Classroom Technology

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

By Benjamin Herold — April 08, 2016 8 min read
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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 being presented here as part of the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, which kicks off here today, outlines 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.”

Sunday morning, Akom will present his AERA paper, titled “Youth Participatory Action Research 2.0: How Technological Innovation and Digital Organizing Sparked a Food Revolution in East Oakland.” Co-authored with fellow researchers Aekta Shah, Tessa Cruz, and Aaron Nakai, among others, it is pending publication in the academic journal Qualitative Studies of Education.

The work, which falls far-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.

But Akom’s research embodies many central themes at this year’s AERA conference, including racial justice, digital equity, and the rise of hands-on “Maker” education.

It all adds up to rethinking what innovation means and education can be, he said.

“Business as usual...has contributed to incredibly high dropout rates for youth of color and low-income students,” Akom said.

A ‘life-changing’ experience

Claudia Suarez is one of the couple hundred students who have worked with Akom and the nonprofit he helped found (I-SEEED, short for the Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational, and Environmental Design) to test the YPAR 2.0 approach.

Her experience came in 2011-12, when she was a student at Castlemont High, a neighborhood school in a tough section of Oakland, Calif. As part of a yearlong elective class on urban ecology, Suarez—an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador—mapped the assets and problems in the community around her school, filmed interviews with neighborhood residents, and studied the history of Oakland from a social-justice perspective.

“It was definitely life-changing,” said Suarez, now a senior at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she is majoring in film production and community studies.

“The curriculum taught in regular school, we don’t learn anything that’s related to our lives,” she said. “The [lessons in urban ecology] were the first thing I learned that made me realize I could use the information and knowledge to make a change in my community.”

The idea of such youth-centered “participatory action research” is nothing new; Akom traces its roots back to Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, who authored the influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970. More recently, the PAR approach has been infused with insights from scholars of feminism, womanism, and critical race theory. And beginning about a decade ago, Akom writes, technology began playing a larger role, with digital communications tools and social media being used to engage youth in research efforts with a social activism or community development emphasis.

Prior to 2011, I-SEEED made some use of such technologies, including digital video production and storytelling, said Aekta Shah, the director of technology and community engagement at I-SEEED and a Ph.D. candidate in learning science and technology design at Stanford University.

That year, they began incorporating a heavy dose of mapping, utilizing Local Ground, a “paper-to-digital” mapping platform that relies on QR codes.

Then, beginning around 2012, I-SEEED began development on the mobile app that ultimately became Streetwyze. The goal was to allow youth to easily gather and upload survey data, multimedia (such as on-location videos or audio interviews), and qualitative data (including text or audio descriptions of a site), and integrate that information with official quantitative data sets (from local government, the U.S. Census, and more), all using the mobile devices they already carry in their pockets and purses.

“Streetwyze is designed and developed to function a lot like the social media and communications tools that youth already use,” Shah said.

Recent work with the app has been focused in Newark, N.J., where Shah said everyone from youth to young adults to senior citizens have been trained as part of a digital “ground-truthing” effort focused on environmental health and air quality.

“They’re using the tool and the [YPAR 2.0] methodology to identify things like diesel trucks that are driving to and from [the city’s] port, but pulling over and idling in front of preschools or parks,” she said. “The mobile platform allows them to capture that type of information to inform policy and planning, as well as to share with other residents.”

‘The Missing Link in the Data Revolution’

For Akom, it’s all part of a larger puzzle.

“The missing link in the data revolution is how to integrate official knowledge and local knowledge in ways that make data more valid, reliable, authentic, and meaningful to everyday people in order to get at the truth,” he told Greenbiz in a recent interview.

But is the YPAR 2.0 approach something everyday educators can use?

“The short answer is that Streetwyze is most effectively rolled out when it’s embedded in a racial- and social-justice framework,” Akom told Education Week.

And that’s where things get tricky.

For starters, not everyone agrees with such a framework. It’s a lot easier to imagine schools in the left-leaning Oakland area being willing to give it a try than those in more politically and socially conservative parts of the country.

And in order to truly understand the experiences of students such as Suarez, K-12 teachers—as a group, still overwhelmingly white— must confront what Akom describes as a “cultural gap.”

Most discussions about ed tech also focus more on ways to help students better navigate the existing system, rather than upend it.

Bremner, the Oakland Unified educator, has experienced those tensions firsthand.

Currently a college and career pathways coach in the district, Bremner spent 14 years in the classroom, including time teaching that urban ecology course at Castlemont High that Claudia Suarez says changed her life.

In an interview, Bremner said he’s been using participatory action-research projects in his classes since he began as a teacher. He’s often been on an island.

“Sometimes, you’ll have [colleagues] doing some level of critical pedagogy, looking at systems of liberation and oppression,” he said. “More often than not, though, that’s not what teachers are doing.”

Bremner’s partnership with Akom and I-SEEED came during his first year at Castlemont, when he was also trying to build a new academy program at the school, as well as teach a regular course load.

In general, he said, the YPAR approach is powerful because it allows young people to be at the center of research that actually matters to them, often generating a sense of value and purpose among students who might otherwise feel disconnected from their own education.

Adding technology to the mix “can have a huge added value,” Bremner said, because it allows for “more efficient data collection, more immediate turnaround, interactivity, and much more dynamic [presentations.]”

Still, his partnership with I-SEEED fizzled after that first year, largely due to external factors.

Managing the logistics and demands of collaboration at the time were challenging, given all his other responsibilities and turmoil and leadership churn at Castlemont, Bremner said.

It’s also been hard to integrate new technologies as they develop, he said, largely because classroom teachers are given so little time to plan and experiment.

And despite some recent interest from above, brought about by Oakland Unified’s new commitment to high school redesign, there remain very few teachers or administrators in the district with whom to collaborate and share ideas about technology-driven participatory action research.

For Akom and I-SEEED, the challenge now is figuring out how to overcome such barriers in order to grow both Streetwyze and their YPAR 2.0 approach. One strategy already in use: are currently working to train teachers in “culturally and community-responsive pedagogy” via a group known the Teaching Excellence Network.

“We think the issue of scaling is more around will than skill,” Akom said. “We are talking about changing lives here.”

Photo: Students from Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif. take part in a youth participatory action research project during the 2011-12 school year. --Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi

This post has been updated with information on the Teaching Excellence Network.

An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Aaron Nakai.

See also:

for live coverage of the latest research on ed tech at #AERA16.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.