Caveat 4.21.21
Ep 74 | 4.21.21

Impacts of the U.S.'s digital divide.


Grant Hosford: Eighteen million Americans have no internet access at all.

Dave Bittner: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Caveat," the CyberWire's privacy, surveillance, law and policy podcast. I'm Dave Bittner. And joining me is my co-host, Ben Yelin from the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. Hello, Ben. 

Ben Yelin: Hello, Dave. 

Dave Bittner: On this week's show, Ben has the story of the FBI reaching out and securing servers running unpatched versions of Microsoft Exchange. I share how the 1st Circuit Court has upheld citizens' rights to secretly record police. And later in the show, my conversation with Grant Hosford. He's CEO of codeSpark. We're discussing the impacts of the U.S.'s digital divide and what he believes local government should do to ensure students have the tools they need to succeed in an increasingly online world. 

Dave Bittner: While this show covers legal topics and Ben is a lawyer, the views expressed do not constitute legal advice. For official legal advice on any of the topics we cover, please contact your attorney. 

Dave Bittner: All right, Ben, we got some good stuff to cover this week. Why don't you start things off for us? 

Ben Yelin: Well, I've done it, Dave. I have a story that involves both Joseph Cox and Professor Orin Kerr. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) OK, wow. 

Ben Yelin: We've reached ultimate "Caveat." 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) That's right. OK. 

Ben Yelin: So the main story is a Joseph Cox story... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...But Professor Kerr did have a take on it, which I will get to. 

Dave Bittner: All right. 

Ben Yelin: So the story is about the FBI being able to access computers - hundreds of computers around the country - to delete Microsoft Exchange hacks. 

Ben Yelin: So as everybody knows, there was this high-profile hack of Microsoft Exchange servers. The suspected hackers are Chinese. And the United States, both in the public and private sector, have been trying to both recover from the hack and try to prevent hacks of a similar nature in the future. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: One of the methods of recovering from the hack, of course, is encouraging users to download the recommended patches to fix these security flaws. As you and I both know, not everybody does that. 

Dave Bittner: No. 

Ben Yelin: Some people just forget to do it. Some people don't have the institutional knowledge. And, you know, some people are just - aren't technologically equipped to get those patches in. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: So the FBI, not wanting to leave all of these devices vulnerable, applied for a warrant from a court to get approval to access hundreds of computers across the country running vulnerable versions of the Microsoft Exchange server in order to remove web shells left by hackers who had earlier penetrated the system. 

Ben Yelin: So this is a relatively radical step that law enforcement is taking. It is entirely within the confines of the law, and that's where Professor Kerr's analysis comes in. 

Ben Yelin: So according to regulations that were changed just a couple of years ago relating to magistrates issuing nationwide warrants to search devices, there's a provision as part of that rule that any investigation of a computer crime, of a hacking crime where the computers have been damaged without authorization and are located in five or more districts across the country, that qualifies for these types of nationwide broad warrants. And that's exactly what the FBI obtained here. 

Ben Yelin: We used to have this problem where, you know, a magistrate judge in Virginia could only grant approval to access a device in Virginia. That was becoming untenable in the current internet age, where especially on the dark web, it's very hard to track where people actually are physically. So the FBI has changed those rules. 

Ben Yelin: As part of those changes, they've contemplated the very scenario at play here, where there's been a nationwide hack. It's affected computers, devices all across the country. And law enforcement has the authority to go in and get general approval for these devices across the country to access those machines and remove these web shells. 

Ben Yelin: So this is the first high-profile use of this authority, in my view. Joseph Cox was able to obtain some of the court records. And it's just a really fascinating case. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah, it really is. And I have to say, last night, as news of this broke, as we're recording this, my Twitter feed was alight with cybersecurity folks who had, I would say, both raised eyebrows and perhaps a few dropped jaws that (laughter) this was going on, you know? And so I've been trying to think of, you know, sort of an analogy here. 

Ben Yelin: Me, too. I want to hear yours first. Then I'll give you mine. 

Dave Bittner: Well, so mine is that if your house is on fire, the fire department doesn't need your permission to put it out. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah, I think that's pretty close. I guess... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. What's yours? 

