Digital Equity, Globalization and Distance Learning (10 years later)

About 10 years ago, I was in a Master’s program at Iowa State for Curriculum and Instructional Technology. As part of that program, I had to write a lot, and I recently uncovered one thing I wrote that I had to post to a site I made back then. The interesting thing about this post was when I thought about how I wrote about distance learning back then and to think about it now after the changes caused by having to teach and learn through a pandemic.

I am going to include the full post below without any additional commentary. There are some things I may write differently these days, but for the most part, I think what I wrote a decade ago will still be true today. (Although I really wish I had Grammarly back then because I really could have used it) My question to others is, how do you view the work that we do toward digital equity in today’s educational environment? Are we creating equity through technology or do our instructional practices lead to more inequities than equity?

Four years ago I was part of a 1 to 1 initiative where we were trying to reach many goals with the issuing of laptops to every study, one of which was equity. We knew there was a sharp divide between the resources, and subsequent learning, of students that had adequate technology at home and those that did not. “Technology proficiency has become an economic imperative.” (Solomon, Allen) The students who had technology were usually in a better place educationally than those that did not, although the access to technology was only part of the reason. “In terms of equipment, the quality of the technology to which students have access and how much access they have make a difference.” (Solomon, Allen) By giving every student the same device, we were trying to create an equal playing field to start with. That was one of our first steps to help us get to our goal of equity.

Equity and equality, while similar, are two different concepts. Equality refers to everything being the same, which was easily reached when every student was given the same computer. Equity refers to not just the same conditions but the same educational outcome, that each student gets what they need to have a desirable outcome. It was easy to reach equality in terms of the computers and access while at school, but there was no easy way to reach equality in terms of access while away from school. Our surveys showed that around ¾ of our students had internet access at home which was very encouraging although it is easy to see sometimes that those that do not have access are the ones who need it.

Technology and internet access are not the only barriers to reaching equity in the classroom. “Research has shown that poverty generates a negative impact on student learning and future success.” (Solomon, Allen) This does not mean that poor families can not have successful students but there are factors tied into poverty that affects the overall effectiveness of instruction. There are many times when students come to school with not enough to eat, no hot water for a shower and dirty clothes; and all of these factors can create a negative learning environment. Just handing laptops to these students was not going to make them automatically become successful.

Another major roadblock to a goal of reaching equity with our students was impacted by the teachers in our building. The quality of the teacher greatly impacts the level of learning that can take place. Teachers who are not good can still easily help the higher level students but will not be able to help the rest of the students. This becomes a big issue in smaller and poor districts throughout the country. “However, too often, the best teachers migrate to better districts where the best opportunities exist for them as well as for students.” (Solomon, Allen) This causes a lower level of quality teachers at small districts that do not have the resources of the larger districts. This can also be caused by the administration and support structure in a school district. If there is a sense that the best teachers, those that may stand out and do things differently, are not supported by their principals then they are less likely to stick around. I personally saw good teachers leave a district due to issues with the administration. Good teachers are usually willing to put up with a lot to help their students but if you do not feel that you are being supported from your bosses, it becomes very difficult to keep that high level up for long. Any situation that causes good teachers to leave will create fewer positive learning environments. “Poorly qualified teachers are not likely to know how to use technology themselves, let alone know the best uses to enhance student learning.” (Solomon, Allen) Just giving laptops to students is not enough to reach equity if the teachers do not know how to take advantage of this tool. Just replacing previous tools and digitizing them to use on the computer is not enough to create a new and better type of learning environment.

I would view that the best way to get towards our goal of equity resides in the quality of our teachers. Professional development, teacher prep programs and leadership are the three main areas that can affect the quality of a teacher. There are studies out there that show that many teachers, those new to the profession and veteran teachers who have been teaching before computers became popular, do not know how to apply the skills necessary for success in the classroom when it comes to technology. The worst thing an administration can do is to expect the teachers to just be able to magically incorporate the computers into the classroom and automatically use them effectively. The second worst thing is to teach them a single tool and expect every teacher to use to that tool effectively. Great professional development has to be individualized (differentiated instruction) and must meet the needs of that particular teacher. This will help our teachers meet the particular needs of their students. The professional development has to be ongoing and should evolve as the teacher becomes better at implementing the technology. The leadership at the school can help this by showing how important this is to reaching equity and by encouraging their teachers to try new things and to learn. If the leadership is ok with mediocrity, then too often the teachers will be ok with it also. I have seen a few cases where a lack of understanding of how technology should be used by leadership has caused the same attitude to be passed on to teachers. Those teachers that need help need to be identified and then helped, we can not be ok with bad teaching. This can be helped by pre-service programs as they improve their methods for helping teachers gain these abilities. Too often the programs have too many issues to deal with an effective use of technology goes to the way side. “If people enter the classroom knowing where and how to use technology, workshops can focus on sharing and developing innovative uses of technology rather than basic application training.” (Solomon)

The goal of equity in the classroom is not an easy one. It is much easier to get everyone to an equal starting point but where they end up after that depends on too many variables. There are influences at home and at school that can keep us from reaching our goal but it is our goal as teachers to do everything we can to be successful. Equity needs to be a goal of every school and every teacher, we want everyone to be successful in their own way.

