School & District Management

Digital Divide Evolves in Fla. Schools, Study Finds

By Benjamin Herold — April 19, 2016 6 min read
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A growing body of research about trends in educational technology, presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, raises important questions about how digital tools are being used inside and outside of schools. How effective, for instance, is online credit recovery? And what does the new “digital divide” look like?

The following are brief summaries of some of the ed-tech research presented at the AERA summit, held April 8-12 in Washington:

Students in Online Credit Recovery Fare Worse Than Peers, Research Finds

High school students who took an online makeup course after failing Algebra 1 had lower scores, grades, and credit-recovery rates than their peers who took the same course in a traditional face-to-face setting, according to new research from the American Institutes for Research.

However, while students benefited from the face-to-face credit-recovery course in the short term, the long-term impact appeared to be minimal. Successfully making up Algebra 1 via a credit-recovery class of either type did not appear to lead to students becoming more likely to succeed in more-advanced math classes later in high school, or becoming more likely to graduate.

“I think [our findings] raise some cautions about the ways online courses are implemented and build in supports,” said Jessica Heppen, a managing researcher at the AIR and the principal investigator on the new study, in an interview. “There is certainly room for improving schools’ approach to offering credit recovery in both types of formats.”

The “Back on Track” study, presented as a series of research briefs at the AERA conference, represents one of the first comprehensive examinations of how online credit recovery impacts student achievement and outcomes.

The study covers 1,224 9th grade students from 17 Chicago public schools who failed Algebra 1 and enrolled in summer school in 2011 or 2012. According to the primary brief released this month, titled “Comparing the Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Credit Recovery in Algebra 1,” that subject was picked because more students fail Algebra 1 than any other course, and doing so leaves them particularly unlikely to graduate.

Among the study’s major findings:

  • 66 percent of students who took the online Algebra 1 makeup course successfully recovered credit, compared with 76 percent of students who took the face-to-face version of the course.
  • 31 percent of students who took the online course earned an A, B, or C grade, compared with 53 percent of those who took the face-to-face course.
  • On average, students who took the online course successfully answered 38 percent of the Algebra 1 test items on an end-of-course exam, while those who took the face-to-face exam successfully answered 40 percent of those items, a statistically significant difference. The test items came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card.”

Digital Divide Shifts From Access to Use, Research Shows

Florida public schools have made dramatic strides in providing students with equitable access to computers, but a divide continues to separate how poor and more affluent students actually use that digital technology, according to new research presented at the AERA gathering.

The shape of the new digital divide: Low-income Florida students are more likely to use software for drill-and-kill practice of basic skills than their more affluent peers, who are more likely to use software in ways that foster creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

The disparity is particularly pronounced at the elementary level.

“Overall, access has improved in schools, and it is a much more encouraging situation than where we were just eight or nine years ago,” said Albert Ritzhaupt, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida and one of the lead researchers. “But our results also show that there are meaningful differences at other levels of the digital divide.”

Ritzhaupt’s paper, titled “A Longitudinal Study of the Digital Divide in Florida Schools: Beyond Access,” was co-authored with Kara Dawson and Matthew Wilson of the University of Florida and Tina Hohlfeld of the University of South Florida. The study relies on seven years’ worth of survey data, which the state collected from public K-12 schools as part of Florida’s Technology Resource Inventory in each year from 2008-09 to 2014-15. All told, 2,244 schools from 67 districts are represented in the study.

The researchers’ analysis is based on a three-tiered model for understanding the digital divide:

  • Access to hardware, software, the Internet, and technology support within schools;
  • Integration of technology into the process of teaching and learning within the classroom, and
  • Empowerment of students “to select and use [digital] tools seamlessly, just as they use pencil or pens, to accomplish their individual goals.”

Among their findings:

  • Students in lower-income elementary schools were consistently more likely than their more affluent peers to use classroom software for “directed instruction” type activities, such as drill-and-practice.
  • Students in higher-income elementary schools, on the other hand, were more likely than their low-income peers to use classroom software for “constructivist” purposes, such as creating (via software for painting/drawing and creating desktop videos and presentations), engaging with simulations, using tool-based software (such as graphic organizers, spreadsheets, and databases), and conducting research.

Can Ed Tech Power a Social-Justice Approach to ‘Disruption’?

Educational technology is often discussed in terms of its transformative potential: to personalize teaching, to put students in control of their own learning, to take schools out of the Industrial Age, to better prepare young people for a rapidly changing economy.

But new research presented at the AERA conference outlined a more radical vision: By leveraging the ubiquity of mobile devices and the power of new digital tools for everything from mapping to media creation, students at the bottom of America’s social and economic ladder can be empowered to change the policies and conditions that limit their opportunities for success, says San Francisco State University African studies professor Antwi Akom.

“It’s really about bottom-up research in which young people become the experts around the social and material conditions they are navigating on a daily basis,” said Akom in an interview. “Using new technologies to [facilitate] that can lead to the transformation of public spaces, better access to fresh and healthy food, better access to transportation, and expanded educational opportunity in some of our nation’s most disenfranchised communities.”

Outside the research world, Akom and his colleagues have won some heady recognition for their approach, as well as the technology they’ve developed to support it. Their app, called Streetwyze, allows users to “ground truth” official data by digitally documenting their own communities. Among their most high-profile projects was an effort that found that the Alameda County Health Department’s official calculation that East Oakland was home to 50 grocery stores was wildly off base—youth researchers determined that many of the establishments were actually liquor stores. The White House Opportunity Project recently highlighted Streetwyze as one of a dozen “open data” tools “that make it easier for communities and families to solve their greatest challenges.”

Akom presented his research, titled “Youth Participatory Action Research 2.0: How Technological Innovation and Digital Organizing Sparked a Food Revolution in East Oakland,” at the AERA annual conference. It is pending publication in the academic journal Qualitative Studies of Education.

The work, which falls to the left on the political spectrum, will surely ruffle some feathers.

And even those who embrace the approach—including Oakland Unified School District educator Timothy Bremner, who partnered with Akom several years ago to test an early version of the “YPAR 2.0” model in his classroom—say that implementing and scaling the model inside schools can be exceptionally challenging.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Digital Divide Evolves in Fla. Schools, Study Finds

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