Education Equality Needs More Than Bootstraps

● Educationally attained mobility is built on the Bootstraps Myth

● Digital Media and Pockets of Activism and Innovation allow for small collective gains but not enough to counter for structural racism and discrimination

● Edtech For Communities of Practice provide tools but are not enough on their own to balance out structural inequality

The Myth of Bootstrapping

There is a belief that education is the key to move individuals out of numerous social ills. This assumption is inherently flawed. The way we tend to imagine education sees an individual person at-risk, meaning success or failure is primarily in the domain of the individual. This line of thinking assumes that if only the individual would lift him or herself up by the bootstraps, he would succeed.

In actuality, there is nothing inherently wrong or at-risk about the individual. Instead, the social structures form a matrix in which the individual is placed in high-risk. To survive, the individual gains social capital such as know which route is the safest to take home, or how to survive under the poverty line, which is often at odds with a larger societal view of success that is often predicated on educational attainment. While people are educationally successful if given the tools and encouragement, in and of itself education cannot overcome social barriers to success, especially across generations for certain at risk populations.

Small Gains but Structural Racism and Discrimination Remains a Problem

Education is one of four institutionally based systems where children learn who they are in society at large. The other three are history, media, and the legal system. All four of these areas systematically include or exclude parts of society by creating collective stories, attitudes, practices, and assumptions. Much of the rhetoric heard around education, especially in the world of edtech, sees it as being able to, on its own, counteract the baggage that underrepresented and economically and culturally marginalized groups face.

However, education alone cannot correct history and media. Rather than focusing on equality, looking for areas of evenness and access seems more prudent. Rather than creating one size fits all apps or single function tools it is important to bring technologies and content that speak and reflect the needs of the audience it was created for. And it is important to create these things in conversation with as many of the potential audiences as possible. While researchers, educators, and politicians often talk about education allowing people to overcome socio-economic status, or class, in the United States class is a fluid ascription that is complicated by racial classification and country of origin due to the unique history, media, and codified legal practices that continue to value some lives more than others, or, at the very least, imagine some as being more “American” than others.

Those who are imagined as less American might see a single generational gain with successive generations seeing some benefit. But overall, educational attainment does not free a person from the larger cultural forces that shape and limit their experiences as potential. Additionally, the assumptions of identity color who we imagine being capable of success globally.

Structural Inequality Can’t be “Designed Out” through Technology

The effects of systemic disenfranchisement cannot be designed out. Nor can they be captured by surveys or tech-based user experience testing. It is also difficult to recreate them in a lab setting. Instead, to see real change it is important to focus on human-to-human user experience creation that seeks to empower not through access but through the narrative the student on the other side of tech is able to construct and communicate about themselves.

While access might be a part of that, without a narrative shift access is meaningless. We have examples such as the Obama effect, where it is speculated that black students closed the achievement gap on standardized test because of the positive reinforcement that came from all directions in culture during the campaign of Barack Obama. The blip in the test scores did not create a cultural shift in the larger narrative. The larger cultural myth continues to believe that students need saving rather than empowerment to believe in themselves. This is something that cannot be fixed by education or small attempts alone. Instead, it is important to create experiences with edtech that provide meaningful, culturally aware foundations and scaffolding.

Edtech cannot be a one way conversation in which tools are uncritically introduced. Deployment of edtech alone will not bring about change. The knowledge, experience, and skills that already exist in all communities must be validated and affirmed. Tools need to enable meaningful conversation, learning, and engagement within the communities they empower, and they need to do so as transparently as possible. In addition to being clear about what happens with data, the overall goals and potential impact on learners and their communities need to be taken into account as well, especially if we are trying to create the future of learning.