Ben Yelin: What I would say is, let's say somebody planted an explosive device in your home. The government could obtain a warrant to go in. And let's say, you know, you're out of town or something. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: The government could obtain a warrant. Or maybe you don't have the keys to your house. I realize this metaphor is getting extended as I go on. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Ben Yelin: But they can get a warrant to go in and diffuse that bomb, even though it's on your property... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: ...Largely for the public good because if that bomb goes out, it might burn down houses across the neighborhood. 

Dave Bittner: Sure. 

Ben Yelin: It might fire other bomb attacks at individual houses. Other people, you know, might try and put hand grenades in houses and businesses. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Ben Yelin: So that seems to be what's going on here, is you have - this is a nationwide vulnerability because... 

Dave Bittner: Are we OK in that case - does this rise to the level of an issue of national security? Can we use that phrase? 

Ben Yelin: I'm so reticent to use that phrase... 

Dave Bittner: OK. 

Ben Yelin: ...Because that opens up Pandora's box. 

Dave Bittner: OK. 

Ben Yelin: Well, this is national security. We can do anything. 

Dave Bittner: Right, right. OK. 

Ben Yelin: Which I'm hesitant to do. I mean, I don't think it's far-fetched to say this is a national security issue when we're talking about a hack that has such far-reaching effects... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: ...And on a server that's so broadly used. 

Dave Bittner: And that we think it's a foreign adversary who's taking advantage of this weakness in the Exchange Servers. 

Ben Yelin: Right. We suspect that it is a foreign adversary. 

Dave Bittner: Right. Is alleged (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: Yeah, I think there certainly are national security interests at play here, which probably is the reason why FBI was able to obtain this approval. If this had been - you know, I'm not sure if this was a non-nation-state or, you know, the proverbial fat guy in his bedroom who was able to infiltrate a bunch of servers, would the FBI still have been able to obtain this authority? I'm not entirely sure because this is such - we're requiring a certain set of circumstances to be able to use something that really does invade people's privacy. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: You know, this article talked about how they didn't just go and access these web shells to remove them, but, you know, they're entering passwords. They're taking an evidentiary copy of the web shell. They're issuing a command through each of the web shells. So it's a little more than just, you know, running into the house and grabbing that bomb. It's... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...Doing a little maintenance as well... 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) Right, right. 

Ben Yelin: ...Maybe tightening the latches on the locks. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. It's interesting to me, too - I was reading the press release from the Department of Justice on this, and it's interesting how specific they're being about what they did not do. In other words, you know, they went in, and they removed the web shells, which is the - basically the software that the bad guys put in to allow them to do other things - to download additional malware, to take control of the server and do those sorts of things. 

Dave Bittner: So the FBI went in and removed those web shells, but they did not go looking for any additional malware that may have already been installed. So that's up to the folks who - basically they're stopping the flow of malware onto the device, but it's still up to the people who have the servers to go and check and make sure that nothing else bad has happened. 

Dave Bittner: It's also interesting to me that the FBI has said they're making a good faith effort to reach out to everyone whose server they touched by sending them an email from an FBI account. 

Ben Yelin: Hey, just to let you know - yeah. 

Dave Bittner: Right, right. Which I suppose is like - it's like those little notices you get in your luggage when you're flying. 

Ben Yelin: The TSA has searched your - yeah. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) Right, right. Exactly. 

Ben Yelin: But this is almost humorous to me because the very devices that the FBI was targeting here belong to people who wouldn't have, for whatever reason, downloaded security patches. So it's likely that these people aren't the type of people who are going to completely understand an email coming from the FBI, you know, saying that we've gained access to your device. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: I think that might actually cause some panic among people who don't realize that this is a legal authority that the government has. 

Ben Yelin: And I hate to use this terminology, but I really believe that they're doing this for the public good because, you know, you want to protect not just individual devices, but networks that exist all across the country. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. You understand how this is making folks a little uncomfortable? Does that resonate with you as well? 

Ben Yelin: Absolutely. Of course. I mean, it's extremely bizarre. You know, if you were to just approach this story in a vacuum... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...That the FBI can legally access our devices and can be active on our devices to remove those web shells and do a bunch of different other things, like, that would be eye-opening to somebody who wouldn't understand the full context of the story. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: And again, we are balancing risks and rewards here. So I certainly would understand somebody saying, I understand the severity of this hack and the potential damage that it could do, but that does not justify this intrusion into personal devices. I would completely understand that viewpoint. 

Ben Yelin: I think it's a really difficult policy question. I think the government has answered this policy question. They've set up a process where this is something that magistrate judges per Department of Justice rules have the ability to do. 

