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Some Advice for Chan & Zuckerberg on Technology and Equity

By Justin Reich — December 04, 2015 5 min read
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Like everyone else, I have some advice for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: if you want investments in personalized learning to advance the cause of educational equality, it will be much, much harder than just putting free stuff online. The field of education does not know how to create online learning tools that close the digital divide: we do not have design principles for digital equity.

But let me explain the long way.

For the last seven years, much of my research has focused on a single project: investigating how people from different life circumstances use technology.

In 2008, I started a research project about the use of social media in K-12 schools, examining wikis as a case study. My colleagues and I asked two simple questions: 1) are they any good? and 2) do only certain kids get the good ones?*

In those days, the excitement around education technology was connected with the emergence of what was called Web 2.0. In the original Web, it was easy to read stuff but reasonably hard to publish. You had to understand FTP, HTTP, maybe even some shell scripting. None of it was rocket science, but it was hard enough that 99% of Web users didn’t want to do it. What we called Web 2.0 was a suite of innovations that allowed non-programmers to publish to the Web.Since these tools were easy and generally free, there was a hope that Web 2.0 could democratize production on the internet. There was a related hope in education that this democratization would happen in education as well: in the past only kids at fancy schools could put stuff online, but now anybody could.

In April 2010, I was giving a talk at Harvard, and I was trying to summarize what people might mean by democratizing education. I offered these two possible perspectives:

In both panels, learning (the sum total of all neurons rearranged for pro-social purposes) is on the Y-axis, and education technology innovation is on the x-axis. In both panels, we begin with the assumption of a deeply inequitable society where low-income students experience fewer educational benefits than more affluent students.

In the left panel, which I called Closing Gaps, new technologies provide the most benefits to low-income students. When people talk about democratizing education, I think this is what they mean. They mean that less affluent students will enjoy the same opportunities and have more of the same outcomes as more affluent students. The right panel presents a different perspective, where more affluent students gain special benefits from educational technology because they have the resources to take advantage of new, even free, innovations.

My reading of the history of education technology is that we’re always hoping that the left panel is true, but the evidence almost always better supports the right panel. In most of the research on this topic, affluent students use technology for more creative purposes with more adult supervision, while less affluent students use technology for repetitive drill and practice without the same level of guidance.

In my wiki research study, I found that wikis were more likely to be created in more affluent schools, were used for longer duration in those schools, and were more likely to be used for student publishing rather than for teacher-centered content delivery. I don’t think anyone was harmed by the creation of online wikis, but all of the evidence suggests that the affluent benefitted more. If democratizing means closing gaps, then I don’t think they were successful in that regard.

Today in Science, with my colleague John Hansen, we published a paper about massive open online courses that offers similar results. We found that HarvardX and MITx students lived in more affluent neighborhoods than typical U.S. residents. We also found that affluent students were more likely to earn a certificate than less affluent students, and the effect was strongest among teenage students and young adults, exactly the ages at which we hope young people might find an onramp into higher education. To help explain these findings, we published the two panels above, which I first put on a slide five years ago, and are now part of the published record in Science. There are amazing, extraordinary young people from all walks of life who are taking advantage of MOOCs, and some of their stories are incredibly inspiring. But the findings from our paper better cohere with the scenario of Rising Tides rather than Closing Gaps.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m not convinced that our findings are the result of some kind of universal sociological or psychological law. The reason that we see similar results from one generation of technology to the next is that we use the same game plan: broadcast it widely, make it free, and hope that it closes gaps. That plan does not work.

If the Chan Zuckerberg initiative wants to use technology to advance educational equity, the first order of business shouldn’t be to develop a new app or system or resource, it should be to develop a new game plan. We need to develop a set of design principles for digital equity that could guide teams of educators and technologists in thinking about education technology and equity. In those design principles, we’d consider distribution mechanisms that target the neediest students, we’d consider how to minimize psychological barriers like stereotype threat and social identity threat, we’d consider how to bolster online learning with family and community support, and we’d consider how to value and build upon what diverse students bring to learner environments rather than tallying their deficits.

We don’t know how to deal with all of these issues yet, but the first order problem for edtech and equity is not building new tools it is developing new strategies.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

* The actual versions of these questions were something like “To what extent do freely available weeks provide opportunities for deeper learning in U.S. K12 schools, and are these opportunities equitably distributed across schools serving different socioeconomic populations.”

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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