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Bridging digital distances

Ayush Agarwal loves speech and debate. When the pandemic forced debate tournaments online during his sophomore year in high school in San Jose, California, he realized what it meant to live on the other side of the digital divide.

Many of Ayush’s friends at other schools across the city didn’t have a computer or a stable internet connection to participate in online tournaments or sessions. Then, on a Reddit debate channel, he saw postings from around the country like, ‘Hey, I need help; I can’t get into these online tournaments,’ or ‘I can’t access Zoom because my internet’s too slow,’ Ayush, 17, said.

“That, to me, was just really disheartening,” he said. “These guys are fantastic debaters. They’re probably better than me, but they simply won’t be able to attend the tournament, not because they didn’t qualify for it, but just because they don’t have the capability resource-wise.”

The Hechinger Report is collaborating with The New York Times to produce Bulletin Board, page 2 of The Timess education supplement, Learning. 

So Ayush — now a senior at Basis Independent Silicon Valley, a private school in San Jose — decided to do something about it.

In March 2021, he and three other students, from Evergreen Valley High School and Leland High School in San Jose, started a nonprofit called ClosingTheDivide, which collects used electronic devices and refurbishes them, then donates them to low-income families and students.

The group doesn’t stop at giving out devices. “We also focus on other aspects of technological proficiency,” Ayush said, such as helping low-income residents connect to internet discounts through the Affordable Connectivity Program and to digital literacy initiatives like coding classes.

Since its launch, he said, the nonprofit has expanded to 29 chapters in the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe — led entirely by high school students.

The students have managed to donate more than 1,145 devices; received about $32,000 in grants; collaborated with 10 sponsors and 32 corporate partners; and started 12 computer labs — six in Tanzania, one in Cambodia and five in California.

Recently the students applied for and received a $17,500 grant from the San Jose Digital Inclusion Partnership, a project sponsored by the city, to help them combat the digital divide in their own backyard.


Home plate umpire Tripp Gibson calls a strike during a game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Minnesota Twins in June. Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Learning from baseball umpires’ errors

Can baseball teach us something about our short attention spans? A study of major league umpires found that they called balls and strikes more accurately during critical moments in a game. Yet immediately after these moments of intense concentration, umpires made notably more errors. (Thanks to video technology called PITCHf/x, we can tell when they get it right and wrong.)

The good news, according to this study, is that humans can quickly reset their attention spans. No increase in errors was detected after the end of each half inning, when umpires take a two-minute break. Results would need to be replicated in classroom settings, but there is reason to think that students’ attention spans similarly deplete during the school day and that well-timed short breaks could help them.

“People’s ability to pay attention is an exhaustible resource,” James E. Archsmith, an economist at the University of Maryland and one of the researchers on the study, said by email.  “We should take that into account when we’re thinking about settings where we make people focus for long periods of time without breaks. This applies both to schoolchildren and their teachers.”

The study, “The Dynamics of Inattention in the (Baseball) Field,” is currently under review for publication in an academic journal. A preliminary draft has been circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

What is clear is that sometimes staring out the window — or zoning out in left field — may just be a good idea.


Peyton Poole. Credit: Carrie Jeanette

Public speaking, now back in public

Peyton Poole knows she wore a maroon suit with bell sleeves to this year’s National Speech and Debate Tournament, in June. She remembers bright lights, a queasy feeling in her stomach and not much else.

“When I tell you I don’t remember anything,” said Poole, whose dramatic interpretation earned her a second-place finish, “I saw blackness. I found my judges’ faces and I was like, ‘OK, this is happening.’ ” 

When high school speech and debate teams from around the country converged in Louisville, Kentucky, it was the first in-person national tournament since the pandemic began. After two years of virtual competitions, students felt both excitement and nerves about the return of live audiences.

“It’s like pulling your heart out of your chest,” said Poole, 18, who is from Lafayette, Louisiana, and now a freshman at Western Kentucky University.  

Across the country, educators report an increase in student hesitation about public speaking, whether in the classroom or onstage. Coaches are re-teaching skills like eye contact and voice projection. 

“With public speaking it’s about ‘How are we relating to others, how are we respectfully disagreeing?’ ” said Kyair Butts, a language arts teacher and debate coach in Baltimore.

Virtual school didn’t help. “The screen was the masquerade party for students,” he said. “It takes some pulling to help students realize their full potential now that we’re back in person.”

Once they were before live audiences again, “There were nerves, of course, but more so there was relief,” said Dan Hodges, who coaches speech and debate at Apple Valley High School in Apple Valley, Minnesota. “They were finally there, and it felt right.”


Mandatory advising can look more like social work

For decades, college advising was considered primarily a way to help students register for classes. Now, it’s often a tool to help students address other aspects of their lives as they navigate college, including housing, transportation, health or family issues and mental well-being.  It’s sometimes called a case management approach — and, increasingly, it’s mandatory.

At San Antonio College in Texas, for example, students are required to meet with an adviser four times during the pursuit of a 60-hour associate degree — when they enroll, and after they complete 15, 30 and 45 hours of credits. If they don’t, they’re barred from registering for classes.

Around the country, other colleges have taken a similar approach, including the University of Utah, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and several community colleges. At regular meetings, counselors check beyond academics to ask about students’ personal needs or barriers they face.

Many such obstacles worsened during the pandemic, and historically marginalized students have been hit the hardest. College leaders say the students who most need advising support often don’t think they do, or don’t realize what resources exist to help them.

Robert Vela Jr., the former president of San Antonio College, and now president of Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said that, traditionally, the mindset has been: “These folks are adults. We have services available here. If they want to participate, they’ll participate.”

Now, he said, there has been a shift to “a parent approach, that we know best for our students,” adding: “Sometimes, because we know best, we need to take the word ‘optional’ out.”


Some college campuses began deploying robots to offer contactless food delivery during the pandemic. This one is at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Credit: Jack Yuanwei Cheng

Skip the dining hall — summon a robot

Red alert, Trekkies: Starship Technologies’ robots could be delivering your next Java Chip Frappuccino. Their mission: to map out new college campuses; to seek out hangry students and save them from crowded dining halls; to boldly entertain through song and dance.

Starship, an Estonian company with headquarters in San Francisco, deploys fleets of autonomous robots offering contactless food delivery in locations including college campuses, a welcome service during the Covid-19 pandemic. The six-wheeled mini vehicles respond to mobile orders made on the Starship app, where students buy items through meal swipes or points. On 12 campuses at the start of the pandemic, Starship robots grew popular quickly.

“Robots will be active on 30 college campuses by the end of this month,” Henry Harris-Burland, the vice president of marketing at Starship, said.

These robots travel at a pace of up to 4 miles per hour, and play music when students unload the cargo bays. With a 360-degree view of their immediate surroundings, 12 cameras and a collection of radar and ultrasonic sensors, they can cross roads and maneuver around people, animals and objects.

“I really appreciate having the bot delivery available because it provides another option for accessibility,” said Alexander Cheetham, a junior and co-president of the Disabled Students’ Network at Brandeis, adding that some students with disabilities may avoid dining halls when wheelchair or mobility lifts malfunction.

For now, what’s available for delivery depends on the campus and food providers’ participation. A.I. technology enables each robot to adapt to its particular environment and make changes when encountering unknown objects. They’re a little like new college students themselves — constantly learning and taking some time to get used to the campus.


This story about post-pandemic education changes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox. 

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