Dave Bittner: Right, right. And I suppose it's comforting that a warrant is required. 

Ben Yelin: Yes. Yes. This went in front of a judge. So it's not just the FBI, as you see in other contexts, particularly in the national security context, using warrantless authorities to perform, you know, this type of signals intelligence or, you know, any intrusion into some of these devices. So it is comforting that this was reviewed by a magistrate judge. You know, they presumably reviewed the full scope of exactly what the FBI was trying to do here, how many devices it needs to go into approximately. So, yeah, this did all go in front of a federal magistrate, which means there's some level of judicial review. And I think that is comforting. 

Ben Yelin: Now, for the people whose devices have been accessed, there's very little they can do here. I mean, they don't really have a cause of action. Really, their only choice is to complain in public and get this into the political realm, which is always possible. But, of course, the FBI can come back and say, look; we are being proactive and using all of our legal authorities to protect the country against this really destructive hack, and... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. You should've patched your server. 

Ben Yelin: Exactly. Exactly. 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) Right, right. 

Ben Yelin: You had one job. 

Dave Bittner: Right, right. Exactly. We gave you every opportunity to do the right thing, and so - you know? Oh, man. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah. I mean, I will say that the National Security Agency, as the story was coming out yesterday, as we're recording, did not tweet about this story in particular, but they did tweet, just coincidentally, a blog post from Microsoft recommending new security patches... 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Ben Yelin: ...Including ones related to server vulnerabilities. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: So, you know, it's sort of perhaps a wink and a nod, saying, I'd hate to see what happens to your device if you don't download these security patches. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah, I suppose in some ways, this is a bit of a recalibration for everyone to realize that this is a capability that federal law enforcement both has and is willing to use. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah, I think it's a wake-up call. We think of our devices as our property. They generally are. They are in our domain. We have physical control of them. But there are ways that the government can access information on our devices if we aren't taking proper security precautions with our own devices. 

Dave Bittner: Right. Just like if they need to come look around in your house, they can do so, but they got to get a warrant. 

Ben Yelin: Yeah, exactly. They can't do so arbitrarily or without cause. But if they get some sort of judicial approval, yeah, they absolutely have that right. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: No private property right in any realm is absolute, especially if an intrusion has been granted by a judicial authority. 

Dave Bittner: Right. All right, well, interesting stuff and, dare I say, interesting times (laughter). 

Ben Yelin: Very interesting times. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: And really a fascinating story that I think we're just kind of processing it now. I mean, it's only been 24 hours, and I think there's going to be some second-order effects of this revelation that we'll be talking about for a long time. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. My story this week comes - actually, it's a press release, I suppose, from the EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And they are praising the 1st Circuit Court, which upheld the First Amendment right to secretly audio record the police. 

Dave Bittner: This is a topic that has come up here on this show before, I believe. I can't remember if it was here or over on the CyberWire. I expressed my skepticism when it comes to prosecutors using wiretapping statutes when people are recording the police in the course of their duties. 

Dave Bittner: You and I live in Maryland, which is a two-party consent state... 

Ben Yelin: Yup. 

Dave Bittner: ...Which means if you want to record somebody, both parties have to give consent. And so there have been cases here in our great state where someone has recorded the police and then has later found themselves prosecuted because they were technically violating the wiretapping statute. 

Ben Yelin: Yup. 

Dave Bittner: So in this case, the 1st Circuit Court, which doesn't cover Maryland but covers a lot of the Northeast, has said - they struck down as unconstitutional a Massachusetts anti-eavesdropping wiretapping statute that prohibits secret audio recording of police officers. And it's fascinating to me because one of the reasons they state here is that sometimes, if you're publicly recording the police, the police can retaliate against you for doing that. And so... 

Ben Yelin: And they frequently do, yeah. 

Dave Bittner: And they frequently do. And so they make the case here that there's a public interest in the secret recording of the police to avoid that retaliation. And I find that fascinating as well. What do you make of all this, Ben? 

Ben Yelin: It's a really interesting decision, and I can see why the EFF is celebrating it. So there was another decision that the circuit made about 10 years ago in a different case where a person was recording police action in the Boston Common on his cellphone. And in that case, he was recording audio and video without law enforcement's consent. But it was obvious to or at least should have been obvious to law enforcement officials that this person had a cellphone and was recording. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: So that meant it didn't violate their reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Ben Yelin: So that left this question open. What happens if somebody is surreptitiously, secretly recording an interaction with law enforcement? And what the court is saying here is the interest of the First Amendment, the newsworthiness of police interactions and the importance of these interactions for the public discourse supersede the Massachusetts statute. 

