Education Opinion

The Promise of Digital Equity

By Beth Holland — December 22, 2015 1 min read
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EdTech Researcher Co-Author, Justin Reich, first wrote What Achieving Digital Equity Using Online Courses Could Look Like on MindShift with John Hansen. They published their original research in Science.

This fall, in conducting sociology research, I revisited Justin’s 2012 article on The State of Wiki Usage in U.S. K-12 Schools that he co-wrote with Richard Murnane and John Willet. They uncover the challenge of supporting teachers to use new tools for innovation rather than efficiency, and the trend of innovation in affluent versus low-income schools. Wikis in more affluent schools lasted longer and provided more opportunities for students to engage in problem-solving and critical thinking. While Web 2.0 tools should increase access and equity for all students, Justin and his colleagues found the opposite to be true.

Three years later, Justin and John Hansen published Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses.

Using data from 68 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT between 2012 and 2014, we found that course participants from the United States tended to live in more-affluent and better-educated neighborhoods than the average U.S. resident. Among those who did register for courses, students with greater socioeconomic resources were more likely to earn a certificate. Furthermore, these differences in MOOC access and completion were larger for adolescents and young adults, the traditional ages where people find on-ramps into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coursework and careers. Our findings raise concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status.

While these findings can make the promise of democratizing education seem virtually impossible, Justin and John Hansen offer another perspective about the democratizing power of MOOCs.

The most compelling evidence for the democratizing power of MOOCs comes from a new generation of Horatio Alger stories, where the video lecture replaces the bootblack's cloth. In 2013, the New York Times Magazine told the story of Battushig Myanganbavar, the "Boy Genius of Ulan Bator," who earned a perfect score on MIT's first MOOC as a high school student in Mongolia and subsequently gained admission to MIT. This year, MIT has featured the story of Ahaan Rungta, a 16 year old Freshman, born in Calcutta, who has completed 55 courses on edX and MIT's OpenCourseWare. Rungta's father is the manager of the Indian restaurant in the MIT student center. As powerful as these stories are, the extensive data collected by MOOCs tell another story. While there are extraordinarily talented students from all backgrounds who succeed in MOOCs, those from more affluent and better-educated neighborhoods are more likely to enroll and succeed in these courses. Moreover, the relationship between socioeconomic resources and course success is strongest among teens and college-aged students, exactly the ages where we might hope that online courses could provide a new entry point into higher education.

A recent Pew Research report found that while Internet access in America has grown from 52% in 2000 to 84% in 2015, digital gaps still persist in lower-income households as 97% of households with an income greater than $75k have access as compared to 74% of those who make less than $30k. Though this connectivity divide could be one of the factors leading to the disparities uncovered by Justin and John Hansen, they highlight a more critical factor.

Two very different and promising lines of research might form the foundation of a new set of design principles for digital equity. Research on stereotype threat has shown that some of the barriers that disadvantaged students face are psychological in nature: subtle cues in a learning environment can trigger anxieties in marginalized students. Researchers at Stanford have identified achievement gaps between students from developed and developing countries in MOOCs, and early findings suggest that simple exercises to encourage a sense of belonging in an online community can substantially reduce those gaps. These experimental approaches can be paired with social services that have a long history of effectiveness. In St. Louis, the nonprofit LaunchCode offers a physical community and job placement services for students taking HarvardX's Introduction to Computer Science class, CS50x. By providing additional human supports to underserved students with great potential, LaunchCode joins a tradition of programs from Hull House to the Boys and Girls Clubs that are essential to social mobility in America.

In 2001, Paul Atwell described the existence of a first and second digital divide - one of access and one of usage. Though wikis, MOOCs, and other forms of online learning have not yet closed the usage gap, the promise of digital equity and democratized education remains. As Justin and John write at the conclusion of their MindShift post, “MOOCs and other forms of online learning don’t yet live up to their promise to democratize education, but we shouldn’t abandon those efforts. Closing education’s digital divide is exactly the kind of grand challenge that the world’s greatest universities should be tackling head on.

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.