Technology’s Role in Educational Inequality

Mar 15 · 6 min read
Can technology provide equal opportunity for all students? (Used under the Creative Commons License)

Education is riddled with inequality. In the same city, it is not uncommon to find schools with widely disparate instructional quality, equipment, and outcomes mere minutes away from each other. Rather than providing a solution to wealth inequality, education now reinforces it. Technology plays a role in creating this inequality in our classrooms, but it can also help overcome it.

Inequality in education is detrimental to society. It’s proven that neighborhoods where children are from play a vital role in future incomes, primarily because of educational outcomes.

Inequality in education increases inequality in society and widespread inequality is undesirable for everyone.

Inequality undermines the effectiveness of our politics and institutions, expends national resources, and creates needless social animosity and division.

Education is crucial for economic development and bettering lives. Many stable, well-paying jobs demand decades worth of education to merely qualify. With income inequality increasing and wage growth remaining stagnant, education plays a vital role in providing people with social mobility. It is imperative that we can equip people with the tools and resources needed for a dynamic, technology driven economy. With automation and artificial intelligence threatening to be major labor force disruptors, it is important our classrooms can create prepared, critical thinking students. Addressing educational inequality is key to creating a more sustainable society.

Some Ways How Technology Creates Division

Online Learning May Not Work

A recent trend in educational technology (ed-tech) is the widespread adoption of online and “blended” (online and face-to-face) instruction. A report by the National Education Policy Center (NPEC) found that that students at virtual charter schools only graduate at a 20 percent rate and 77% of blended schools perform below state averages. California’s Public Policy Institute discovered that community college students are 10 to 14% less likely to pass an online class compared to when they take it face-to-face.

Clearly, the effectiveness of online and blending learning is limited, yet ed-tech advocates and investors keep pushing the adoption of these technologies in low-income classrooms. Without acceptance that these styles of learning are flawed, real progress cannot be made. Until these learning methods are proven, their adoption will only help increase inequality, rather than help students.

Amplify Discrimination

Many technology and data-driven tools (including in ed-tech) help reaffirm discriminatory practices. A study by Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research found “that instructors (i.e., professors at selective universities) are 94% more likely to respond to a discussion forum post by a White male than by any other race-gender combination” after analyzing 124 different Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This shouldn’t be a surprise, as we’ve been knowing about technology enabled discrimination in education for some time now — in 2014 the United States Department of Education issued guidance to address the “potentially … unlawful discrimination” that comes when educational resources are not improperly developed and utilized.

Predictive analytics tools promise to identify struggling students through various data points — including grades, test scores, race, gender, income, and age. These tools seem promising, but there’s little evidence they even work — and there’s rising concern they are counterproductive. There’s no research to prove that these algorithms are actually effective and there is even less oversight and accountability to their uses. There is little being done to address the algorithm bias in our schools, but awareness is being built. Unfortunately, in the current state, ed-tech tools have amplified the discrimination they once promised to help solve.

Exacerbating the Digital Divide

Classrooms in across the nation country have been flooded equipped with software, computers and high-speed internet. However, the technological disparity and literacy gap is increasing — and instructors often get caught in the middle of it.

A Education Week Research Center analysis found that instructors in lower income schools are less likely than their counterparts at higher income school to receive technology-integration training. Instructors often struggle to explain the technology tools in their own classrooms to their students, leading to thousands of students not being able to fully access resources.

Fluency with technology is important for students as they progress through their careers. It opens opportunity and knowledge and allows students to maximize educational opportunity. Instructors must be properly trained first before any gains are realized. Schools need to become properly prepared to embrace any technology they hope to adopt, but they current aren’t.

Some Ways Technology Can Overcome Division

Immediately Provide Students With Resources

Using internet connected devices, students can access the newest textbooks, instructional videos, and other content to bolster their studies. The internet and cloud can ensure that no school will have to use out-dated textbooks. With the rise of cheap and free online learning portals, it is easier than ever to learn and retrieve information. Digital learning can inspire a lifetime’s worth of curiosity and learning, something that will be vital with widespread technological disruption on the horizon. It is about time we brought that opportunity to every student and classroom.

Faulty IT infrastructure needs to be addressed, but investment in bringing reliable networks to schools will ensure a prepared generation. Never again will students have to use old, outdated resources in their classrooms and never again will their learning have to be stifled.

Support Multilingual Classrooms

Over 9 percent of the 50 million public school students in the United States are English language learners (ELLs). These students participate in special programs to build proficiency in English that can be aided by technology. Translation tools, built using Natural Language Processing, can help students better their English skills. Text-to-Speech and Speech-to-Text software can allow students to practice either enunciation, while instructors can focus on assisting all students. Software can not only be used to help instructors improve communication with their students, but also to bolster English skills.

Software can help students practice their English skills without the supervision of a teacher, leaving instructors to focus on solving critical challenges for students.

Identify and Overcome Difficult Concepts

Clever software already is helping students identify and overcome difficult concepts. If a student is studying biology, rather than sitting listening to a teacher lecture about genetics, the student can watch an engaging video online and then play a fun game to solidify concepts. Then, the student can take a quiz that narrows down on concepts the student struggles with and provides them with resources to further their understanding. Then, the instructors can learn about students’ struggles and appropriately tailor lesson plans.

Already, software like Zearn, i-Ready, and LearnZillion are helping students across the US. These software tools will help save time and allow instructors to truly understand and meet the needs of their students. This also allows students to master concepts and avoid repeating courses — improving student retention and graduation rates. Software can, and will, help students learn more effectively when properly paired with instruction.

Technology is playing an ever increasing role in our lives — and that includes in the education of the next generation. It is clearing fueling inequality, but it can also be used to bridge the gap between our wealthiest and poorest schools. However, it will take progressive public policy, rigorous oversight, and technologists dedicated to minimizing discrimination, to codify these changes. Nevertheless, the process needs to begin with thinking about the changes we want.

If we care about bettering lives, we will care about educational inequality. Knowing the causes of educational inequality is the initial step in solving it. Systemically addressing challenges in technology will go a long way in creating a more prosperous world for us all — after all, the future does depend upon it.

Visakh Madathil

Written by

Building Intelligent Systems For Progress. || @SMU Twitter: @MadathilVisakh

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