Ben Yelin: So the end result of this is now law enforcement officers in the 1st Circuit are going to have to be aware that people have the constitutional right without the fear of retaliation and without the consent of the officer to record audio of police interactions. And I think it's a really important and groundbreaking decision. 

Ben Yelin: Now, we have not seen this adopted in other circuits. They reference a 10th Circuit case here where a similar case was brought up to that court, but they sort of punted on this particular issue. But it'll be really interesting to see if other circuits adopt the 1st Circuit's reasoning here. 

Ben Yelin: I mean, I think the reasoning is particularly compelling. I think it would have a major chilling effect on the First Amendment and on transparency if people weren't able to surreptitiously record law enforcement interactions. Think about all of the national conversations we've had around policing over the last 10 years because of some of these types of audio and video recordings. 

Ben Yelin: And when law enforcement - you could say, well, why don't you just get law enforcement to consent or, you know, why don't you give law enforcement notice by very publicly, you know, illustrating your desire to record? That means that law enforcement not only might retaliate, but also might not act candidly as they would if there were not audio and video recording. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: And I think it's important that the public knows, you know, how law enforcement people act when they don't think that they're being recorded. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: I think that is a matter of the public interest. 

Dave Bittner: Well, I mean, it's really been eye-opening to me, and I'm certainly not alone in this, over the past few years, as we've seen the ubiquity of recording devices - everyone's carrying one in their pocket on their mobile device - and what that has meant to our perception of law enforcement. I mean, just how it's - I know for me, I don't know about you, but it's really opened my eyes to a lot of things I was simply unaware of, ignorant of, you know? 

Ben Yelin: I think all of us were, yeah, 

Dave Bittner: I think that - yeah - that we - none of us - not none of us. Many of us - people like you and I, I think, of a certain type of privilege.... 

Ben Yelin: If you know what we mean, yeah. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah, of a certain type of privilege - had the privilege of not being aware of this. And so to have our eyes opened to it has really been quite something. And so my personal opinion is that I think it's a good thing that we're continuing our ability to sort of ferret out what may be going on if we have problematic law enforcement actions here. So I guess I'm saying I'm with the EFF here. I think this is a good thing. 

Ben Yelin: I think so, too. And I think this is a well-reasoned decision by the 1st Circuit, which really has to balance a couple of competing interests here. There is not only the interest of law enforcement, but the interest in trying to defer to the state of Massachusetts as it enacts its own statutes. They're not looking to declare Massachusetts state statutes unconstitutional. But, you know, when you have this type of issue here where you'd be eliminating a source of transparency on law enforcement, then I think those First Amendment interests certainly trump the interests of the Massachusetts state Legislature to pass these types of eavesdropping statutes. 

Ben Yelin: So, yeah, I think it's a very important decision. I'm curious to see if this is reflected in other circuits. Maybe it's not and we get a circuit split, and then maybe, perhaps we'd be on the road to the Supreme Court for this type of case. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. All right, well, we will have a link to all of the stories we talked about today. And, of course, we would love to hear from you. If you have a question for us, you can call in. It's 410-618-3720. Or email us to 

Dave Bittner: Ben, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Grant Hosford. He's the CEO of a company called codeSpark. And our discussion centered around his perception of the USA's digital divide and what governments could do to help ensure students have the tools they need to succeed. Here's my conversation with Grant Hosford. 

Grant Hosford: You know, a year ago, we really found ourselves on our back foot, right? The pandemic exposed the fact that we have not invested in connectivity for all the families who need it around the country. We had estimates in California, for example, of as many as a million kids who didn't have internet access at the start of the pandemic for a variety of reasons. You know, they're in a rural area, the internet in their area just isn't strong enough to support multiple people, they don't have a device at home, et cetera. So I think it exposed a lot of weakness in a system that relies on the internet to deliver a lot of the educational content that we consume. 

Grant Hosford: However, I am happy that we seem to be moving in a better direction. In general, I think a lot of heavy lifting has been done at the district level, and it's pretty impressive what many of the more organized districts have been able to accomplish. 

