level standards of learning by June. Now, 13 are on track to meet or exceed the standards, he said.

McCombs said after working on this push for the past seven years, he wanted to introduce the program to bring equality across the district. Having three adopted children, he knows that living in a different environment would have resulted in different lives for them.

“I want everyone to be treated respectfully and with equity and every child should have that same level playing field,” he said. “We talk about how the printing press changed history and democratized how people access knowledge. Today, the internet is how we access information, and to deny some students that access is just wrong.”