California Can Lead the Way in Closing Technology Gaps

August 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm 3 comments

Recently, I visited a classroom just ten miles from Silicon Valley and a few blocks away from a dozen new technology companies. With the exception of three mismatched computers pushed against the back wall, the scene had the power to evoke the nostalgia of someone in their sixties or seventies. The teacher stood in the front of the classroom. Her students sat in rows of desks staring at a whiteboard covered with two dimensional scribbling.

For some, including many educators, this nostalgia is comforting. Yet, for the parents of children living in our highest poverty communities, the failure of the typical American school to evolve into our technology and information age should cause profound concern.  

In this new age, college and career success and long-term economic security are tied to both access to technology and the ability to make sense of the vast amount of information it brings to our fingertips. Wealthier families not only possess more social capital than poor families; they possess more technological capital.

So what is technological capital?

Take two students – an upper middle class student in a well-off school district and a low-income student in a high poverty district. The better off student has a laptop and a smart phone connected to the internet. Her classroom is equipped with the newest devices. The low-income student has to walk to a computer room equipped with second-hand computers with slow and fitful access the internet. He doesn’t have a computer at home or uses an outdated machine that lacks the processing speed to run programs using video as an instructional tool.

Between the two students is a broad hardware gap.

We could close this gap by buying a new computer or tablet for our low-income student. But that doesn’t address the fact that our better-off student lives in a home where high-speed internet access is as basic a utility as electricity. She can walk into any room in her house and use wi-fi to access her devices. In our low-income student’s house, electricity and gas are the basic utilities. Paying for them is a higher priority than internet access. If he wants to access the internet, he has to take a bus to the library.

Between the two students is a gap in internet access.

Even in schools that have closed hardware and access gaps, there’s another problem. Online instruction appears to be following the well-worn tracking patterns of traditional schools. Our well-off student can access enriching online curriculum and higher-level coursework in her online high school. In contrast, our low-income student is stuck completing online remediation courses in English and math.

Between the two students is a gap in the quality of the online education experience.

For better-off students, state-of-the-art hardware is a birthright. They have 24-hour internet access. They receive high quality online enrichment at a very early age. From the first time they pick up a mouse as preschoolers, they are banking technological capital. In contrast, low-income students start at a net disadvantage in technological capital that increases exponentially as they grow up in their disconnected world.  

But the biggest problem of all isn’t something we can fix by equalizing access to hardware or the internet or high quality online instruction. It’s the lack of connectivity between our new technology world and our traditional education model at nearly every level from data analysis to classroom instruction.

For starters, most of the data that emerges from our three-dimensional online universe never appears in our two-dimensional K-12 world. Once it does arrive, it’s rarely used in a systematic way to change teaching practice in order to improve student performance and close achievement gaps. Because our low-income student enters school already at a disadvantage, the dual failure of our K-12 system to use technology to analyze his data and change instructional methods to target his needs has more serious consequences for his success.

Despite the best efforts of education technology promoters and receptive policymakers to market an alternative vision, the technology revolution has mostly floated outside our education system instead of transforming it. Without simultaneous work to close technological capital gaps and initiate a structural transformation of the K-12 system, the current application of technology in education has the potential to recreate and even exacerbate existing inequalities. This could further widen current opportunity gaps plaguing communities of color and low-income communities.

This outcome would be criminal.

For years, educators have focused on three core “low-tech” strategies to close achievement gaps – differentiated instruction, response to intervention and extended learning time. Technological advances ranging from adaptive online instruction to high quality text-to-speech tools have the power to provide true differentiation, target interventions and extend instruction far more efficiently and effectively than an individual teacher. We spend millions, if not billions of dollars, on skill-building and remediation efforts that have failed to pay dividends because they are wedged into the traditional school day. In fact, these strategies are often explicitly counterproductive because they replace students’ access to core curriculum with pull-out remediation or substandard classroom support lacking in the expertise, differentiation and consistency necessary for sustained academic improvement. Students with disabilities and English learners experience these systemic failures year after year.  

To truly accelerate achievement and close achievement gaps, we need a new vision. We must be willing to make the large-scale investments necessary to close technological capital gaps while restructuring our K-12 model to align with those investments. This transformation will require unprecedented collaboration between government, business, school systems and communities. It will require both education technology investments through bonds designated to close technological capital gaps and the repurposing of current education funding focused on remediation. It will require changing or eliminating current laws and regulations that are barriers to school-level innovation, including 19th century funding models, seat time requirements, and the traditional school day. It will require new ways of training and re-training our teachers to become facilitators of learning rather than just holders of content. And it will require new ways of communicating with parents and students that speeds feedback and expands opportunities to learn into multiple settings beyond the classroom.

Most of all, it will require leaders willing to re-imagine our education model. Fortunately, in California, they don’t have to go very far to see promising examples to build on – from Rocketship Education’s technology-intensive program to San Diego Unified School District’s massive “i3” investment in education technology to close hardware and internet access gaps. Throughout California, hundreds of innovative companies have pioneered new ways to communicate, use data, and expand learning. Now, with over a billion dollars in funding to accelerate implementation of the Common Core and the new online Smarter Balanced Assessments, school districts and charter schools have additional funding they can use to close technological gaps.

We are at a critical point. If our leaders are willing to take the same risks and reach for the same rewards as the visionaries who have spurred our technological revolution, they could lead an educational innovation revolution that could transform the lives of our students.    

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. model train layouts  |  August 13, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Everything is very open with a very clear explanation of the
    issues. It was definitely informative. Your website is very
    helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

  • 2. Gay Krause  |  August 16, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Well done article-thanks for sharing!

    Come talk to us to learn what we’re doing at the KCI, Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College. Gay Krause

  • 3. Frank White  |  August 20, 2013 at 8:31 am

    This is all nonsense. You’re just shilling for the companies that are lusting over the money they’re going to make with your various “Reforms”.

    Why are you doing it? Because you’re going where the money is too. You’re probably being paid a pretty penny for this propaganda you develop and disseminate. And, you’re hoping you’ll get an even bigger and better job in the years ahead…if you “play ball”, that is.

    Hey, we all have to eat. And pay rent or a mortgage. But do you have to stoop so low and hurt so many children and families just to make some greenbacks?


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