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What a decade of education research tells us about technology in the hands of underserved students

| September 14, 2018 | 0 Comments


Despite all the celebratory rhetoric around America’s declining school dropout rates,1 during a given year, nearly 20% of students expected to graduate2 do not.

Furthermore, according to Johns Hopkins and Civic Enterprises,3 “unacceptably low levels4 of minority, lowincome, English Language Learners, and special education students are graduating from high school”. This is true for 29% of African American students, 25% of Hispanic students, 39% of students who have limited English proficiency and 27% of low-income students.5 Hardware can’t fill this digital divide – especially when K-12 [kindergarten to Grade 12] schools in low-income neighbourhoods are only using it for remediation purposes. In the last three years, US schools have begun seeing an unprecedented level of new hardware and software in their classrooms. But how can we use this massive influx of technology to support our nation’s underserved students?

The (alarming) research on edtech and equity

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with some educational superheroes, Linda Darling-Hammond6 and Shelley Goldman,6 on a massive literature review and policy brief7 guided by the very question listed above. During this project, I personally vetted almost 400 publications, landing on 52 that were relevant, rigorous and grounded in actual research. Taken as a collection, they revealed a holistic picture of the parts that must work together for edtech [education technology] to be effective in the classroom. You may be wondering, why isn’t the massive influx of technology supporting those who need it the most? Research on edtech points to an explanation of why access is not enough. Specifically, Professor Mark Warschaeur8 (the force to be reckoned with when it comes to researching digital learning) found that “overall, students who are black, Hispanic, or lowincome are more likely to use computers for drill-and-practice, whereas students who are white or high-income are more likely to use computers for simulations or authentic applications”.9 This mean that access alone isn’t enough to raise the bar for underserved students. When given access, digital tools are being used for ‘remediation’ in low-income environments, which isn’t working. In fact, when we only use edtech for basic skills with underserved students – but use it in much more meaningful ways with more privileged students – we are driving the boundaries of the digital divide even farther apart, not closing it. Using digital tools solely for drill-and-practice activities and remediation can and often does negatively affect student achievement,10 not to mention engagement, motivation and self-esteem. If we can’t use edtech for skills and drills, then what can we use it for? Here are our suggestions, with five tips below providing a good starting point for anyone who wants to implement new digital tools or evaluate those tools already being used.

Actionable tip #1: Stop using technology for remediation!

Instead of using technology to drill kids on grade-level standards, use it to help students engage in authentic tasks – those that are grounded in relevant ongoing work that has some purpose beyond the immediate completion of the activity. We recommend digital tools that support problem solving, inferencing, analysing and synthesising information from multiple sources, as well as tools that develop 21st century skills,11 including communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. These should be prioritised 100% of the time over basic skill tasks (memorising facts, applying rules, etc.). Some great tools for this include:

• The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE):12 Powerful open-source software for concept mapping, VUE allows users to create complex visual representations of information from scratch.

• Canva:13 A content creation web app that allows users to design presentations, social media graphics, posters, book covers, business cards and more. Canva allows beginners to engage in professional-looking information design without the huge learning curve that usually comes with this kind of work.

• Declara: A web-based application for teams and individuals that offers a unique blend of content consumption, content curation and communication/sharing.

Actionable tip #2: Let students create original digital content

Give students opportunities to be content creators rather than content consumers.14 Content creation – when done well – allows students to communicate their own ideas creatively. Some examples include:

• using technology to craft multimedia stories

• filming and producing documentaries or designing posters

• leveraging social media as a tool for teaching and learning

• publishing on wikis, blogs and/or websites.

Actionable tip #3: Pick digital tools that promote interactivity and discovery

Does the app or programme allow students to construct their own understanding of complex phenomenon? Does it encourage students to represent thinking in multiple forms (text, pictures, videos, digital interactions or some combination of these)?15Will students engage with data or true-to-life simulations? Will they make use of sensors to measure real-life phenomena? These are some of the markers of digital tools that support learning through interactivity and discovery. Get your hands dirty with the technology and use it the way students will.

Actionable tip #4: Honour students as experts, and let them share their expertise with an authentic audience

With the internet at our fingertips, we have access to all kinds of potential audiences. Giving students an authentic audience to share their work improves the quality of their work. Instead of writing about “how to make a ham sandwich”16 for the teacher, students could be writing or producing a video17 about “how to create a working calculator in Minecraft”18 for the robust Minecraft digital community.19 In the latter example, the readers are interested, their feedback is targeted and contextualised, and there are higher risks and rewards in terms of building confidence, content knowledge and identity formation.

Actionable tip #5: Find the right blend of teacher and technology.

We believe that the teacher must play a crucial role in supporting the content students encounter through digital learning. The only substantial study published on this prior to 201320 found significantly greater student satisfaction in environments with (1) high levels of teacher support for the digital material; and (2) opportunities for peer interaction. The authors of this report also recommended the use of real-time digital feedback in digital learning environments. As a final note – where I live in Silicon Valley [in the San Francisco Bay area in California in the US], it is not uncommon for middle and high school students to write code, participate in blended lessons or explore a fabrication lab. But other students – the same age and living across the highway21 in a lower-income area – are much more hard-pressed to find opportunities like this within their schools and communities. In a recent panel discussion on “Education and Inequity”,22 Darling-Hammond calls attention to the fact that usage of East Palo Alto library computers is limited to 15 minutes, and the lines to use them are often long. If you are a student without access to a computer at home and limited access to technology within your community, you simply cannot engage deeply in the kind of tasks the literature recommends. To help our underserved students learn, we must eradicate all traces of the argument that access to digital tools is key to minimising the digital divide, and instead advocate for changes in the use of these tools to better engage our underserved students in authentic tasks that support the development of higher-order thinking skills.

Molly B. Zielezinski achieved her PhD at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in California, with a dual specialisation in learning sciences and technology design and curriculum and teacher education. She is now the founder and director at MBZ Labs in the San Francisco Bay area. This piece originally appeared on EdSurge on 19 May 2016 (see: of-education-research-tells-us-about-technology-inthe- hands-of-underserved-students). We are grateful for Zielezinski’s permission to feature the article here. To see the literature review mentioned in the article, visit: To see the accompanying references, visit:

Category: Spring 2018

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