Gadgets and software on its own will not improve education. While 21st century technology promises to help students develop a wider, more accessible breadth of knowledge, just putting tech in our schools is not enough to "level the playing field." Instead our structural and pedagogical realities run smack into conflict with our hopes for equitable access.
I see some daunting--but not impossible--hurdles before technology can truly help all our students in equitable ways. The changes we need starts with our mindset. It also includes facing up to the prolonged inequities between our most affluent schools and our most underfunded ones. The schools with the most need in their communities should get more funding than those with less--starting with more guidance counselors, expert teachers, and resources. And yet, these schools also need support to get high-end computers (tablets or laptops) with high-speed Internet service to keep up with the data-heavy applications currently offered for free to those “in-the-know.”
Among the challenges that we--and our technology--have to overcome first, before we can deliver on the promise of an equitable education for all, is diversity of the community.
The ed-tech landscape plays out similar to our socio economic landscape: those with the most resources seem to know where to find the best tools and have continuous access to them. Taking a random sampling of connected educators, for instance, one can see that the majority of us either have the time, space, or funding to attend the best conferences, meet the representatives from the latest tech fad, and share their latest concepts in the Twitter chats, Google+ groups, or enclosed virtual communities. Even with the professed missions of openness in our connected educator communities, the lack of diversity in culture, gender, and background often perpetuates the containment from the inside and the outside.
Part of that also comes from our school systems as well. This is how things usually play out in our least-resourced schools. Even when a school gets a grant for technology, local governments have a hard time figuring out how we can fund these programs in the long term, well after the money dries up from these grants.
Thus, tech programs often come in like a flash flood, washing teachers, administrators, and students away with flashy PowerPoint presentations and giveaway stickers. They’ll get new laptops, iPads, USBs, or other connected devices. In a few weeks, the school finds out that its Wi-Fi connection can’t handle more than 15 computers using a Flash-based program at a time. A few months into the program, things break and get replaced only once. A couple of months after that, teachers struggle with telling their colleagues that they need the devices in their room to move with the students.
A year afterwards, the cut-rate devices slow down to half their original speed. Load up takes 10-15 minutes, truncating the teacher’s beautifully laid-out lesson, if not completely botching it. Worse still is when the laptop doesn’t sync to the interactive whiteboard because, no matter how often you calibrate it, the marker trails off or does something that consistently distracts from the lesson. The interactive whiteboard is generally great for projecting things from the laptop, but standard markers and chalk feel like a more reliable technology, especially in subjects where the software hasn’t kept up with the non-linear note-taking of math and science classes.
Indeed, the computer person told the staff that the devices were installed with software that could handle everything, but by the time the staff remembers anything from the mundane professional development session from the first year of implementation, the device sounds like it’s coughing up its motherboard whenever the teacher presses the “on” button. When the principal asks for replacement software, the district tells the principal to pay for replacements from their own budget because the grant was temporary. The school leader has to choose between personnel and technology--and wisely chooses the former to the detriment to the latter.
Schools with better funding usually go through similar issues with technology. True equity, however, occurs when when teachers can look at their schools and be assured that tech is there to stay and that they can rely on it. Teachers need to feel comfortable with the technology to better integrate it into their class instruction. Principals need to create pathways for educators to get hands-on experience with vetted tools and to assign in-house experts to be evangelists for these tools.
Of course, this means I am advocating for tech as tool, not tech as teacher. A common misconception, especially for many education reformers, is that we can put a set of YouTube videos in front of a student and they will learn all the material they need better than if they had an experienced in-person educator in front of them. This sort of structure, commonly known as the “flipped classroom,” assumes students will use their devices at home to get all the lecturing they need and come to school to get their activities. In theory, this sounds great for the self-motivated student and looks to “free up” teachers to innovate with the time they got back from having someone else teaching.
In practice, however, our students tend to need someone in front of them, working with them. Even online teachers need to develop relationships with their students. Most adults I speak to don’t remember exactly what a teacher taught them but they remember the teachers they had based on how they felt about them. Plus, videos can’t adjust themselves to the students’ needs and don’t align themselves to the way the teacher or the school approaches the material. Pretty colors and 3D animations may attract students’ eyes but it doesn’t automatically lead students to create ideas or delve deeply into the curriculum. If anything, the ed-tech landscape as of now suggests badges, gradients, and glossy commercials make students learn, to the detriment of students whose parents buy into it imprudently.
Our solutions to this equity problem are vast, but certainly doable. Here are a few ideas:
1. Create robust streams of revenue for sustainable tech in all schools.
Some schools already do a good job of hiring or designating a tech person; we need to support these teacher leaders with time and autonomy to create and develop critical PD that will show teachers how to integrate technology in their classrooms. We need to stop mandating the notion that having a device in our midst means we’ve met a tech compliance requirement. If anything, the tech in the school should function as a natural extension of the learning and teaching that happens in the school, seamlessly.
2. Improve the infrastructure.
Our cities need to upgrade our schools’ infrastructure to support full classes on high-end devices and loosen their Internet policies so teachers with enough experience can teach students how to use the Internet as digital citizens. Districts would also do well to highlight a diverse set of exemplar schools and teachers making strides with student learning, as schools are always looking for new ways to innovate and model their schools after. This has to be a concerted effort from districts as well. Our country may have solutions in front of us that could work on a larger scale, but our local and federal governments play it safe by focusing on less expensive solutions like more standardized tests and more teacher and school accountability measures.
3. Encourage collaboration.
Both teachers and principals from all districts need to develop a sense of collaboration across the board to make the tech work. Our current educational environment has made competition the marker for success; students don’t learn how to build community this way. If anything, such competition creates levels within stratified classes, and distrust ensues. We can do better. It’s not just about funding, but investing in the right items and doing so with connected educators driving the policies.
Even as the technologies that can connect us becomes less expensive and our take-home devices become more powerful, the current school system works under a neo-Luddite mindset. As the speed of technology grows exponentially, neither our mindsets nor our infrastructure have caught up in a way that facilitates schools that work, especially in our least-resourced schools in urban, rural, and suburban districts.