It’s Time Edtech Conferences Stopped Ignoring Equity and Race

Opinion | Diversity and Equity

It’s Time Edtech Conferences Stopped Ignoring Equity and Race

By Matt Hiefield and Ken Shelton     Mar 12, 2019

It’s Time Edtech Conferences Stopped Ignoring Equity and Race

The typical edtech conference buzzes with gadgetry, infrastructure and new ways to engage students. Most session tend to focus on new apps or software over deep dives into pedagogy and building better relationships. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that—the world needs both. But when was the last time you hear someone talk about racism or digital equity? Where are the conversations about reaching all learners and examining our own biases as educators?

Most tech conference attendees don’t stop to consider the institutions, such as racism and complicity that create the inequities their students deal with. Yet when racism, voice and privilege are not addressed in a deliberate way, all of us suffer. We suffer because we lose out on face-to-face opportunities for meaningful conversations. We suffer when we fail to examine how each of us play a critical part in the success of our students. We lose out because each year these inequities are perpetuated is another year lost to our students.

We are both tech-centric educators who attend many conferences each year. Yet we bring very different perspectives with us. Here are our experiences.

Ken Shelton (African American Educator and Tech Strategist):

I have had the opportunity to attend, speak at and even keynote a lot of conferences—particularly edtech ones—over the years. One of the areas that I often notice right away is the low volume of diverse representation amongst the attendees, as well as the presenters.

At conferences, I’m always learning, and I try to engage as many attendees as possible in meaningful conversation. Often these conversations are related to the fill-in-the-blank pedagogy du jour or newest buzzwords, which I call the “shiny new things.” As my experiences grew, my personal learning network broadened and my perspectives became less myopic. I found there were conversations that were needed but sorely lacking from convention halls.

I realized that talking pedagogy means very little if you don’t have a number of critical things in place before you get to the learning. As Peter Drucker may have perfectly stated “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In this case, simply replace “strategy” with “pedagogy.” Culture is the foundation for two critical parts of the learning environment. First, do learners feel welcome and that their contributions matter? And second, does the educator in the room have an awareness of how their own biases can affect the potential success of the learners in the room?

Whether we know it or not, our biases are very strong. They impact our conscious interactions, but they also influence our subconscious ones. In order to address the components of these biases we must be intentional in having conversations around race, culture and access. We must be diligent about who we learn from—and who we learn with. If we hope to break down barriers to equitable learning, we need a combination of meaningful conversations along with diverse voices speaking. Once we make progress in this area then and only then can we get to the conversation around the shiny new thing.

Matt Hiefield (White Educator)

At my first large tech conference two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the number of options. There were drones, Ozobots, the latest Chromebooks and classroom furniture configurations. Educators led energizing sessions on integrating technology. And as a person interested in digital equity, I had a chance to connect experts who were national leaders on the digital divide. Every attendee had an interesting story to tell, and I made a number of wonderful connections.

Amidst all of this energy, though, something seemed to be missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but a systemic framework for all of this new learning was not apparent. At an equity team meeting in my district many months later, we started looking at key questions for decision making:

Whose voice is and isn’t represented in this decision?

  • Whose voice is and isn't represented in this decision?
  • Who does this decision benefit and who does it burden?
  • Is this decision in alignment with our district's equity policy?
  • Does this decision close or widen achievement or opportunity gaps?

As it turns out, thinking about these questions at the district level helped me realize what was missing at large tech conferences. We have serious equity issues in districts across the nation, and no amount of technology can or should distract us from key questions that relate to our students. Sometimes the bright, shiny and new obscure deeper issues of race and class that directly relate to tech integration.

The Role of White Fragility

In her book “White Fragility,” author Robin DiAngelo discusses how white people often view racism in a good/bad binary. In essence, she observes that many whites feel uncomfortable talking about racism that exists in a given system—especially if they are part of that system.

Many whites view racism as a good versus evil proposition, where everything associated with racism is inherently evil. When viewed as a binary, and not as a more nuanced condition, whites shy away from addressing racism if it means that the whole organization would be viewed as evil if there is structural racism present. And of course, this is a critical shortcoming: When we fail to talk about the nuances of racism and technology at tech conferences, we ultimately fail all of our students.

When meeting with strangers at a large edtech conference, racism isn’t the first issue that people address. Educators are looking to be inspired, to learn and to make connections. Those are great outcomes, but if technology is going to be a game changer for students, we need to make equity a key framework and we need to be having difficult discussions.

A Call To Action

When you attend a conference, put on a conference or think about your professional learning experiences consider who is there. What voices are missing and is it intentional? Are there barriers to entry? What is the growth impact of not having diverse representation? And most importantly, what should we be doing about it?

With respect to tech conferences, there is room for improvement. Here are a few possible ideas:

Ensure at least one keynote speaker addresses issues of equity.

Technology can create amazing opportunities, but it can also drastically magnify inequities that already exist. Our education system is fraught with inequity between schools and between districts, and this has major implications for how we integrate technology.

Keynote speakers of color at tech conferences are essential for moving forward.

They provide voice and perspective to people who do not struggle with racism on a daily basis. Over 80 percent of public school teachers are white and more than half of students are people of color. In some urban districts, this percentage is well over 90 percent. The added importance here is that representation matters.

Technology sessions should intentionally consider issues of inequity and racism.

Whenever possible, and this should start with the titles. Here are some session examples with some possible alterations:

Traditional title: Getting makerspaces started in your school

Alternate title: Maker spaces in wealthy and Title one schools—trends to consider and why they matter

Traditional title: Student Voice in the classroom using _______ (fill in the blank application)

Alternate title: Ensuring every voice has access and is heard in a diverse classroom with _______.

Traditional title: Enhancing Education With AR/VR

Alternative title: Providing AR/VR learning opportunities for economically challenged schools

Highlighting equity content can provide direction.

Showcasing equity issues would involve putting a selection of symbols below each session (much like vegan, gluten free, non dairy or extra spicy on a menu). These symbols might include:

E - Equity Issues addressed
CRE - Culturally Relevant Education
SV - Student Voice
SOP - Schools of Poverty
IES - Inclusive Educational Strategies

We believe that many educators are hungry for direction at tech conferences and that most presenters could adapt to some of this content. For those who are reticent, the first entry point to this type of learning is raising awareness. Start these conversations and submit session proposals that mirror the types of learning you want to see.

Educators are aware of how empowering technology can be. But it cannot be empowering just for the lucky students who live in the right zip code. Tech conferences might talk about equity in a few sessions. It is time, though, to provide a deliberate framework for making equity issues the driving force at tech conferences.

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