I’ve written on the subject of digital inequity in schools before, but for a few reasons, I find myself compelled to revisit the topic once again. Partly because of the recent events surrounding Ahmed Mohamed’s now famous arrest, but also because there seems to be a growing trend in education technology to focus on learning, equity, and digital media in non-formal, or afterschool settings. I’m a big fan of much of the awesome work coming out of this trend (the Cities of Learning project, and the Hive Learning Network are especially inspiring), but I sometimes find myself concerned that while we shift our focus on improving digital equity, we take our eyes off of the ball just enough to allow new innovations in learning and technology to overlook critical questions and issues related to diversity and social inequalities as they happen in school.
First off, what do we mean when we say “digital inequity”? Generally, the idea refers to differences in individuals’ access to digital technology and digital technology-based activities, or differences in the quality of individuals’ uses of digital technology and participation in digital technology-based activities. That covers a pretty wide spectrum of things, from simply having access to computers and the Internet, to being centrally involved in the production of digital tools, to making use of those tools for any number of civic or economic purposes. There is wide agreement that access to these tools and opportunities are unevenly distributed among America’s youth, but to date, most of the “solutions” being considered in education and the edtech industry relate to assimilating disadvantaged youth into certain areas of techno-/digital culture deemed most valuable for academic or economic growth.
Indeed, there’s a general level of agreement in our society that creative production skills, engineering or programming skills, and data analysis skills are the most important technology skills to acquire in this day and age – not just for individuals’ ability to contribute to our global economy, but to live as informed, critically-thinking participants in a politically evolving world. Schools, being an obvious target for interventions aimed at providing youth with opportunities to develop these skills, are notoriously glacial, however, when it comes to enacting or adopting large-scale changes such as the implementation of technology into curriculum and instruction. Why is that?
First, technology is expensive to acquire and maintain. This not only means that schools have to rely on outside donors or meet government-imposed standards to receive funding, but often times, must find ways to sustainably support existing technology infrastructures, in addition to building capacity, as the size and amount of data being transferred through wireless broadband continues to increase, and new technologies require ever-more equipment updates. Second, teaching staff and administration need, themselves, to have an adequate facility with, and support for using technology. This means time (and money) for ongoing professional development and lesson planning, in addition to supports that can motivate teachers to learn about and use technology for instruction. Third, schools already face the challenge of meeting a number of accountability measures, including standardized testing and teacher evaluation, to which funding and accreditation are often tied. The process of implementing technology initiatives on top of these challenges often only adds to the stress involved around test preparation and coordination. Not only does all of this make it difficult for schools to keep up with constantly changing technologies and the new skills that are required to use these technologies, it makes researching – by which I mean, in-depth, holistically, and with a sensitivity to myriad contextual factors – how youth develop technology skills in school a slow, and challenging process, as well.
Not surprisingly, funding institutions (and researchers along with them) are moving to more flexible and less-restrictive sites to examine how youth learn about and make valuable use of digital technologies. Promisingly, these efforts have paid huge dividends, not only in improving disadvantaged youths’ access to digital technologies, mentors, and authentic opportunities to engage in digitally-mediated cultural activities in their local communities, but in providing researchers with access to learning processes that aren’t addled with problems often found in schooling environments.
But although such programs may provide youth more autonomy over their learning and use of digital technologies than they would find in the classroom, the majority of these programs are voluntary. This means that despite their recent proliferation, many of these programs remain unused or un-accessed by large populations of children and teens – typically the very populations of youth that efforts to “narrow the divide” target. And it is precisely for this reason that schools are perhaps the most important sites in which to integrate the practices of making, media production, programming, gaming, etc. Given that in general, schooling is not voluntary, but mandatory, means that youth are, for better or worse, essentially captive there. And for this reason, as well, it makes sense for funding institutions and scholars to dive deeply into schools head-on, and focus on democratizing schooling, or studying the effects of institutionalized practices, such as testing and accountability, on students’ digital technology skills, rather than shifting focus (and money) to spaces in which the truly disenfranchised and marginalized are still largely underrepresented.
This is not to say that after-school and summer programs directed at improving disadvantaged youths’ access to digital media technologies and learning should in any way be diminished or funded less – if anything, recent work has shown that these programs are critical, necessary, and essential, and are currently picking up much of the slack that our schools leave behind when it comes to providing disadvantaged youth with access to digital technology and learning digital technology skills. Yet if anything, the recent OECD report (which suggest the implementation of technology into schools actually harms students’ academic performance – a troubling and perhaps misleading finding) is reason enough for researchers and large funding institutions to double their efforts to examine how social and cultural practices around schooling and digital technology create equitable, and inequitable, opportunities for all students to use modern technology for personal, community, and social improvement.