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School & District Management Opinion

EdTech and Equity: An Interview by Henry Jenkins

By Justin Reich — January 16, 2018 5 min read

The excerpt below is cross-posted from Henry Jenkins’ blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, and the full interview is available at

From time to time, I have featured here the work of Mimi Ito and others from the Connected Learning Research Network. Along with danah boyd, Mimi and I wrote Participatory Culture in a Networked Society and we’ve collaborated on a broad range of education-related ventures. So, when Mimi flags something to my attention, I listen and respond. Last October, Ito sent me the copy of From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies, a report she had written with Justin Reich, currently in the department of Writing and Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Having featured Ito several times here, I wanted to put the spotlight on Reich, all the more so when I learned he was now teaching through the program I helped to establish at MIT.

What he has to say here gives some provocative glimpses into what these two researchers found, challenging the discourse of technological disruption and inevitability, which shaped so much early thinking about the ways new media would impact education. In a classic meeting between technology and culture, they find that the culture of schools, much more conservative than even many skeptics imagined, wins out most of the time, resulting in a world where lowered expectations and diminished resources for some youth keep them from enjoying the benefits imagined by those who introduce new media tools and platforms. But, what he shares here scratches the surface. There is no substitute for doing what Reich urges at one point: “Read the report!”

Your report identifies three core myths about technology and education. What are they? Each of these seems to boil down to a form of technological determinism. How do we help people to understand the social and cultural forces that shape our relations with technology?

To provoke people’s thinking on edtech and equity, we argue that there are three myths out there that are worth rethinking

The first is that technology disrupts systems, when very often, culture domesticates technology. From Clayton Christensen on down, we have a whole mythology about the power of technology to reorganize human systems, but what we see over and over again is that schools and other learning ecologies are great at taking new technologies and putting them in service of existing goals and intentions. From slate to chalkboard to overhead projectors to document cameras to projectors to smartboards, we’ve had nearly a dozen display technologies in classrooms and overwhelming they are used to display notes that students are supposed to copy or summarize. I was at Google recently and someone involved in the Classroom team was explaining how they were so successful at scaling up so quickly, and the “secret” turned out to be helping the system do everything it was doing anyway. Generally speaking in schools, it’s a good bet that if you introduce a new technology, it will be used to extend existing practices, and it won’t be a catalyst for disruptive innovation.

The second myth is that open equals equitable, but more commonly, free technologies disproportionately benefit affluent folks with the financial, social, and technological capital to take advantage of free innovations. I’ve studied this in several contexts now, at the end of the 00s I was studying classroom uses of wikis, and found they were used more often and for more interesting purposes in affluent schools. In the last few years, I studied MOOCs, and found that U.S. residents lives in neighborhoods about a half of a standard deviation more affluent that typical Americans.

If you want to make a safe bet about any new tech in schools, bet that it will be used to extend existing practices, and most adoption and most of the interesting practices on the margins will happen in affluent schools or in the upper tracks of schools with more affluent kids.

The third myth is that we can close some of these digital divides through expanding technology access. In reality, social and cultural exclusions are much more difficult to overcome. This is an old lesson, but we understand it better with each passing year. I was first exposed to some of these ideas from the sociologist Paul Attewell’s work on the two Digital Divides: the divide of access and the divide of usage. You can wire everyone up the same with the same devices, and young people from more affluent neighborhoods will have more opportunities to use tech for more creative and production-oriented uses with more support from adults and mentors. Henry, your own work on the Participation Gap--the gap between who has access to new technologies and who actually participation as producers in creative networks--is another source of inspiration for this kind of thinking.

One overarching lesson from all this is that if you want to build great edtech, you ought to have folks with social and cultural expertise on your team. The tech is just table stakes, it’s really about the integration into the learning ecology.

I’ve been teaching undergrads at MIT this semester, and most of them are Computer Science concentrators. A big part of how startups encourage developers to think is to focus very closely on a particular and well-defined interaction: think of how Uber tries to create the experience of tapping your phone have having a black car come pick you up and whisk you away like a celebrity. Focusing on a particular interaction makes design tractable, but it also means you aren’t paying attention to the large context and system.

It might be technological determinism, but even if it’s not the result of strictly deterministic thinking--maybe just a kind of techno-optimism--we think there are real limitations to how much technology alone can shape systems.

As to your questions about how we help people understand more about how social and cultural forces shape tech, Mimi and I are starting a whole project related to this. Over the past year, we’ve had three meetings with folks from venture capital, philanthropy, and edtech trying to have a good old-fashioned consciousness raising conversation. I think the research on the challenges we face is pretty stable and robust at this point, and the more exciting work ahead is to figure out how we can learn from the exemplar projects out there that are doing great work to close opportunity gaps.

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