SXSWedu hasn’t typically been the place to discuss equity in education and technology. In 2016, only 3 percent of the conference’s 350 sessions explicitly addressed the role that technology plays in impacting the opportunity gap.
This year, that percentage appears to have jumped up to roughly 10 percent of the conference’s programming. The tone was set early with an opening keynote from Dr. Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor at Columbia University Teachers College and author of For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all Too.
Edmin was quick to note that the presence of “equity” conversations and panels doesn’t guarantee change, nor does it excuse potentially harmful practices that may exacerbate inequities. In fact, as Emdin shared in his keynote, edtech fans and entrepreneurs often have “good intentions but enemy executions.” He continued on:
“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.’”
So did the conference’s ensuing equity conversations echo Emdin’s sentiments? Throughout the week, SXSWedu panelists and attendees expressed both optimism and concerns about the role that technology plays in righting and worsening inequities. Here are some of the suggestions we heard around how to better educate students of every race, gender, socioeconomic status and special need.
Where are the Role Models and Mentors Who Use the Technology?
Several speakers shared that their most pressing concern wasn’t the intention behind the technologies, but the lack of racial and gender diversity amongst the people who create and consume those technologies. That reality is exactly what Tomika Rodriguez (Director of Program Development & Partnerships for Girl Scouts of Greater New York) and Laura Weidman Powers (CEO and cofounder of nonprofit Code2040) are trying to combat.
Over the last few years, Rodriguez has worked with Vidcode, an online coding platform, to create an after-school program for girls called “Breaking the Code.” Rodriguez was inspired by her awareness of what she describes as the “meta-problem between girls and code-related fields.” In her team’s surveys, Rodriguez found that “50 percent of all girls believe STEM isn’t a typical career path for girls,” citing the lack of role models as one central reason.
Powers feels similarly. The New York City native has written and spoken eloquently about the “quite fortunate experience of growing up surrounded by a very brilliant, multicultural set of people,” but has oftentimes witnessed variances in which students have access to certain school programs, and subsequently, certain jobs.
— Natalia Rodriguez (@NataliasTweeet) March 8, 2017
Code2040 aims to help underrepresented minorities (especially black and Latino/Hispanic students) create paths to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in technology. For instance, the group arranges for impactful springbreak internships at tech companies. Yet Powers has discovered that some of those experiences end up being more positive for some students than for others—and a pivotal factor is the attitude of the adults in charge.
“For most companies, it’s the first time that 50 black and brown engineers have walked into their company at the same time,” Powers said during her SXSWedu panel. “As much as companies strive to be inclusive, sometimes that’s put to the test.”
While Powers and Rodriguez gave perspectives from professional perspectives, two college students shared their experiences with powerful mentors. Ben Gurewitz, a special education student with slow processing speed, and Amanda Whalstedt, who grew up in a low-income, abusive household in rural Kentucky, credited people—not technologies—as the main reason for their achievements. “I ended up where I am because of a series of incredible adults,” Whalstedt said.
Technology can help identify students that are struggling academically, but ultimately, human relationships matter the most, Gurewitz said. “It’s important to take time out of the day to ask, ‘How is this affecting you? Are you happy? Are you sad?’”
It’s Not Even About the Technology—It’s About the Practices and Implementation
For Superintendents Dr. Cederick Ellis of the McComb School District in Mississippi and Anthony G. Smith, Superintendent of the Winton Woods City School District in Ohio, technology can even out the playing field for students of all abilities when the implementation is done well. However, that can be more difficult than some might anticipate.
In 2015, Ellis and his team brought the Summit Public Schools personalized learning platform into one of McComb’s middle schools. Students were in charge, choosing what assignments to complete and when they would complete them on their 1:1 devices. The tech, Ellis said, offers students flexibility to learn at their own pace, which makes “the learning more authentic.”
However, in “redefining the pedagogy,” Ellis came up against some frustrations from teachers, who needed more coaching than he originally expected. “With this new way of doing things, even those great traditional teachers have struggled,” Ellis tells EdSurge.
In Smith’s district in Cincinnati, progress was often hindered by things beyond his control—accountability measures from the state, for example. However, Smith believes that with some creativity, any district can circumvent these challenges.
Take the realities of students who move to new neighborhoods during the school year. ”We are an open enrollment district,” Smith explains, “and our children move out because of income issues, housing foreclosures, for various reasons.” To combat the lost schooling that can happen when students move, Winton Woods “created a pathway so that if you move out of our district, you can still attend our school and get access to our offerings.” An online platform called Echo allows parents and students to access everything from their assignments to their grades, even if they move outside the district.
A Double-Edged Sword
New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has a lot of faith in technology, and worries that stories of successful implementation aren’t widely shared.
— Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) March 8, 2017
"How do we successfully share secrets of success in regards technology?" she asked the SXSWedu crowd attending her session.
Fariña also called on educators and designers alike to reflect on whether their efforts merely acknowledge inequities or actually work to eliminate them—pushing them to think more deeply about how they can strengthen their support of all students. In education, it’s valuable advice—whether the conversation revolves around technology or not.
“It’s like what I saw when my one of my principals said, ‘We’re a good school.’ I wrote back, ‘Yeah, but you could be better.’”