Nichole Pinkard Credit: photo by Jamison Nash

Nichole Pinkard took her first computer class in 8th grade and majored in computer science at Stanford University, later earning master’s and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University. As a professor at the University of Michigan, she became interested in technology and urban youth when she noticed that few kids from Detroit were entering the computer science program. Now, as director of technology for the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, Pinkard helps integrate technology into the classrooms of the university’s charter schools. Pinkard talked to Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher about her work and how urban schools can make better use of technology.

How critical is the “tech divide” between schools in poor and well-to-do communities?

The divide isn’t in the schools. It’s in the home. If I’m in a suburban area and kids come from families where they do a lot of media work [on computers], then the kids are going to bring what they know into the classroom. In urban areas, if kids don’t have [the same] access, there’s a divide. Our challenge is to figure out ways to bring access and use of technology not just into [urban] schools, but into after-school programs.

How can technology help close the achievement gap?

It can create access to learning resources that kids might not have in their home life. It can make learning more engaging. For instance, after-school programs are more hands-on and often they include technology. When you look at the grades of some of our kids in the after-school program [you would think], “This can’t be the same kid. This kid is creating a robot and doing all these diagrams.” Then I look at his test scores and they’re real low.

Technology might be a way to level the playing field for kids in urban schools. But is it financially out of reach?

It’s doable. [At North Kenwood Oakland Charter], our goal was to have a model one-to-one laptop program based on a charter school budget. To do that, parents had to participate. We decided to price our program similar to the cost of a video game and PlayStation: $250. People thought we were crazy—”You’re 75 percent poverty and you’re asking people to come up with that money?” We have 100 percent participation. The decision to have a laptop program hasn’t scared anybody away from the high school [the university’s new charter, opening this fall]. Parents understand how the world is. They’re thinking about their kids and what they’re going to be doing 10 years from now, and that [kids need] access to using technology.

What are the most common mistakes schools make in thinking about technology?

Teachers and administrators don’t understand the time and resources that need to be put into professional development. … Also, you need to let your kids do some of the leading. When teachers feel like they have to be the ones to introduce the technology, then you decrease innovation. If you can find a way to make both teachers and kids knowledgeable, and let kids push how technology can be used, you get a much bigger bang for your buck.

What tips would you offer schools on evaluating software?

Start with a clear understanding of your instructional [and] pedagogical model. You could be a direct instruction school, a whole language school or something in between. One piece of software might be good in one environment and horrible in another. …We’re a balanced literacy school. In some instances, we purposely pick out software that is more [phonics-oriented]. So when I send a group over to work on the computers, I want to know that they’re getting some direct instruction [in phonics].

What are things schools should do?

Definitely [have] professional development to introduce the tools, but also conversations about the integration of the tools. Let teachers sit with it and then come back [and talk about], “How are we going to use it in the curriculum?” You have to give teachers time to play around with [software], so teachers need laptops. They need to be able to take technology home, get comfortable with it, see all the [problems] kids are going to have with it and then come back and ask questions.

You mentioned that urban schools often expect to use educational software for drills and not much else. Does that have to change?

Part of the question is, what is your vision about the world kids are going into? We have to become more innovative and move our kids into being more design-oriented. Kids still need to read and compute, but they need to understand how to do it in a context of being creative. When you get kids engaged and get them in a creative mood, they still have to write, they still have to plan [projects] out; they have to think critically.

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