On the Frontlines of Closing the Digital Divide
Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Kiesha Taylor, National Education Administrator for T-Mobile, has worked to get students and their families the tech they need to keep learning
When the covid-19 pandemic shuttered schools in the spring, the need for reliable internet took on a new urgency for millions of students learning from home. Dr. Kiesha Taylor was ready to help.
Dr. Taylor taught sixth-grade reading in Houston, Texas, before developing a specialty in virtual education. Since August 2019, she has worked as the National Education Administrator for T-Mobile.
It’s a position that has allowed her, over the past several months, to partner with school districts, nonprofits, and social service organizations to provide thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots to students. Her team, meanwhile, has offered guidance to schools as they manage the transition to virtual learning. “Right now, connectivity makes all the difference in whether we’re able to serve or lose a student,” Dr. Taylor says. “My passion is really aligned with this moment, this mission.”
Her optimism is evident in her work—something College Board saw up close last spring. We got to know Dr. Taylor when she and her T-Mobile team helped distribute wireless hotspots to thousands of AP students who needed home internet access to finish their classes and prepare for the first-ever online AP Exams. With students across the country still engaged in some level of remote learning, I was eager to hear more about her experience over the past few months and to get her take on the long-range impact of covid-19 on schooling.
How did you get started in online learning?
In my second year of teaching, a building-literacy video game was created for the Sony PlayStation, and my classroom got a set of these consoles to help learn phonics and reading skills. That got me started on this journey of figuring out how technology could make learning fun and memorable.
The only way I could feel good as a teacher was if I didn’t have to make kids sit in a chair all day and if I could give them a way to be creative. I knew there were all these new technologies and tools out there and that we were embarking on a world that required students to use them. I didn’t want my students to feel a sense of fear about that. My background is in psychology and mental health. When it comes to technology, I knew I could be successful and my students could be successful if we didn’t have that fear. That’s something I think many marginalized students can relate to. I was a first-generation college graduate. My mother earned her bachelor’s degree in healthcare and business management a few years ago. If there’s a fear to explore new things, then we’re infringing on students’ ability to create and innovate.
Do you see that kind of creativity happening with online learning right now? What are some of the keys to keeping students connected and engaged online?
Relationships are so important. If you don’t have strong relationships with students and parents and if there’s not a certain level of comfort and an understanding of the challenges they’re facing, you won’t be able to connect. It’s just like in the classroom. If you have a strong relationship with a student, they’ll go to the ends of the Earth for you. They want to get that work done. They want to make you proud. Kids are naturally that way. Humans are naturally that way. When we have strong relationships with people, we want to please them and make them happy.
It’s the same in the virtual world. If you have strong relationships with your students, they’re more likely to tell you, “Hey, my camera is off because I’m babysitting my younger siblings,” or “My background is embarrassing to me.” They’ll tell you if they can’t participate today, but maybe they can turn in the work and do an instant messaging chat later. Relationships allow us to be flexible, to let students seek success in a way that makes sense for them. In a virtual world, that flexibility and those relationships make all the difference in whether we lose or retain a child.
Dr. Kiesha Taylor and her team helped distribute Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure kids complete their school year remotely. Their effort was mirrored in school districts around the country, like this Chromebook distribution in Plainview, NY, on March 16.
What do you think will change about education as a result of this experience? What are some of the assumptions or practices we’ll want to rethink even after the pandemic is over?
We’re going to have to be willing to build a new foundation and have new parameters around what success even means. This is an opportunity for us to sit down and reassess how we’re going to value creativity and innovation from students. Expanding connectivity outside the normal school day can be a part of that. It also means restructuring the way we think about learning and the student’s role in the learning process. We’ve talked often over the years about personalized learning and project-based learning. But we need to go a step further. As we’re designing curriculum and instruction, we need to ask what really piques the interest of students. What is it they want to learn?
As adults, we like to run the show. Thinking about incorporating things that originate in the mind of a child is scary for many people. But we need to think about children really trying to visualize success and to have them at the forefront of that planning. We have to think about how we label children and how we define success in different student populations. It may look very different for affluent students than it does for students in underrepresented populations. Students from underrepresented backgrounds may not have acquired the academic vocabulary we wanted them to acquire, but they may have greater true intellectual ability than others in their class.
We can’t put ourselves in a position where we’re boxing kids in. We need to expand the menu for them. We’ve created set choices as adults—you can take these tests, you can have these majors, you can enroll in these classes—but how can we expand those lists? How can we open up the playing space for kids so they’re creating the magic? The pandemic is challenging us to explore those parameters and consider how we let kids create their own magical experience of the world.
Are there any stories from the past few months that stand out and illustrate the challenge or impact of your work?
Oh, yes—so many stories! I’ll share one from a district in New Jersey, where we were helping deliver Wi-Fi hotspots to students. Kids and parents were coming through the line at the school, and they were tasked with picking up their Chromebooks and their hotspots. The school district administrators were asking the families, “Do you need internet?” And the families kept saying “No, we don’t need internet.” After hearing that from family after family, the school employees eventually started saying, “Tell me a little more about how you don’t need internet.” They realized the families were saying they didn’t need internet because they thought they wouldn’t get a Chromebook.
Students in marginalized communities are used to getting questions that are almost like trick questions. If I say “yes” here, maybe I won’t get food stamps. If I say “yes” here, maybe the school won’t give me the glasses that I need. If I answer this way, maybe they’ll classify me as homeless, and CPS will come and take me away. Kids have learned to try and jump through many loopholes, often from watching their parents try to navigate these systems. It’s those situations that remind me there’s much work left to do.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.