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Empowering educators with technology

New York Teacher
Janella Hinds

Janella Hinds
VP for Academic High Schools

Technology in education is advancing with lightning speed. When it comes to our academic high schools and the broader New York City public school system, we need to lead — not follow — on innovation that affects our practice. Just keeping pace will not meet the moment. If we, as educators and union activists, are not at the table with the Department of Education when decisions are being made, our profession will risk upheaval.

I led the team responsible for negotiating and supporting the DOE–UFT Virtual Learning Classrooms (formerly the remote pilot) specifically to prevent tech from running past us and to properly determine how our members and students could grow and develop in digital environments.

There’s no need to rehash the impact of the pandemic. Suffice it to say, we witnessed both how the DOE wasn’t nimble in this sphere and how we as educators could strengthen our practice in the virtual space.

The Virtual Learning Classrooms, launched in 2019, and A School Without Walls initiative, launched this past September, are providing our high school students with opportunities that didn’t previously exist. A School Without Walls has two programs: a hybrid one in downtown Brooklyn, where students attend their regular classes both in person and remotely, and a fully virtual program based in the Bronx.

Tech isn’t replacing teachers in these two programs; it’s a tool bringing students closer to the content they want — content that teachers skillfully deliver.

Conversely, ChatGPT caught the DOE flat-footed and caused some alarm in our teaching ranks. Many UFT members and Schools Chancellor David C. Banks have since taken a breath and are seeking ways to incorporate artificial intelligence responsibly as a teaching tool. But we must proceed thoughtfully and avoid the pitfalls that can be predicted.

The DOE has taken a third approach to online learning that reminds us to beware of shortsighted shortcuts to teaching and learning that lead to poor outcomes. It’s no surprise I’m talking about Edgenuity.

The DOE implemented Edgenuity at Fort Hamilton HS in Brooklyn with courses designed for self-directed learning. The program places students in front of computers attached via an attendance roster to teachers who aren’t connected to the content. Plus, according to the school’s former chapter leader Kristen Brehm, there is no student-to-student or student-to-teacher interaction at all in Edgenuity.

Technology, she notes, “must be in context with the teaching you’re doing.” Most importantly, she adds, “it must be used appropriately — you cannot completely remove the human element.”

Edgenuity landed on the most vulnerable students — those in need of greater, not less, connectivity to their teachers to guide their learning. Furthermore, the caseload for our members in some instances exceeded 300 students. How can we not view this approach to online learning as a threat to our profession?

I can’t think of a worse approach to credit accumulation either. Can the school system reasonably claim that, with Edgenuity, it is meeting New York State learning standards and adhering to the academic policies for high school students?

Technology continues to advance and grow. As educators, we can’t hide from it. But our union will continue to push for the use of technology that supports all learners and empowers educators.