What 7 Factors Should Educators Consider When Choosing Digital Tools for Underserved Students?

What 7 Factors Should Educators Consider When Choosing Digital Tools for Underserved Students?

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Seven. That’s the magic number. Why?

In the report published last week by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and I summarized research findings about the conditions and practices that support positive outcomes of technology use and digital learning experiences for underserved, under-resourced, and underprepared students. We reviewed countless articles, reports, and white papers, and have pulled together a series of relevant and detailed examples for those interested in what the promising practices really looks like when used effectively. The report introduces these seven practices in two categories: technology and context.

Seven Items to Consider When Choosing Tools or Activities

Related to technology specifically, the education research indicates that underserved students benefit from:

  1. Opportunities to learn that include one-to-one access to devices.
  2. High-speed Internet access. This is needed to prevent user issues when implementing digital learning.
  3. Using technology designed to promote high levels of interactivity and emphasize discovery.
  4. The right blend of teachers and technology and only rarely one without the other

And related to the context, education research tells us that underserved students benefit from:

  1. Learning activities that focus on the development of higher order thinking skills (such as problem solving, making inferences, analyzing, and synthesizing) and 21st century skills.
  2. Learning activities that draw on culture and community, specifically activities that integrate culturally relevant practices, foster student development of expertise, and highlight this expertise by providing opportunities for students to share their knowledge and skills with authentic audiences.
  3. Underserved students benefit from learning activities that provide them with opportunities to drive their own learning. This often means that students are content creators rather than passive consumers.

Seven Considerations for Successful Technology Deployment

These promising practices can be used as guidelines for evaluating existing tech tools and levers for change—but strong alignment among several key elements in a given context supersedes any of the practices above.

These elements are outlined within a framework called the Digital Learning Ecosystem (DLE). The DLE version 1.0 captures the elements indicated by education research to have the most impact on learning outcomes for underserved students using technology.

Specifically, we found that learning outcomes are the result of interactions among numerous elements at play within a complex system. No single element will ensure a desired outcome on its own, as all the parts at play within the ecosystem are mutually interdependent. (Think of a game of double dutch where all players and tools must hum along in harmony in order for the jumper to be successful.) The research suggests that taken as a collection, “each component must be evaluated in terms of its alignment to all other variables, if sound decisions are to be made about the use of technology for learning.”

Successful deployment of technology for learning exhibits strong alignment within and between these seven key elements. (Think of a step-by-step action plan with dates and measurable objectives that will lead a site towards strong alignment within an acceptable timeframe.)

  1. Student needs—taking into account their prior knowledge, level of technological literacy, personal interests, and those other things that make our students special and unique individuals.
  2. The specific learning objectives and intended outcomes for using the technology with students.
  3. The details of the learning activities, those parts that include the tech and those parts that are wrapped around the technology.
  4. The skills, mindsets, and beliefs of the learning community including the teacher implementing the tool but also members of the wider community including other teachers, administrators, IT staff and parents. This also includes the wider community of students- beyond those in engaged in the learning activity of interest.
  5. The specific features of the digital resource being used. Does the design of the technology stack up with its major selling points? Those purchasing the tech should be responsible for vetting the features through hands on engagement with the digital resource. Navigate through menus, click all the places a kid might click and play with the different tools being offered to find the obvious features and others that, for better or worse, sit below the surface.
  6. The model students will use for accessing the technology which can be defined as "the organization of the learners and a particular device as well as the time, place, and frequency of access to this device. In schools, common models for access include one-to-one stationary computer labs, mobile computer labs, and bring your own device (BYOD)."
  7. The site and district technology infrastructure which refers to the “back end” of the technology setup including but not limited to amount of bandwidth, servers, storage, and data hosting models.

To sum it all up, this report offers “seven and seven”—seven promising practices for technology use by underserved students, and seven crucial elements to align when evaluating or adopting technology. With these in mind, think about your classroom, school district, or technology tool and ask yourself—how do we stack up? One of the greatest things about this whole landscape of technology for learning is its constant march forward; tomorrow brings new students, new tools and new goals and along with those, new opportunities for us to get it right.

Molly B. Zielezinski (@mollybullock) is a doctoral candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education with a dual specialization in Learning Sciences & Technology Design and Curriculum & Teacher Education.

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