Category Archives: Technology

Studying Digital Inequity and Studying Digital Inequity IN SCHOOL

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.

Voice Comments in Google Docs!

I found this post this morning on adding voice comments to Google Docs, and immediately thought, “What a great way to provide some formative feedback to students!” For those of us who lament the inability to markup Google Docs beyond adding text comments or changing font colors, this provides a great way to add more thorough feedback to students, without worrying about cluttering up student work. Fantastic!

YOUmedia on Connected Learning

Connected LearningLast week I attended the YOUmedia webinar hosted by the Connected Learning group entitled “Teens, Digital Media, and the Chicago Public Library: A Study of YOUmedia’s Progress” (view the webinar here).  Probably my favorite thing about the YOUmedia project is its devotion to creating informal learning spaces for students to both engage in academic work, and in multiple forms of cultural participation. But whereas this sounds on its face like a typical library media center, the YOUmedia project has done a couple of things to set itself apart from other learning commons.

First: variety.  YOUmedia offers structured programs and unstructured activities.  It also serves as just a hangout spot for teens.  This means that, on any given day, students can connect with their peers, explore a range of digital media production tools, engage with mentors, attend a creative writing workshop, and move between these “spaces” at will.  Taken in bulk, this variety provides the youth that visit the YOUmedia center a sense of autonomy and community.  They can move between learning spaces on their own terms, and use the resources provided to develop their own interests.

Second: the YOUmedia project provides a performance space for youth, and actively provides opportunities for youth to connect, learn from each other, and collaborate on their performances (think of an informal grad school seminar).  The investment YOUmedia has made in supporting teens and their interests seems to have paid dividends in terms of building a community where people feel welcome, encouraged, and empowered to own a voice.

Take a look at the webinar to hear from the YOUmedia project coordinators themselves.  This is inspiring work.

St. John’s Prep iPad Pilot Video and Panel Discussion

For those of you who missed the opening prayer during last Friday’s professional day, Beth Forbes and I put together a brief video to showcase some of the work this semester’s iPad Pilot teachers (Annie Burridge, Dale Bryant, Susan Bavaro, and Stephanie Giglio) have been doing in their classes. You can watch the video above, or simply go to and search for “SJP iPad Pilot”.

Following Shelly Tochluk’s presentation on Witnessing Whiteness, the pilot teachers (Elizabeth Solomon, Mark McManmon, Br. Bob Flaherty, Dale Bryant, Stephanie Giglio, and Susan Bavaro – Annie was off campus) assembled in Campus Ministry without about 30 of our colleagues to discuss the iPad program, technical issues they and their students have experienced in class over the semester, and some of the rationale for going 1:1. Thanks to everyone who participated. The group received some very thought-provoking questions from the crowd, and offered candid, insightful responses in return. Topics ranged from specific apps, to going paperless, to issues with wireless, to shifts in pedagogy. It was a fantastic discussion!

iPads in the Classroom – One Take on Why We are Doing This

“The Acquisition of a Child by a Learning Disability” by Ray McDermott (in Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, Chaiklin &​ Lave, 1991) is an essay that I consider to be one of the most influential pieces of work in my career as an educator, and as a tech integration specialist, in particular.  I recently had reason to revisit this article, and found myself still moved by some of its central points: 1) learning (especially in schools) is an inherently social process, influenced by peers, relationships, and social dynamics, and is not a trait to be found in the heads of individuals; 2) as educators, we have an implicit role in the formation, arrangement, and at times, the foreclosure, of childrens’ learning opportunities through this social process; and 3) though children try on different identities throughout their educational experiences and their adolescent development, they sometimes, perhaps all too often, carry those identities which society (read: peers, teachers, schools) ascribes to them.
I’ve recently found myself asking, and being asked by several colleagues, why are we going one-to-one?  What is the point of bringing iPads into the classroom?  I don’t have a canned response or a rehearsed answers to these questions, which is a good thing, I suppose, but when I think about how to respond, I’m often drawn to thinking about McDermott’s essay.  Let me see if I can make that connection here.