Grant Hosford: I think, you know, what I'd like to see is national policy around connectivity, right? I think you guys recently had a podcast about how, you know, security and cybersecurity and privacy is becoming a fundamental right. And, you know, we believe that internet access and connectivity and an understanding of computational thinking is similar, right? It's something that you must have in order to thrive in society. 

Grant Hosford: And I think the trend toward delivering education via the internet is only going to continue. I think it's going to be amazing when we get kids back in school, you know, at the end of this school year or certainly by next school year. But we're still going to be using a lot of digital tools. So we need to make sure everyone has access. That's where things start. 

Dave Bittner: Is this kind of like, I mean, a hundred years ago, when our nation set about with a, you know, rural electrification program, you know, to - it's hard to imagine that there was a time when lots of people didn't have electricity. You know, we consider it a basic, fundamental part of survival these days. But they didn't. 

Grant Hosford: Yeah. 

Dave Bittner: And I can't wonder if there's a - or I can't help wondering if there's a comparison here that it's an essential service, and yet it's surprising - to those of us who live in well-connected areas, I think sometimes it's surprising how many people live in areas that aren't as fortunate as us. 

Grant Hosford: Yeah, 18 million Americans have no internet access at all, which is... 

Dave Bittner: Wow. 

Grant Hosford: You know, it's a big number. And as I mentioned, in California at the beginning of the pandemic it was 1 million kids. 

Grant Hosford: You know, and coincidentally, not only did we add electricity to homes a hundred years ago, but about the same time, we added math to curriculum all around the country, right? And the same thing is currently happening with computational thinking. And so we've got these two things that go hand in hand, internet access and understanding how software works - right? - and how software kind of runs our world today. And they're being more and more understood as fundamental to success, but I think we're in the early days of it. 

Grant Hosford: So I think people like you, you know, help spread the word that this is something that all people should be concerned about and that we really should fight for, right? Everyone should have this access. And in particular, we need to make sure that low-income families get the access they need so their kids don't fall farther and farther behind. 

Dave Bittner: Help me understand, when you talk about, you know, computational thinking, what does that encompass? 

Grant Hosford: Yeah. Well, the buzzword that you'll hear in our industry is coding - right? - teach kids to code. And that is part of what codeSpark does, for example. 

Grant Hosford: But really, it begins with what we would call computational thinking, which is two things. It's understanding how computers work and what they're good at. A lot of kids are surprised when they realize that computers aren't smart. They're actually really dumb. They're just super fast, right? They do exactly what you tell them to do and exactly the way you tell them to do it. But they can do that crazy, crazy fast and over and over and over again. 

Grant Hosford: So understanding, you know, how to use technology for problem-solving is really critical to taking whatever a kid is good at naturally and, you know, kind of giving them superpowers, right? It's taking whatever they want to do, whether it's be a ballet dancer or be a, you know, an athlete or be a doctor, you have - technology is going to help them do their job. 

Grant Hosford: And so they don't all have to be programmers, but it's going to be really helpful to be able to sit down with a programmer and think about problem-solving together. And so that's what we're bringing to the classroom, is helping both students and teachers understand how software works, how they can use it, and the fact that it's not actually that intimidating - that once you understand the basics, you know, you can do some pretty sophisticated things, even at a young age. 

Dave Bittner: How do we go about making room for this in the curriculum... 

Grant Hosford: Yeah. 

Dave Bittner: ...You know, when there's so many requirements already? How do we make space for it? 

Grant Hosford: Well, it's a great question, and it's actually something we address head-on. We launched about a year and a half ago what we call StoryCode (ph). And we heard from teachers exactly what you just said. Like, look; we love the idea of teaching coding in the classroom. We totally agree that it's important. We don't have time for it. We're already held to so many other standards with, you know, test prep, et cetera. 

Grant Hosford: And so what we've done is we've made coding something that can be used in any subject, right? And so you can use our platform to do a book report. You can tell a story about history. You could act out a story problem in math, for example. And I think that's the way you're going to see coding and computational thinking evolve, is that while you could choose to study it on its own, more and more, it's going to be kind of a toolbox that you use to solve problems across multiple subjects. 

Grant Hosford: And that's the approach we're taking, anyways. And it gives teachers time back in their day. Now they can do two things at once. 

Dave Bittner: How are you ensuring that, you know, groups who have traditionally been underrepresented - you know, certainly when it comes to coding, you've got women and people of color. How do you bring them along? How do you make them feel like they're welcome? 

