Promoting Equity by Design

By Cait Etherington
December 12, 2017

The nation’s education system has historically been structured by gross educational inequities and in 2017, many of these problems persist. Students from poor families still fair worse than those from wealthy families, black students, especially boys, still experience negative stereotyping early on that often leads them out rather than into higher education, and many other minorities, including Hispanic students, continue to be streamed into occupational rather than academic programs. This raises a critical question: Why haven’t emerging educational technologies done more to solve the nation’s educational equity problems?

As clearly stated in a recently released report by the Connected Learning Alliance, “While students in remote corners of the world and in all walks of life have benefited from [new educational technologies], the path to technology-driven reform is full of obstacles…When new educational technologies spread beyond progressive developer and early adopter communities, the weight of existing institutions and norms can squash their disruptive and transformative potential. Unlike entertainment and consumer markets, educational institutions exert a uniquely conservative influence.” However, the report also emphasizes that it is not too late for educational technologies to play an essential role in transforming education not only in the United States but on a global scale.

Findings from the Good Intentions to Real Outcomes Report

Earlier this year, a group of educational experts convened to explore the current state of equity in education and its link to new educational technologies. In general, their findings were less promising than one might expect. Indeed, despite the potential to use new technologies to solve educational equity issues, the group suggests that many existing in equities continue to be replicated in today’s wired classrooms. Specifically, the group identified three major challenges, which are outlined in their recently released From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes report:

Same Technology, Unequal Schools: The push for educational technology has meant that more young people across the socioeconomic spectrum in the United States have access to learning technologies through their schools. Even when the playing field is leveled for technology access, however, inequities persist. Schools serving privileged students tend to use the same technologies in more progressive ways than schools serving less privileged students. 

Open ≠ Equitable: Ubiquitous digital devices and online networks have radically reduced costs for accessing online and digital learning. As intuitive as the idea sounds, however, free and open technologies do not democratize education. In fact, evidence is mounting that free online learning materials disproportionately benefit the affluent and highly educated.

Social and Cultural Forces Derail Good Intentions: New technologies are taken up in varied and unexpected ways by diverse learners and in diverse settings. Once technological and economic barriers are removed, broader social and cultural forces determine outcomes. Efforts to democratize education through technology have often faltered because technologists failed to anticipate broader social and cultural forces. Unintended outcomes commonly grow out of two underlying social and cultural forces: institutionalized and unconscious bias and social distance between developers and those they seek to serve.

Promise of Equity by Design

Despite the report’s clear message that to date, educational technologies have frequently reproduced existing inequities, there is hope that the future may hold promise for change. One potential way forward is to harness emerging data sets about how different learners interact with educational technologies: “Combining demographic data with new forms of learner behavior data collected by online learning environments promises to open important new frontiers in research into education technology and equity. If we can more richly understand how learners from different backgrounds and contexts engage with education technology, we are better equipped to ensure that innovations target the students who are furthest from opportunity.” But research alone won’t solve our current problems.

As the From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes report concludes, innovation and experimentation are the only way forward, and this will entail, “Working across silos to advance an agenda of equity.”  The report also emphasizes that innovation and social justice frequently go hand-in-hand: “Just as waves of innovation can follow successful new ventures, a shared social commitment can also inspire innovation. We stand at the cusp of widespread adoption of new technologies that have the potential to both radically reduce or exacerbate existing forms of educational inequity. The time is ripe for a coalition that unites research, practice, and design and that cuts across the public-private divide to address pressing problems in learning technologies and equity.”