Outcomes, epistemic agency, and edtech equity

According the the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, all students inherently hold the rights – “without adult intervention” – to “education” as well as “identity,” “the highest attainable standard of health and health care,” “protect[ion] from all forms of physical and mental violence,” and “the fundamental freedoms of expression, thought, conscience and religion.”19 Education is also associated with a variety of outcomes that reflect the philosophical lens through which learning is conceived:

The intrinsic characteristic of an educational aim demands us to have what is essential to human beings […] A variety of items have been brought up as essential and thus intrinsic to human life and ‘being educated,’ such as social stability, happiness, democratic ways of thinking and living, the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge, responsibility, [and] evidence-based thinking.20

Within the school environment, most stakeholders focus primarily on academic growth as measured via assessments. Yet although they are the primary instrument through which students are held accountable, most tests “cover only a small fraction of the knowledge, skills and attitudes youth need to be successful.”21

In order to provide authentic input on outcomes – “what education or ‘being educated’ actually means”22 – students must develop epistemic agency, which requires that they “embark on an exploration about how they themselves think.”23 Epistemic agency is also necessary in order to realize the potential of “praxis” – a “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”24 At the same time, constructive action requires that students develop the capacity required to build “knowledge structures” that have social value within the context of their local communities. This practice can be encouraged within learning environments where students are “consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.”25 Such instructional approaches empower students through opportunities to create and share “the out-in-the-world production of designs, theories, problem solutions, hypotheses, [and] proofs.”26

Some school environments emphasize “21st century skills” like media literacy, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration.27 Yet in order to support increased equity, it is likely that success must be defined in even broader terms – including 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.”28 However, in the absence of “commonly accepted metrics for measuring achievement,” it is “difficult to assess the extent to which [such skills] are being mastered in diverse settings.”29

There are similar concerns when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of education technology. Quantitative or experimental studies tend to assess the quantifiable impact of a specific intervention but less often consider other factors that affect implementation – including efficiency or appeal to teachers and students. Qualitative or naturalistic studies, by contrast, tend to be more sensitive to local context – yet their social utility is often limited.30 One alternative approach is “formative” or “design” experiments,31 which begin with a clearly defined pedagogical goal, including a justification of the goal’s value. Researchers work with educators and technology developers to identify an instructional intervention with promise to achieve the goal, then modify the intervention over time to understand how it “might be implemented in [diverse] classrooms.”32

Implications for educators and technology developers

19. MacKay & Burt-Gerrans, 2005, p. 424
20. Ryoo, 2010, p. 93
21. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 206
22. Hopkins, 2015, p. 614
23. Papert, 1980, p. 19
24. Freire, 1970, p. 51
25. Papert, 1991, as cited in Blikstein, 2013, para. 4
26. Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2015, p. 397
27. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 207
28. Nagaoka et al, 2015, pp. 1-2
29. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 207
30. Reinking & Bradley, 2004
31. ibid, p. 149
32. ibid, p. 151