The New Pencil

Thomas W. Taylor, Ed.D., M.B.A. Deputy Superintendent, Chesterfield County Public Schools

Thomas W. Taylor, Ed.D., M.B.A. Deputy Superintendent, Chesterfield County Public Schools

Think about it: Has there ever been an invention or a piece of technology that has helped to advance civilization more than the pencil?

Its design is portable, sleek, and functional. Relatively easy and cheap to construct and replicate, the pencil (or stylus) first emerged during the early spread of the Roman Empire, just in time to expand knowledge and learning broadly in a fast-growing world. With the accessibility of graphite, it conceptually gathered more steam in the 1500s. And just in time for the industrial revolution in the 1800s, the pencil (as we know it) was mass produced. During this same time in history, public education was beginning to take root, and literacy became more widespread. Very quickly, the pencil became an essential tool for every student’s learning experience. The pencil was the pivotal catalyst for creating easy and functional learning opportunities for all students enrolled in school. The pencil helped establish and cement the first vestiges of true equity in the modern era. In short, the pencil was the key that unlocked the doors of learning.

Not until the advent of personal computers in the 1970s and 80s did the classroom and workplace change so much in such a short period of time. Personal computers have become ubiquitous. PCs have enhanced professional enterprise and student learning exponentially. This has been augmented by the widespread addition of smartphones, in many cases more powerful than their larger PC cousins. Advances in software have improved dramatically to make the personal computing and the student learning experience better and more engaging.

The landscape has shifted quite a bit. Students and adults now shop in a digital marketplace broader than any mall or physical shopping center; they play in digital arcades wider than anyone’s imagination; and they live with conveniences only imagined as science fiction mere decades ago. And with this evolution, the contents of each person’s briefcase and each student’s backpack have also changed.

Fast forward to today. Unfortunately for many, students still learn much the same way their parents and ancestors did, using the same tools and strategies. At the root of this irregularity is a tool missing from their proverbial backpacks, “the new pencil.” This is the new key that unlocks learning opportunities. The lack of this new pencil creates a critical barrier promulgating an astonishing inequity of access to learning.

It may surprise many to learn that the missing tool is not a faster, bigger, better PC. Many school systems across the world have wisely figured out that you cannot prepare students for the future using the tools of yesterday; the assignment of 1:1 computing technology is quickly becoming commonplace as a result.

Today’s learning gaps and the world’s great digital divide come from a lack of accessible broadband Internet access. The long-term solution to this challenge is widespread and robust enhancements to accessible broadband and an improved infrastructure to support it. The short-term solution is today’s new pencil, the mobile hotspot. Much like its predecessor, the mobile hotspot is portable, sleek, and functional. It is also relatively easy and cheap to construct and replicate.

To bridge the digital divide in public education, what we often lack is an understanding of how important this tool really is to securing equity of learning opportunities. COVID-19 (and with it, widespread virtual learning) did not create the need for equitable access to broadband, but only revealed it. This issue pre-dates COVID-19 and, unfortunately, will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

To future-proof our organization from inevitable interruptions to learning on the horizon, our students must have seamless access to broadband. More importantly, the doors of learning must remain open to all students regardless of their family’s means of access. To combat this challenge, Chesterfield County Public Schools committed this year to updating our backpacks and providing our students with a truer anytime, anywhere learning opportunity with today’s new pencil - the mobile hotspot.

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