Students using education technology in the classroom
For Administrators

Ensuring Ed Tech Doesn’t Increase Inequity

By Jennifer Gunn July 2, 2019

Technology is here to stay and its presence within education settings is rapidly expanding. This presence — or its absence — could be perpetuating inequity in our schools in not-so-obvious ways. Here’s a look at what we need to be aware of as technology expands its reach in education. 

The hidden biases in ed tech products

All educators know that the past 20 years have seen a veritable surge in the use of classroom and school technology. The Office of Educational Technology says that “Technology can be a powerful tool for transforming learning. It can help affirm and advance relationships between educators and students, reinvent our approaches to learning and collaboration, shrink long-standing equity and accessibility gaps, and adapt learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners.” But there can be hidden issues in the implementation of ed tech that can put some students behind while others excel.

Equity in access

The very access to ed tech in classrooms can itself be inequitable. Schools with higher funding may have access to products that underfunded schools do not. Over the past eight years, schools across this country have raced to incorporate devices in classrooms from iPads to laptops to SmartBoards, but if the staff remains untrained in how to meaningfully incorporate technology into learning, students aren’t likely to see great benefits. Jaime Saavedra, Senior Director and Head of the World Bank Global Practice of Education and former Minister of Education of Peru, discussed the issue of equity and access at this year’s Global Education & Skills Forum, saying that “the potential for technology to be an equalizing factor is big … [but] unless we do something, the technology of now … [has] the potential to be the opposite.” He noted that education technology requires electricity, internet connections, and devices — the lack of which can widen the achievement gap further.

The ACT Center for Equity in Learning found in 2018 that 14% of students surveyed had access to only one device at home. “This “digital divide” —  the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who do not — can perpetuate and even worsen socioeconomic and other disparities for already underserved groups,” the brief found. Further, nearly half of those relying on one device at home use a mobile device on their family’s data plan. According to another study published in 2016, one-third of students who rely on mobile devices for access to the internet often ran out of data or lost service due to payment issues, making it difficult or impossible to do schoolwork outside of school.

The ACT policy brief made two recommendations based on their findings. “Inequitable access to electronic devices and effective internet connections contributes to opportunity, achievement, and equity gaps in education. Programs that help to rectify device and internet access imbalances — such as the Wireless Reach initiative  or the private-sector Kajeet — can help improve educational opportunity and access for those in greatest need of assistance in preparing for and succeeding in the 21st-century economy.” Secondly, they recommend that schools ensure that academic materials are mobile-accessible and do not put undue burden on a family’s data plan. Things like applications, assignments, and documents should be mobile-friendly and not data-heavy.

Ed tech doesn’t cure trauma

Ed Tech in classrooms does not solve systemic equity issues, nor does it alleviate the traumas and inequalities faced by underserved students. Coding academies and technology-based nonprofits have spread programming into underserved schools to ensure that students have increased access to STEM-related content, experts and careers. While this is an important and noble pursuit, technology and tech-focused nonprofits alone do not solve the inequities that led to the access shortfalls in the first place. 

At last year’s SxSWEdu conference, Dr. Chris Emdin spoke on this issue in his keynote. “This is not anti-Coding Academy. It’s anti-‘the perverse notion that I can go to a community, frame a charity as opening up new possibilities for [students] when, in reality, I still have low expectations for them,” he said. “In class, we focus on standards and can’t talk about those emotions, but young folks are carrying those emotions into the class every day. We have become adjusted to the fact that young folks have trauma.” We cannot simply “tech away” the inherent trauma and oppression embedded in the school system and our culture. In our pursuits for inclusivity and expanded access to ed tech, we must also address the very real presence of bias, emotion, and oppression in our school system.

Going forward with technology

In order to ensure that technology is not a mere textbook or notebook replacement, we must consider how to thoughtfully and authentically engage technology in a classroom. In an age of instant information access, it’s possible that teaching content so intensely isn’t quite as vital as it once was. What then takes priority? Critical thinking skills, contextual awareness, communication, collaboration, and a melding of academic subjects into more in-depth learning processes. When technology makes it possible to access detailed information, is it entirely necessary for students to memorize dates and other intricacies of content? “The availability of instructional technology offers schools a profound chance to breathe life into classrooms that emphasize concepts and context over content, allowing students to maximize their creative and innovative potential,” says Mark Isseks, author of Forward Fast: Making Sense of Education in an Era of Rapid Change and host of the State of Ed Podcast. “It simultaneously endangers today’s learners, subjecting them to the inequities and injustices of the past. Ultimately, it must be determined whether or not student access to web-enabled tools is a fundamental right; we can then design budgets, curricula, assessments, and professional development accordingly.” 

Isseks’ question is a profound one. If access to technology is a “fundamental right” for students in this country, we must intentionally design our systems to best include, utilize, and grow with technology. In doing so, we can more thoughtfully ensure equity and authenticity. 

Read more on this subject in Forward Fast: Making Sense of Education in an Era of Rapid Change.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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