Equity and edtech

The term “equity” is used in a range of education-related policy texts, yet there is not necessarily a shared understanding of the word’s meaning among diverse education stakeholders. Depending on context, “equity” can be defined as “the quality of being equal and fair”, “equality turned into action”, “fairness in distribution”, “equal treatment for all races”, or “the process that supplies the underlying principles as to why a system is fair.”39 Each of these definitions implies a unique set of social and historical biases that can influence epistemic considerations such as “why people learn, what is selected for learning and how learning is organised and progresses.”40

Social and historical biases also influence the extent to which students from low-income households are able to access education technology. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, lack of access to edtech is one of several “disparities” that can “hinder” students’ academic and social development:

[A]ccess to instructional materials and technology for students and teachers can impact the quality of education as well as students’ ability to engage with digital resources outside the classroom. Technology and other instructional materials support teachers in properly delivering, enhancing and personalizing the curriculum. Access to these important instructional resources varies between high-poverty schools that are heavily populated with students of color and more affluent schools serving fewer students of color.41

Due to “ongoing discrepancies” in access to technology, “achieving equity of access at school takes on greater priority.”42 At the same time the majority of children – including many from low-income families – have access to mobile devices at home before their first birthdays.43

There are also important disparities in how students from different backgrounds use technology. For example, throughout history many edtech products have been optimized to increase “efficien[cy] at accomplishing current goals with conventional methods.”44 By contrast, edtech products that empower students from low-income households must maintain their value within “the technology-driven evolution of a knowledge-based economy.”45 Nevertheless, in many schools certain students are less likely to be encouraged to use edtech to support “higher order skills” like “applying concepts or developing simulations”, and more likely to use technology for “lower order”, “drill and practice” activities.46 Such differential use can affect academic achievement47 as well as students’ “develop[ment] of awareness of themselves and of the wide range of options before them, competencies to pursue those options, and the ability to make good future choices for their lives.”48

Generally speaking, equity can be conceived of as coming “from above”, “from below”, or “from the middle.”49 “Equity from above” refers to “a form of regulating actions according to rules, guided by reason and […] by ideas of rights and fairness.”50 Considering “edtech equity from above”, it seems significant that discourses related to education policy, curriculum, and learning goals “often evolve without sufficient input and debate from those segments of society that are most affected.”51 In fact, many edtech decisions are based upon “[o]verly optimistic visions of the role of technology in school-change.”52 Meanwhile, in many classrooms implementation-related challenges reinforce the perception that edtech is “oversold and underused.”53

“Equity from below,” in contrast, implies “a space of negotiation in which particular concerns of groups or individuals” are addressed through “considerate and fair relationships that support negotiation, questioning and discussion.”54 Examining “edtech equity from below,” it becomes apparent that decisions related to edtech affect students, parents, educators, researchers, and policymakers as well as technology developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and investors – each representing its own set of incentives and biases. Nonetheless, these diverse stakeholders must work together in order to develop technologies that empower students from low-income households to “carve out a place for the creation of ideas.”55

Finally, “equity from the middle” is “associated with finance and a process of redeeming money or making investments,” and represents “the sense in which social arrangements mediate flows of value in education.”56 This includes “the movement of ideas, time, money, skill, organization or artefacts” which constitute “investments” in learning.57 “Edtech equity from the middle” is a useful lens through which to interpret the growing proportion of school budgets allocated toward technology purchases,58 as well as increased investment in early stage edtech companies.59 These trends are driven in part by growth in mobile technology, a shift from print to digital instructional materials, changes in state and federal education policies, and the rise of teachers as digital creators.60

As a result, school environments are increasingly influenced by technology developers, whose perspectives and values may differ significantly from students’. For example, black and Latino students spend more time than their peers consuming media each day,61 yet they are less likely to study subjects like computer science62 or to be part of successful technology startups.63 With these facts in mind, instructional trends like “personalized learning” – which postulates that students will benefit “if they have more power over what [and when] they learn”64 – must be critically examined “in tandem with privilege and power”65:

Who gets to define ‘personalization’? Who writes all these algorithms that will ‘personalize’ our learning through technology? Who writes the curriculum? For whom is ‘personalization’ defined (and by extension, for whom is ‘personalization’ programmed)?66

If the underrepresentation of black and Latino educators is “a symptom and not a cause of the education gaps we currently see,”67 then it seems plausible that a lack of diverse perspectives among technology developers is “both a symptom and a cause of unfulfilled demand” for edtech that addresses inequities faced by students each day.68

Hunger, fear, and liberation

39. Unterhalter, 2009, p. 416
40. ibid
41. USDOE, 2014, p. 4
42. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 188
43. Kabali et al, 2015
44. Dede, 2000, pp. 282-283
45. ibid, p. 283
46. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 198
47. Kasten, 2014
48. Nagaoka et al, 2015, pp. 1-2
49. Unterhalter, 2009, pp. 417-419
50. ibid, p. 419
51. Voithofer & Foley, 2007, p. 14
52. Philip & Garcia, 2015, p. 677
53. Cuban, 2001
54. Unterhalter, 2009, p. 417
55. Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2015, p. 397
56. Unterhalter, 2009, p. 420
57. ibid, p. 421
58. EdNET Insight, 2015
59. EdSurge, 2016
60. Childress, 2016
61. Common Sense Media, 2011
62. Heitin, 2014
63. CB Insights, 2010
64. Riley, 2014, para. 3
65. Watters, 2014, para. 3
66. ibid
67. Vilson, 2014, para. 2
68. White, 2014, para. 12