No-Tech Makes the Grade

Smithsonian's solution to 'digital divide' in schools is a real page-turner

More than a year after the pandemic permanently shifted the way kids are taught, millions of children still lack access to laptops, tablets, broadband and the tech fluency they need to effectively learn and study at home.

While nonprofits and school systems have sought ways to get technology to students, the 175-year-old Smithsonian Institution found an old-school way to bridge the gap in the "digital divide" that's affecting up to 12 million school-age children nationwide.

The Smithsonian—which boasts the largest research, education and museum complex in the world—developed a 40-page multisensory activity guide for kindergartners through eighth-graders living in "technology deserts." The guides are meant to not only aid teachers and engage students and their families throughout the school year but also help them learn throughout the summer.

"The digital divide [which effects mostly BIPOC, underserved urban communities and students in rural communities] existed before COVID but exacerbated and magnified with COVID," said Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar, acting under secretary for education at the Smithsonian. "There are a lot of good people working to solve the problem at every level, but the challenge is that it's a multilevel, complex, systemic problem."

Last year, leadership at the Smithsonian formed an Education Response Team and consulted with the District of Columbia Public Schools to explore efficient ways to advance kids' learning journeys.

Child wearing facemask with learning guide and markers on desk before them
Learners in Pharr, Texas’ Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s afterschool program received copies of the activity guides, filled with hands-on activities, puzzles and other games. Photo provided by the Smithsonian

"At first, we thought each of our 19 museums could put something online, but that would be overwhelming," Neuhold-Ravikumar said. "We are not a technology company; we are a public service institution.

"A lot of us remembered education without computers, so we started trying to see what we could do in low-tech and no-tech ways to bridge the digital divide."

From these efforts, the Smithsonian learning guides were born.

From June to August 2020, the Smithsonian distributed 165,000 copies of its Summer Road Trip activity guide to libraries, school districts, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Smithsonian Affiliate museums. The institution distributed more than 100,000 copies of the Winter at Home guide to 58 organizations nationwide and 177,000 copies to fourth- through eighth-grade students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"I am thankful for the opportunity to share valuable resources to our Kentucky migrant students," said Migrant State Director Christina Benassi. "During this time, these magazines provide learning opportunities to our families that may not have internet access."

The Michigan Science Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum in Detroit, received and distributed 5,000 activity guides, said MiSci President and CEO Christian Greer.

Person bending to pickup a bundle of learning guides from one of two stacks
As a Smithsonian Affiliate, the Kentucky Historical Society received 4,000 copies of “Summer Road Trip” to distribute across Kentucky. KHS partnered with the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Migrant Education program and distributed copies across the state to connect with children that would benefit greatly from these resources. Photo provided by the Smithsonian

Creating the learning guides wasn't complicated. The Smithsonian has a vast collection of resources, including myriad experts. This allows them to produce a package that includes hands-on activities, puzzles, games and engaging topics in history, culture, the arts and STEM. There's also bilingual Spanish/English language content.

What was complicated was how the Smithsonian would distribute the guides in the midst of the pandemic. Delivery companies were overwhelmed and understaffed, and stay-at-home orders prevented pickups.

So, the Smithsonian leaned into partnerships to find a solution.

"Our collective networks were stronger than our individual networks," Neuhold-Ravikumar said. "It took partners that might not have worked together before to bring these guides to communities nationwide."

With print, distribution and funding help from USA Today, FedEx, the Ford Motor Company Fund and others, the Smithsonian was able to get hundreds of thousands of learning guides to underserved areas.

"The Smithsonian Institution has a long history of trying to balance the scales in education and advance the exploration of STEM," said Yisel Cabrera, community relations manager at the Ford Fund. "In particular, its learning guides align with our mission to develop and fund innovative, community-driven educational programs in under-resourced communities."

Child holding open newspaper insert
Students from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kern County, California enjoy the 'Summer Road Trip' active guides. which workbooks. The guides in both English and Spanish include fun word searches, picture drawing and facts on national parks and other U.S. points of interest. Photo provided by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kern County

Even when schools completely reopen, experts say, issues regarding connectivity and learning won't disappear. The digital divide isn't just about home and in-person classroom learning but also about the ability to complete homework during the school year or stay engaged during breaks.

Moreover, for a variety of reasons, many kids with access to technology never logged on. As a result, individual teachers and some school districts have been doing door-to-door outreach to get students learning.

The Smithsonian plans to keep students and their families engaged by creating and distributing two more guides this year, Neuhold-Ravikumar said.

This year's spring-summer guide will inspire the next generation of problem-solvers as they learn about the ingenuity and capacity of Americans to innovate and move forward. The fall-winter guide will focus on turning that inspiration into action.

"Because the need for no-tech educational materials like this is not going away, even once we return to a ‘new normal,' the Smithsonian is looking at producing three new publications per year that focus on students, caretakers and elderly audiences," Neuhold-Ravikumar said. "We are able to tell a fantastic, exciting story that piques curiosity and gets children excited about learning things. But continued funding in the current environment is an issue."