Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants in the Age of COVID-19

Teachers are not supposed to have favorite students.  We’re supposed to treat everyone the same, be fair, and above everything else be equitable.  Showing favoritism of any kind is akin to telling one of your kids that you love them more than their siblings.  So, you do your best not to root secretly for one student over another.  I am human, so it has been difficult throughout my career for some students not to stand out.  Often, those that present the most challenging behavior end up making a more profound impression once teachers build positive relationships with them.  Other times, students create an indelible impact because they thrive despite experiencing multiple traumas.  My story begins with one such student. 

She stood with the receiver in her hand, staring at the phone, searching the keypad.  The fact that she stood at all was a miracle, for she was born with one leg a few inches longer than the other, and she had already endured a series of painful corrective surgeries.  After those procedures, she still walked with a pronounced limp because her body was growing faster than her family could afford to buy orthopedic shoes that would compensate for the length discrepancy.  Despite her physical challenges, she never complained, and she was a stellar student who was well-liked by her peers for her genuine acts of kindness toward them.  

We spent most of the year trying to slow her down as she refused to let her legs keep her from doing everything the other students did, including hiking the treacherous trails on our school’s annual camping trip.  She whizzed past me on several occasions as I stood winded and doubled over in old man pain while I was trying to keep up with the string of students who seemed to run not far behind the overzealous trail guide.  But now, in the classroom, she stood there with the receiver in her hand incredulous to the blaring alert to hang up the phone if she’d like to make a call.  Over the din of regular classroom activity, the eardrum piercing alarm prompted me to ask if she needed assistance.  She finished a call home for something that time has erased from memory, and now, she stood staring at the phone.  

“Uh, Mr. Taylor, how do I end this call?”  

“Hang up the receiver.’ I replied

“Um, where’s the button for that?”

It took a few seconds to realize that she, along with the rest of my students, never lived in a world without smartphones.  Most of them did not have antiquated landlines at home, and never in their lives did they use a push-button phone.  They finished calls by pressing a digital “end call” button.  I grew up using a rotary phone.  They walk around with a pocket-sized computer in their hands.  I was born in the middle of the Digital Revolution.  They are digital natives born in an age of rapid technological advances.

Fast-forward to this Wednesday.  Since COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire, school districts across the world have closed their doors and transitioned to a distance-learning format.  One of the unintended consequences is a forced scramble for educators to bridge the digital divide and bring their skills up to par.  My school district is offering professional development around distance-learning and related digital tools via video conferences.  

As one might imagine, the learning curve is steeper for some more than others.  That was never more evident to me than yesterday when I logged-on to a PD about how to set up a virtual classroom on Google.  My district employs almost 20,000 people, the vast majority of which are the instructional staff.  Nine hundred fifty of them participated in a videoconference in which the struggle between digital immigrants and digital natives shifted between complete frustration and absolute hilarity.  Someone forgot to change the conference settings beforehand so that everyone except the presenter’s cameras and microphones were disabled.  Throughout the training, what seemed like hundreds of voices could be heard admonishing colleagues to “turn off your microphone!” “Disable your camera!”  As minutes passed by in dog years, groups of educators directed other participants through the process of disabling their audio and video features, only to be interrupted each time a new participant joined the conference.  “Can you hear me?  Hello, can you hear me?”  Someone replied, “Yes, Michael Smith, we can hear you, and we need you to disable your microphone!”  At one point, the presenter began calling out people by name.  It’s about there that I’d had enough.

The next day I hosted a grade level meeting on Zoom.  We begin teaching in our virtual classrooms in a couple of weeks, so we’re trying to work out the bugs before then.  Our meeting lasted the usual forty minutes, and we focused on how to modify the existing curriculum to fit our new reality.  How will ELL teachers, special education teachers, electives teachers, and counselors continue to deliver services in an online format?  How can we structure lessons so that they are rigorous without overwhelming parents for whom this is their first home-schooling experience? Considering this was our first time using this platform, the meeting went well.  That is until it was time to sign-off, and I found myself searching the controls much in the way my student searched the telephone keypad years before.  “Uh, how do we end this thing?” I asked, to the laughter of my colleagues.  “You just hit the ‘end meeting’ button.” 

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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