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Closing the Digital Divide

It’s time that we start seeing tech access and how it’s used in assignments as central school equity issues.

Technology, distributed and used equitably, enables opportunity and voice, dismantles barriers around learner ­exceptionalities, democratizes access to information, and disrupts racial and economic-privilege hierarchies.

“Techquity” means merging the effective use of educational technologies with culturally responsive and culturally relevant learning experiences to support students’ development of essential skills.

In the last year, however, I have found myself questioning a lot of prominent voices in education technology, including my own, because they tend to oversimplify a complex situation. 

Much of the edtech sphere centers around the voices of white educators, who often focus on minor tweaks of the existing system rather than questioning the system as a whole. This is not to pick on individuals. Rather, it is to say that we should be interrogating why most technology initiatives and discussions work within the existing structures when those structures most often aren’t working for students — especially students of color.

As our districts and education organizations look to where we are and where we want to be after more than a year of pandemic-related disruption, one of the most important lessons we can learn is that it is not possible to have a truly equitable learning environment absent of robust technology access. You can’t address other equity factors until you ensure access as a foundational baseline.

Closing the divide

Even after pandemic-related efforts to close the digital divide, there are gaps between what well-resourced schools and under-resourced schools are able to do. Around 12 million K–12 students still lack access to a device, broadband internet, or both. 

Both rural and urban schools and ­communities continue to deal with what I call “digital redlining,” where certain areas do not have broadband access or ­unreliable cell coverage. Despite districts handing out hotspots, students aren’t always guaranteed a strong signal. Technology access can even vary within a school building. Students are being denied access to what others have, in some cases by design — or at least by neglect.

Individuals do not have control over regional technology infrastructures, yet we still tend to place a significant degree of responsibility on students, educators, and site administrators to fix issues with technology, or to succeed despite not having the proper resources. You can’t blame or punish a school for lack of access when you don’t have the infrastructure in the first place. 

I know of teachers who want to do right by their students with more differentiated technology assignments that go beyond routine thinking tasks, but this proves difficult when their school mandates the use of specific online platforms and tablets, rather than empowering the teacher and students to choose the method and tools that work best for them. That’s a prime example of educators seeing the bigger picture, while the system creates very narrow guardrails within which to operate.

Beyond access

But just having basic access to technology is not a silver bullet. How do we ensure access directly correlates to equitable opportunities and assignments? When I talk to educators who are in one-to-one settings with laptops or tablets, and have a range of apps, I encourage them to think critically about how exactly they’re using those tools, the same way my students encouraged me. How do experiences directly correlate to the desired outcomes students have identified for themselves?

For Black and Brown learners especially, digitizing lessons often equates to online worksheets and repetitive tasks rather than rich, meaningful learning. Instead of using technology as an intervention mechanism or simply digitizing one-size-fits-all instruction, we need to ask whether we are meeting learners on a personalized basis. Technology-based learning experiences should align with and encourage higher-order thinking and greater creativity. We cannot simply set students in front of screens.

In turn, school leaders should think about what resources, professional development, and support they can provide to educators to ensure technology use aligns to more equitable learning experiences. In a new era, keeping techquity at the center of our classrooms has never been more important.

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