Grant Hosford: Yeah, part of it is we've been thinking about how to connect with girls and with brown and Black students since before the company was founded. So the inspiration for codeSpark was actually my two daughters when they were young. When they were 6 and 4, they asked me how computers work, and I thought that was a super cool question. So I went looking for an ABCs of computer science, assuming that existed in a world that's, you know, run by software, and I couldn't find anything. And that really shocked me. And then I dug into statistics around whether coding was being taught in elementary school or not, and the answer was largely no. You know, 90%-plus of elementary schools weren't teaching it. 

Grant Hosford: And so when we built codeSpark Academy, our platform, we made sure from the beginning through testing that girls thought it was interesting, right? And so what does that mean? Well, for example, they like to know the why of what they're doing. And so our puzzles have you helping little characters solve problems. And in the early days, it was just have the character make it to a goal, but there was no story behind the goal. And girls were completing the puzzles at a rate lower than boys. 

Grant Hosford: When we changed the puzzles so that there was a specific and overt goal, like help the Police Foo get her doughnuts back or help the Construction Foo - our characters are called Foos, by the way. 


Grant Hosford: Yeah, I realized that's not clear. So we have these little characters called Foos, and you help them through a variety of situations. So one of them is you help the Construction Foo find his tools that have been lost, right? And so when we added just a little bit of story to these puzzles and had that story continue throughout each chapter, the completion rates for girls not only went up, but they became equal with the completion rates for boys, right? And so there's little, subtle things that you have to do to make sure that both boys and girls are excited about what you're doing. 

Grant Hosford: And then the other thing we do and have done since the beginning is we test every single new feature with a really wide variety of kids - kids from low-income backgrounds, kids from high-income backgrounds, kids from parents who are exposed to technology, kids whose parents aren't exposed to technology, et cetera, et cetera. And by doing that from Day 1, we've built a platform that really, you know, truly does work for all kids. 

Dave Bittner: What are you seeing in terms of kids' ability to catch up? You know, I'm thinking of - you know, my kids, because of who I am and what I do, you know... 

Grant Hosford: Yeah. 

Dave Bittner: ...They were using iPads as soon as they - as soon as their hands started working, you know? 


Grant Hosford: Right. 

Dave Bittner: But not every... 

Grant Hosford: Yeah. 

Dave Bittner: Not every kid is exposed to that. And so can kids who haven't had that advantage throughout some of those really early years - what sort of things are you seeing? Are they able to catch up with their peers? Is there an equalization that can take place? 

Grant Hosford: For sure. I mean, look; the earlier it happens, the better, right? I'm not going to argue against that. However, what we see - so what does codeSpark Academy teach? It teaches fundamental concepts behind all programming languages that you would need to know no matter what, you know, programming you're eventually going to do. So it really is fundamental knowledge. 

Grant Hosford: And because exposure to computer science in the U.S. is currently really uneven - it's getting better and better in that it is becoming part of curriculum, it is being introduced at younger and younger ages. However, because of our system, you know, district by district policies, its hodgepodge. 

Grant Hosford: And so what we see that's really great is that our program works equally well for kindergarteners as it does for fourth- and fifth-graders who haven't yet been exposed to computer science. The older kids just move faster, right? They just master things more quickly. They get to the point at which they're creating artifacts more quickly. 

Grant Hosford: One of the things you can do on our platform is you can make your own video games, and you can make your own interactive stories. Imagine a comic strip come to life. So they get to that point quickly, but they're learning the same things in the same progression. And that is one of the nice things about computer science in general, is that the curriculum is very consistent state to state, even country to country. 

Dave Bittner: You know, I have occasionally been called in to help my own children with their math homework, and one thing I've discovered is that they have totally outstripped me in their capabilities (laughter). Not only is my memory bad in how to do things, but the way that they do things in math is different than what I learned. 

Grant Hosford: Yup. 

Dave Bittner: But they're just learning things so much earlier than I think my generation did, certainly. What sort of resources are there for the kids who are excelling at this but don't have parents there to help answer their questions? 

Grant Hosford: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the exciting things about what's happening in edtech. And, you know, there are other tools that do what we do. I can speak most eloquently about codeSpark Academy. CodeSpark Academy does the teaching for the parent or for the teacher. We assume that the adults in the child's life have not been exposed to computer science and that we need to give them all the resources they need within the app, right? And if you are advanced and moving forward, we unlock more content for you and let you use those advanced capabilities. If you're struggling, we help you figure out how to practice the things that you're struggling with. 