McDermott illustrates the central points mentioned above through the story of Adam, a student who has been labeled “learning disabled” (LD) because of the difficulty he experiences in accomplishing certain school-based tasks (e.g., following a recipe in cooking club, staying on task during classroom lessons, and finally – and most challenging for Adam – performing in testing situations).  McDermott’s take in this essay is to consider the contexts in which Adam does well, and those in which he does less well, by examining the various demands and constraints placed on Adam in each setting.  By “demands,” McDermott is not just talking about learning outcomes, he also means the demands placed on Adam to avoid displaying his LD to the world, appearing incompetent to his classmates, and failing to accomplish certain “simple” tasks.  As the demands placed on Adam differ from contexts to context, he looks more-so or less-so competent, sociable, charming, and helpful.  School is a struggle for Adam, but life in the outside world is not.  Because Adam’s ability to perform various academic or real-life tasks didn’t equate across settings (school and non-school), McDermott sought to describe the various contexts in which Adam was being asked to learn, and how the properties of the contexts influenced when Adam appeared LD, and when he did not.In teasing out the different aspects of each context, McDermott highlighted the resources available to Adam at each moment – language, learning materials, peers, teachers, etc.  He then showed how certain arbitrary constraints limiting Adam’s access to these resources made different tasks more challenging for him.  When he has a peer to help him read a math problem or organize his work, Adam performs fine; his LD is invisible.  But when he is forced to work alone on isolated questions that have been removed from the context of his real life experience, or when the tools he would normally use to work his way through a problem have been taken away, he struggles, gives up, and “appears LD”.  Extrapolating this tale of Adam’s experience, I feel I can respond a little bit to why I believe schools adopt, or should adopt, one-to-one programs.  By placing tools into the hands of our students that have real-life application, that give them access to resources and information, and that can help them explore, organize, rehearse, and make salient their own thinking, we take a step towards making labels like “Learning Disabled” disappear.  When we compound these kinds of activities with opportunities to engage autonomously in the learning process (such as through exploration, research, and multimedia production, etc.), we start to create contexts that enable students, rather than limit, or “disable” them.  And when we provide students with tools that they can adopt and use in personalized ways, we further advance this notion.  The iPad is just one example of a tool that can be used to suit this purpose, but like anything else in the classroom, for it to be effective, students must also have the opportunity to use it for activities like the ones just mentioned.  That, my friends, is the crux.  How do we, as educators, create those opportunities for our students?

PDF Annotation App – PDFpen

The 1:1 Committee at my school has been looking at several apps this year in an effort to produce a list of “essential” or “core” apps that we believe our faculty will need for instructing with the iPad.  A number of us deal with PDFs on a regular basis, whether it’s an article we scanned on one of the school copiers, a journal article we downloaded from a library database, or even a Word document we asked our students to convert and upload to Google Docs.  Since so many of us are looking to go paperless when our students have their iPads next year, the 1:1 Committee has been considering a handful of PDF annotation apps that are functional enough to allow for electronic grading, and passing documents back and forth between us and our students.  I recently read a blog post on ProfHacker (a fantastic blog, by the way, on teaching with technology) reviewing one such app – PDFpen.

After navigating the PDFpen site a bit, I came across this video tutorial, which covers practically every feature available in the app.  The video is a bit long, but it’s very, very thorough, and worth a watch for anyone considering annotation apps for the iPad.

Some of the features I like:

  • It integrates with Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and a few other services, which makes it easy to get PDFs onto your iPad, as well as export them to a file sharing service (for instance, if you wanted to upload a marked-up student assignment to a shared folder on Google Drive).
  • It can create PDFs, including PDF forms (and it can combine existing PDFs!).
  • It can markup, highlight, and annotate in many colors and shapes.
  • It includes a thumbnail navigation pane for easily scrolling through long documents.

What do you think? Does this have advantages over PDFExpert?

Collaboration with Dropbox and Google Drive

During last Friday’s Professional Day, my friend Rob and I covered a few topics to consider when designing collaborative activities that use the iPad.  Specifically, we covered some of the differences between Dropbox and Google Drive, and how those differences make each tool either a better, or worse, solution for sharing between iPads.  One main difference we found is the ability to assign different permission levels to subfolders (folders within folders).  For instance, in Dropbox, when you create a folder within an already shared folder, that new folder will inherit the permissions of the “parent” folder, meaning that the new folder will be shared with the exact same people as the parent folder.  Additionally the people woth whom the parent folder is being shared will have the exact same level of access to files within the new folder as they do with the parent folder.  Make sense?  For example, if you create a folder in Dropbox, and share that folder with your class, all of the students in the class will have access to anything you drop into that folder – including new folders.  This makes for a messy situation when you want to share items with only certain individuals (e.g., grading).  Several people have experimented with workarounds for this, including keeping a folder for delivering class materials (shared with all the students in the class), and separate folders for each student (shared only with that student).

In Google Drive, however, you can set different levels of permission on each item, even if an item is stored within a shared folder.  This has many advantages.  For example, you can create a class folder (shared with everyone in the class), and then create subfolders within that class folder that are shared with only certain individuals (or groups of individuals).  This is useful if you want to provide feedback to students on a paper they’ve submitted to you electronically.  You could also use this method to create folders for small groups, where only the members of that group have access to that folder.  This is a handy way to have students share materials and collaborate on projects.