One Perspective on Urban EdTech Inequality

I’ve written multiple times now about my teaching experience in an urban classroom, but this week’s T509 focus on equity instantly brought me back to thinking about how I saw disparity in Ed Tech implementation play out.  In particular, one quote from Paul Attewell’s article on the digital divide particularly struck me (page 254):

“[Schools] face competing demands from parents, teachers, children, and state testing agencies and suffer severe limitations on spending and staff time.  Schools find it difficult to fulfill their current educational and social mandates, let alone embrace a visionary new one.  The result is often a compromise:  Educational computing adapts to schools at least as much as it “transforms” them (Cuban 1986, 1999).”

In considering this quote, I instant thought of my school district’s Chromebook initiative just last school year.  As part of a grant, every high school classroom in the school district got it’s own cart of 29 Chromebooks.  Instantly, our school became a 1:1 student to computer building after years of functioning with only a handful of computer labs with extremely limited access.  This was one of those moments that the teachers in my building had been wanting for years to improve their classrooms, but the actual implementation of the program left a lot to be desired.

First of all, our building’s current Wi-Fi capacity was not prepared for such a shift.  Even though plans had been put in place to upgrade the network capacity, our district only had an IT team of 3 people who were in charge of upgrading Wi-Fi a all of the district’s 20+ schools while still meeting the high massive volume of responding to IT requests across the district.  As a result, only about 50% of the teachers at my school could access Wi-Fi and only about 50% of them could all simultaneously have a class on the network at a time before the whole thing crashed.  Without Wi-Fi Chromebooks literally become glorified paperweights, and so it was thus for about 50% of the school year.

Second, the launch of our Chromebooks came with a very small amount of professional development (PD).  The IT department (the same overworked and underpaid staff of 3 mentioned earlier) launched a series of voluntary Google apps for education (GAFE) PD sessions with help from a GAFE support person.  This PD pretty much included the GAFE support person teaching us how to login to a Chromebook, access a Google drive, and search for GAFE we were interested in (without providing any real suggestions).  After about only 20 mins of that, the IT staff took over to give us a lecture about how to secure the Chromebooks in our classrooms and how teachers alone are financially responsible for any damaged or stolen Chromebooks in their classroom.

I could go on and on about how Chromebook implementation went wrong in my district, but I think from these two examples you can see what causes some of the gaps Paul Attewell discusses.  One of the key things I want to point out here is that teachers were initially really excited and motivated by the introduction of Chromebooks in our school, but the way in which implementation was handled left most of them feeling dis-empowered and even afraid to use the Chromebooks in productive ways. The only reasons I had any success in this integration was because I was lucky enough to have great WiFi access in my classroom all year and lucked my way into attending some really great outside PD sessions that helped me come up with some creative teaching ideas.

I name this example because I think it magnifies the ideas Justin Reich ends with at around 16:00 in this video.  This is definitely a case in which an increase in Ed Tech innovation is leading to a “Rising Tide” in the achievement gap due to the massive differences in context between low and high income schools.  In thinking about this example, I start to wonder whose responsibility it could have been to “rethink our delivery mechanisms” and prevent poor implementation and create better equity?  Is it on the designers of Chromebooks?  Is it on GAFE developers?  Is it on the overworked district IT guys?  Is it on the school principals and district leadership?  Is it on the teachers who are struggling to find support?  Is it on the people who wrote the Chromebook grant in the first place?  Is it on policymakers who allow for a system that allows for this oversight to exist?  Is it on our society as a whole to start to seek out a major cultural shift?  What if any of this can we actually have an impact on?

Despite my generally skeptical attitude, I really do believe in the transformational quality of open access technologies in education.  As mentioned in this week’s readings and outlined by my Chromebook example, there are a lot of barriers present in our current system that prevent ideal implementation of innovations.  I do not think that intentional technology design alone can break down all of those barriers.  I think we also need to think about how we can make some very simple changes to our education system to allow open access to lead to improved equity.

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2 thoughts on “One Perspective on Urban EdTech Inequality

  1. I can totally empathize with those challenges. Replace ‘chromebooks’ with ‘iPads’ and ‘Google’ with ‘Apple’ and it’s pretty much the experience one of my schools had. The worst is that this hadn’t even been discussed with teachers, and they found out a week before school started that our school was going to become a pilot for this iPad program and would have to learn to use the devices in the classroom. Yet, they weren’t really given much support in that aspect. It was a crazy year and left a lot of teachers feeling disillusioned.

    I think you raise some really great questions. I also hope we can figure out better implementation methods.

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  2. Hi Patrick, your blog piece this week is another great example that technology or access to technology is not enough. In fact, it seems like it is a common scenario where the implementation of various technologies into a classroom to improve teaching and learning appears more like a pet project for someone in a leadership position than a though out project with a broad key player buy in and support at all levels. So often, various groups are excluded in the initial planning and brainstorming phase. To have uneven pedagogical processes only harms the learners in the end.

    It’s great to know that on page 254 of the Attewell article, the “they face competing demands…” paragraph was also one that I highlighted for myself! Thanks for the share! – KL

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