Digital Equity- What are We Missing?
Access and equity are embedded into the ethos of many districts’ strategic plans. The learning ecosystems that are being created are worthy of praise and exploration. In that spirit of exploration and iteration, more questions need to be asked about equity within those ecosystems. Foundational and emerging research can help inform efforts to make equity more than just a theory, but a reality.
Technology is a large component of most learning ecosystems; given this, access to devices and connectivity have become synonymous with digital equity. However, to achieve true digital equity, we must go beyond the ubiquity of devices and ask hard questions around how applications and technology are actually being used with students.
As defined by the NDIA (National Digital Inclusion Alliance), “Digital equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services”.
We’ve heard and read stories about putting wireless internet on school buses, creating hot spots in local businesses, and wiring public parks. While it’s a start, the proliferation of laptops, tablets, and smart phones, has not democratized education in the way we’d hoped*. There is still a divide around access; however, there are questions we need to be asking about HOW we implement and integrate technology in our schools.
How can we help students who have been traditionally marginalized reach true digital equity?
We start by understanding the challenges. In GIRO, Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design Through Learning Technologies, the researchers identify the following:
Same Technology, Unequal Schools- The same technology is often used unequally. Often teachers in schools in more affluent areas allow students to use the applications more creatively than their peers in less affluent schools. There seems to be a higher tolerance for working “outside the lines”, while students in less affluent areas are instead encouraged to practice skills work.
Open Equitable – While not specifically about OERs (open educational resources), students from more affluent areas largely benefit from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), while students from less affluent areas often don’t take the same advantage of the same free courses or free content.
Social and Cultural Forces Derail Good Intentions – Many organizations, both for- and not-for-profit, have tried to level the playing field. Providing free devices, free wireless, and safe spaces to utilize those devices doesn’t always have the desired effect. Connectivity and access to a device may not be the true barrier. Rather, opportunities to interface with software and digital content that provide authentic, culturally-responsive, learning experiences is often lacking, and these opportunities are critical to the success of students who don’t have the same socioeconomic advantages as their counterparts.
What to Do?
There are promising strategies. Organizations like ISTE and The Connected Learning Alliance are actively researching, discussing, and publishing materials meant to better inform educators about what digital equity can and should look like within educational ecosystems. When we think about the overall vision and theory of action around technology usage, in other words, the “why”, and the “how”, it becomes easier to reach the “what”.
Mirrors and Windows
To answer the question of how to think about applications and digital content to use, taking a mirrors and windows approach, akin to suggested approaches for thinking about literacy, is one powerful way to frame thinking around digital equity. Content providers, educators, and other stakeholders must ensure that content provides a “mirror”, or, that students see themselves in the content, and that it also provides a “window”, or opportunities to see beyond their everyday. Truly equitable content portrays the interests and cultural considerations of traditionally marginalized students, and consistently provides multiple perspectives. Equitable content can then lead to thinking about how it’s being used with all student populations.
Reframing the Perspective
It is incumbent upon district leaders to take a hard look at the culture around technology usage in the district’s schools. What is the “why” behind technology use? What is the lens by which we think about the capabilities of our students and our willingness to understand how our own biases may impact how we implement technology? How are teachers being prepared and supported?
On its own, handing out devices or providing access to them will not fundamentally change outcomes, especially in areas that are challenged by socioeconomics. By broadening our understanding of digital equity, we increase opportunities to facilitate and promote true equity using learning technologies based in learning science.
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