I identify as an education technologist. Ish. I’m still an undergraduate student, which doesn't lend me much credence among experienced edtechies. Regardless, I get super excited about the potential of education technology and have researched it enough to deserve at least an amateur-education-technologist title.
Education technology, or edtech as it’s fondly known, is an encompassing term. It includes most anything that is used for learning and requires electricity: laptops, smartboards, clickers, smartphone applications, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—you name it. There are a few exceptions: electric pencil sharpeners probably don’t count as edtech. Digital clocks, though probably a great tech addition to the classroom, don’t teach kids much.
Nowadays, the characteristic that most commonly separates mere technology from education technology is internet capability. Edtechies brandish the internet as the newest weapon for vanquishing a host of tedious or inconvenient education problems. The ultimate dream is that, with the internet and new education technologies, we can deliver quality education to the least privileged in the most isolated corners of the world. That’s the idealized vision. It is inspiring and heart-warming… but sounds like an empty campaign speech. What is the real talk surrounding education technology?
When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I see a lot of #edtech tweets about seed-funding, super-cool conferences and innovation*. These tweets come from many sources: educators, tech specialists, companies and even entrepreneurial incubators. (Student voices are notably absent from the conversation.) Sadly, a 140-character glance reveals that a large percentage of these messages are simply follower-mongering retweets and shout-outs.
I’m just as guilty of indulging in sometimes-superficial Twitter culture as the next blogger; I merely want to point out that an abundance of the #edtech dialogue lacks substance. For the record, every now and then I do see a nice tweet from a teacher who is using edtech to do great things for education.
But back to what I see a lot of: tweets about investment and innovation*. Those themes are great for motivating a crowd and loosening wallets, but they’re very near-sighted. Their focus is on the upcoming funding round or an immediate implementation. Both are sustained by a vague notion of potential success—of progress. If we’re investing money into education technology innovation*, we think we’re moving forward. But forward where?
This brings me to my main point: in order to achieve a significant impact in education, we need a clearer vision for the purpose of education technology. We are so eager to progress that we forget what we are progressing towards. We want to test out the newest gadget and service without first defining an end goal for our experimentation. I don’t see many people stepping back and asking, “Why invest? Why innovate*? Why use education technology?”
The answer that will likely (and hopefully) jump off the tongue of most is some statement about opportunity, access or equity. Edtech evangelists perceive the internet as a meritocratic gateway to learning and success. In many ways, I agree. With the internet, the right tools and the right educational environment, students can learn without limits. Right?
Maybe not. As I was writing this article, Annie Murphy Paul published an article in the Hechinger Report boldly titled, “Educational Technology Isn’t Leveling the Playing Field.” The article discusses a potential “second digital divide,” where a preoccupation with providing students access to technology has masked an even more challenging obstacle: teaching students how to use technology. Paul focuses her article around a Philadelphia library study where the main difference between students in high- and low-income communities was not if the kids used the library computers, but how they used the computers. Students from the low-income neighborhoods spent much more time playing games and were much less likely to have adult supervision guiding their computer time.
The sugar-coated edtech philosophy that I commonly see in policy dialogue is this: when kids have access to the internet (or “x” edtech tool), they’re presented with the opportunity to learn to their greatest potential. Since the internet is a bottomless bag of opportunity, students that need more can take more without more cost. Students that need more get more, and inequity disappears—or at least shrinks.
The above strategy should sound naive, but a lot of edtech campaigns are planned that way. Many skip the “why” and go straight to the “what.” Every kid is given the same device (equality), but project leads don’t design edtech instruction to give more to those who need more (equity). The designs assumes that teachers will accomplish the equity side of the equation. Equality, easier to measure and address, receives greater attention and priority.
And this is a problem. When dealing with human rights like education, we need to pursue justice and fairness. Equity, not equality, denotes justice and fairness.
Giving every kid the same learning device is often mistaken as addressing inequity. But this approach is no different than giving every kid a textbook. Or a pencil. Tools don’t teach; tools are just vehicles for learning. If you give both John and José a pencil, they’ll appear equal. However, if José doesn’t speak English, it’s not plausible that he would use the pencil to write an English paper as good as John’s. Pencils don’t reduce inequity, and neither do laptops or tablets.
President Peña Nieto of Mexico presents a great example of what politicians should not do when promoting education technology. Peña Nieto promised in his acceptance speech to deliver laptops to every 5th and 6th grader in a Mexican public school. Nieto upheld his promise with the Mi Compu program and has already delivered thousands of laptops. Unfortunately, that’s all the program consists of: delivery. There are already numerous reports of program failures due to technical flaws, lack of a repair program, lack of infrastructure support in schools (like internet access) and lack of teacher training. A lot is lacking.
Delivery alone does nothing. Superficially, Nieto’s program promotes equality across the nation: every kid gets a laptop. Yet due to the program’s near-sighted approach, nothing ameliorates the inequity that education should target. In fact, as Paul claims in her Hechinger article, inequity could actually increase due to education technology. The kids that have the privilege of technology exposure early-on might excel exponentially in edtech programs, while those just recently introduced to technology might be left struggling.
For edtech to actually reduce inequity in education (i.e., allowing those with less resources, privilege, etc. to excel as well as those with more) we must confront three myths I see propagated in edtech policy and project design. These myths will seem intentionally over-simplified and perhaps a bit facetious, but I think they’re worth reiterating from the lens of reducing inequity.
Myth #1) Access equals opportunity
No. Just because students have access to laptops/apps/MOOCs/whatever does not mean that they have an opportunity to learn. For the resource to be an opportunity, students need to receive sufficient guidance to recognize it as such. The study in Paul’s article revealed that the library public computers only represented learning opportunities to children (generally those from high-income communities) with a certain level of knowledge and guidance. For other students, the computers simply acted as televisions and video game consoles.
Myth #2) Opportunity will bring improvement
Not necessarily. Sometimes opportunities can hinder learning (gasp). In my college classes, a lot of professors now allow students to take notes on their laptops and tablets. Ideally, this empowers students and enhances learning, as students have the opportunity to takes better notes and record lessons for future review. However, if you sit in the back of my bigger college lectures, you’ll see a field of blue-white from Twitter and Facebook web pages. In this case, the opportunity provided by these professors to use technology distracts from learning.
Myth #3) Edtech is the solution to inequity
No. No matter how many gadgets and programs you place in front of students, the problems of education inequity could very well lie outside the scope of curriculum. Many struggling students have unstable home environments. Many face poverty-based constraints or health problems. Sometimes, the teacher stinks or doesn't know how to use technology. Often, the school administration is underfunded (or corrupt) and can’t afford to maintain adequate facilities. By spending money on edtech, schools might waste valuable funds that could be dedicated to other deficits. Though edtech campaigns may be well-intentioned, they can distract from addressing dire education issues.
Ultimately, I am a huge fan of incorporating education technology everywhere and anywhere possible; it’s because of my enthusiasm and passion to improve education that I’m calling for a more pragmatic approach to edtech, one that remembers edtech as a tool and maintains its sense of purpose. When it comes to edtech and equity, I advise teachers, policymakers and even investors to remember the following: education should have a far more ambitious aim than “leveling the playing field;” education must acknowledge and address the unique needs of individuals to grant each student the capacity to become a star player.
*Innovation has become a meaningless word. Stop using it.
Read more about me + my edtech explorations at www.edtective.com. Also, I made the memes but didn't take the photos. Credits below.