Grant Hosford: And that, I think, in a nutshell encapsulates the promise of edtech, right? It's been uneven to date. I think we've seen a lot of edtech wrapped in chocolate-covered broccoli where it's like, hey, if you learn this thing, then you get to go do something fun. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Grant Hosford: That's not really the true promise of edtech, right? The true promise of edtech is that you do something that you think is interesting, and you learn along the way. And I think, you know, our platform delivers on that. And more and more, you're seeing other platforms, teaching a variety of subjects, frankly, deliver on that as well. 

Dave Bittner: Grant, do you ever - do you find the parents are quietly creating accounts for themselves? 


Grant Hosford: That's actually one of our favorite things is that we found out that, you know, just like in the past, there was, like, Club Penguin and things like that, parents would... 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Grant Hosford: ...Really have accounts, we definitely have parents who are making games in particular. Like, so parents who grew up, you know, or millennial parents and grew up with video games, they love the fact that they can make their own Mario-style games on the platform. And they make cool stuff. And the kid and the parent will challenge each other with their games, which is pretty fun. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. So we're all hoping that we're going to be able to get kids back in the classroom as soon as possible. What's your outlook for that? What do you see ahead? 

Grant Hosford: So I see it as being mostly a very positive experience where kids are quite resilient, catch up pretty quickly and, for the most part, are fine. 

Grant Hosford: I think my biggest worry is two things. One, I think we'll get caught up in a lot of unnecessary debates around testing where we try to pretend that things are normal when, in fact, we've had a once-in-a-century event throw off everybody's learning. I don't know what the benefit would be of trying to pretend that things are normal, right? We should just call things the way they are, skip testing for a year, get back to it next year and just focus on, you know, any fundamental knowledge that people missed out on. 

Grant Hosford: I think the other big thing I'm concerned about is for some students, this has been super hard. And I think their loss of interest and confidence in education is potentially damaging long-term. I don't think it's the majority, but I see that in actually one of my two daughters, where distance learning was just really hard for her. She didn't love school before, and now she really doesn't like school, and she feels like she's not doing well at it. And I've been reading a lot about this, and it's a concern nationwide. 

Grant Hosford: And so I think what we want our teachers to focus on is finding those students who have been disaffected by what's been going on for the last year and really lean in to getting them back into the groove. I think that's probably the best way we can spend time this next school year as we try to recover. 

Dave Bittner: Ben, what do you think? 

Ben Yelin: Well, first of all, it certainly made me jealous that Mr. Hosford is doing work that's so valuable to society and improving the outcomes for our nation's children. I wish you and I could have that much of a profound impact on the world. Maybe - we think we do with our podcast here, but... 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter) Right. 

Ben Yelin: I was just inspired by the mission of codeSpark and what Grant and his team are doing. And I think, you know, their work carries on extra meaning now that we're a year-plus into this pandemic and many students across the country are still doing some form of online learning. 

Dave Bittner: Right. 

Ben Yelin: And you have these major equity problems where people, for whatever reason, as he talked about, lack internet access. Maybe they live in a rural area. Maybe they live in a crowded urban area where multiple people aren't able to have fast internet on a device in a given household. And maybe that would've been an inconvenience 14 months ago, and now it's a crisis... 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. 

Ben Yelin: ...'Cause that's going to stunt learning on behalf of our children, and it's going to be a major problem for equity. So I'm just very glad that he's doing the work that he's doing. And, you know, as he said, hopefully we can all get back to in-person learning full-time. But, you know, we can take some of the lessons we learned from this pandemic about, you know, ensuring equal access to the internet, which is something that I think should be seen as a fundamental right if, you know, it's so important in the context of education. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Well, we appreciate Grant Hosford taking the time to speak to us. 

Dave Bittner: We want to thank all of you for listening. That is our show. The "Caveat" podcast is proudly produced in Maryland at the startup studios of DataTribe, where they're co-building the next generation of cybersecurity teams and technologies. Our senior producer is Jennifer Eiben. Our executive editor is Peter Kilpe. I'm Dave Bittner. 

Ben Yelin: And I'm Ben Yelin. 

Dave Bittner: Thanks for listening.