For many, educational technology represents the Holy Grail that will help promote and develop more equal academic outcomes. Yet there remains a serious resource divide between rural, resource-poor districts and families who may not have any internet access at home or school and other, urban and suburban students who have it at home, on their devices, and at school.
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently approved a subsidy for broadband access for millions of low-income households to address this situation. An extension of the Lifeline program, this initiative should serve as a step forward in terms of access and equity.
Access is crucial if children in families in need are to succeed. At a 2015 conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it bluntly: “Technology can’t just be a tool for engagement. It has to advance equity. If the technology revolution only happens for families that already have money and education, then it’s not really a revolution.”
He and other experts believe that leveling the infrastructure playing field for rural or economically-disadvantaged communities, plus mentoring and other support mechanisms, can enable EdTech to make a real difference for kids and communities nationwide.
A Crucial Starting Point
While Lifeline is a start for getting EdTech to students, it’s far from the full solution. One urban district found 12 percent of students had no home internet access. Overall, some 5 million households with school-age children lack high-speed home access.
To help alleviate this problem, the FCC announced in 2015 an initiative offering funding and pressure on local telecoms to improve internet access where it’s lacking. FCC Chair Tom Wheeler called this a game changer for students.
Rural and economically challenged Calhoun County, Mississippi, is a pilot case in how the initiative is making a difference. Calhoun County was paying nearly $10,000 per month for the state’s slowest district internet access before the FCC move. However, after the county sought the newly available federal funding, local providers rushed in to build out a network before a contract went elsewhere.
Best practices can speed EdTech’s distribution to those in need and its ability to level the playing field. A pilot project in St. Louis loans devices using up to 2GB of data from a media center for students to take home. Another proposal has been made to pair students who own devices with partners who don’t.
Additionally, schools can make their resources available through after-school computer labs to provide access and training for students. Representing diversity in all tech-related materials is important in order to encourage diverse genders, ethnic and economic groups to use the technology.
Teacher and student tech expertise must be leveraged within schools to best distribute training to those who need it most. For example, a group of 9- and 10-year-old students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, formed S.W.A.T. (Students Working to Advance Technology) to enable students teaching teachers and parents. Similar tech mentoring programs partner skilled teachers and students with other students who need to catch up on use of technology.
Additionally, the Department of Education strongly recommends including teachers in the professional tech and app development process, since they’re close to the ground and see what inequities and special needs are up close.
New EdTech Doing More
One positive sign is the dozens of EdTech companies sprouting up to address learning inequities such as Ellevation, Newsela, MasteryConnect, and Mystery Science by scaffolding learning based on student ability levels. Some solutions, hardware and software, are beginning to be designed to support special needs and physically challenged students, with features like speech recognition and automatic highlighting as you read. Software libraries like Bookshare, a nonprofit run by Benetech, offer textbooks and other titles for specially abled learners free for download.
The Flipside Of Better Tech
Better tech alone isn’t enough. Studies have repeatedly found that increasing EdTech access can actually increase the digital divide. Research by Susan Neuman at New York University and Donna Celano at LaSalle University found surprisingly that “the very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it … the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”
This occurs because the haves and have-nots use tech differently. They use different apps and software, have different study habits, etc. It’s a digital “Matthew Effect,” where children who begin life as strong readers separate out from those who begin behind over time.
Indeed, a Texas study found laptops distributed to middle-school students only significantly benefitted those who were already well-off or already performing well academically. Also, while English Language Learners (ELLs) are a huge and growing segment of K-12 and higher ed, most educators believe they are not currently properly served by digital tools.
Ensuring Effective Use Of Tech
Parental influence is a huge factor in the “digital Matthew Effect.” While the haves are often accompanied, guided and assisted by parents as they learn to use EdTech, researchers found the have-nots, who lack this support system, often use EdTech alone. Instead of benefiting from EdTech, they may flounder on their own or distract themselves with games. Communities and districts need to plan for this and train librarians, teachers and others to mentor have-not kids as they begin to use the new digital tools to learn more efficiently and effectively.
Takeaway: Inequity is a deep social problem, with complex roots and solutions. EdTech and better IT can help level the playing field—but only where there’s a knowledgeable human influence to nurture, guide and train those from economically challenged, special needs and ELL backgrounds. That, along with better access to devices and infrastructure across the board, needs to become a serious focus of thinking, planning and policy.
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2. “Digital Equity Action Toolkit” CoSN. 2016.
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5. “#EdTech Perspectives: Addressing Access & Equity Gaps” Alliance for Excellent Education. January 22, 2015.
6. “Providing Free Wireless Hotspots Helps This District Close the Equity Gap” eSchool News. August 4, 2015.
7. “Are Rural Students Getting Shortchanged in the Digital Age?” Education Week. February 17, 2016.
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13. “F.C.C. Approves Broadband Subsidy for Low-Income Households” The New York Times. March 31, 2016.