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.”


  1. “As bots enter the classroom, both teachers and learners will have to reflect on their uses and outcomes. They will need to adopt an awareness of AI’s presence. Teachers must recognize AI’s short comings, such as inherently developing biases and its inability to process human emotions.”

    This statement is correct as it relates to AI, generally; however, it assumes that AI exists as THE entity that students directly interact with. There are many potential expressions of AI, including a human-in-the-loop approach, in which it is configured in such as way as to facilitate dialogs and interactions between people, either studentteacher or studentstudent.

    For example, we’re building an L2 language speaking practice app (Language Hero Smart Chat). We use AI to enable beginning students, who speak different languages, to have natural, real life conversations in each other’s language from Day 1. They speak directly to each other, interacting with the system only to select from multiple content choices suggested by it, designed to facilitate a real free-ranging dialog resulting in real bonding, to the extent it’s possible, rather than to practice a particular lexical structure (they can also text or go off the grid to have pure video chat).

    Teachers can use this system as well for group chat. They can upload their own curriculum as well (the Smart Chat system configures it as multiple vector (branching script) chat or merges it with the system curriculum (focused on real life useful topics like travel, food, shopping, social chat, expressing ideas, etc.). Everything they say is comprehensible to their students, and so are all student responses.

    When such a system is implemented in a manner that pays particular attention to the affective components that make human interaction so effective for creating the desire to learn (and corresponding openness to processing L2 content, in this case), we think it can be a more effective tool than bot chat.

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