One way that we have viewed as a way to reach our goal of equity is to go beyond the four walls of the classroom. We view the classroom as a starting point but there are so many other resources and people we have access to now thanks to technology. We can now share ideas and objects with people around the world and compare our cultures and how they impact our learning. It is important for us to remember how our ideas and thoughts make sense in our community, not just the global community. There is talk of the “global village” which has very little connections to individual villages. The overall global community does not work just like our own communities. How people make sense of things on the global scale does not always relate well to our own communities. Technology is an important part of this as it is viewed as a way to create a “global village” but it can also be a hinderance. Not every culture or society needs the same technology or wants the same technology. The tools that we use here may actually create a negative affect to others. Those societies that are not in need of computers or may not be ready for them will not be able to make great use of them. Everything we do with technology needs to be done positively in relation to our own communities and situations.

One of the biggest changes we see emerging in education is distance learning. Distance learning is not a new thing but it is greatly changing thanks to the technology we have today. “Distance learning offers educational opportunities to students who for one reason or another are physically removed from the source of instruction, sometimes due to living in a remote location, sometimes due to issues of scheduling and other commitments, and sometimes due simply to learner preference.” (Natriello) Distance learning can occur in many forms but each of them can have both positive and negative attributes. Distance learning is also becoming a big business which can introduce issues when the primary focus is not just on learning. “Much of the growth in distance learning can be explained by the growth in demand for education in general.” (Natriello) We can see more and more people who are desiring an education and have the ability to now thanks to distance learning models.

The changes taking place in distance learning are not all that revolutionary for the most part. Many programs are just taking their standard instruction and placing it online. There is nothing new other than more people can have access than before. Many institutions are able to easily transfer to the digital realm and create distance learning opportunities but many institutions are not prepared to do that just yet. “Slow moving established institutions were not accustomed to engaging in the swift responses necessary to take advantage of the rapidly evolving market for distance and education.” (Natriello) The big issue to many institutions developing a distance learning program is the lack of a clear model. There are not many ways that will be successful across the board and will depend a lot on the individual variables associated with each institution.

Just because some places are not being very revolutionary when it comes to distance learning, there exists the possibility that it can become that. Natriello states four ways that distance education can become revolutionary; the traditional and established packaging of education may be shifting, the teacher or faculty role may be changing, capital may be more available to invest directly in the technology of education, and there may be a major re-mapping of the education sector as a new entrants become very substantial players in a global educational market. We can already see institutions starting to digitize and repackage their curriculums to be more accessible to students through the use of technology. The institutions are also able to work with others to package programs and easily introduce new programs into the institution. They are also able to involve newer forms of funding to greatly improve the availability of the programs. They are also able to make use of free or cheaper forms of technology to make all of this happen.

One of the ways that distance education may be changing for the positive is through the development of new and interesting techniques. MOOCs (massively open online courses) have created new learning opportunities for many. Both Stanford and MIT have created certain MOOCs that have shown a high level of participation. MOOCs strive for large-scale interactions in the courses by the use of technology (internet). Many people can take part in a MOOC and all be part of a learning process. One of the keys to any MOOC is the openness of the program. Most courses are free to the public and this greatly increases the numbers that can participate. As far as K12 learning goes, many of the MOOCs are set up by colleges and universities, not high schools or middle schools. This does not mean that MOOCs can not help our K12 students out. MOOCs provide a chance for our K12 students to go deeper into a subject than they would be able to in school or to try out different subjects and programs without having to endure the cost associated with them. Many students may be able to be positively affected by a MOOC if given the chance. I have a lot of interest in what MOOCs may be able to provide to our students in the future and they need to be something we consider for our programs. Not everything our students learn needs to be controlled by the school or their teachers.

As we keep going down the road of integrating technology we do need to be aware of the unintended consequences of technology. There are always unintended consequences of anything we introduce into the classroom but there are some issues specifically connected to technology. These issues may be old ones, like bullying, that are now occurring in different locations and in different ways, cyber bullying. There are also new ones tied specifically into the technology itself, like new issues with equity in the classroom. No matter what I feel we need to take an optimistic view and always strive towards doing what it takes to help our students. We should be aware of any unintended consequences that arise but we should not let the fear of them keep us from trying. No one ever succeeded without trying.

Solomon, G, and N Allen. “Introduction: Educational technology and equity.” Toward digital equity: Bridging the divide in education (2003).

Warschauer, Mark, Michele Knobel, and Leeann Stone. “Technology and equity in schooling: Deconstructing the digital divide.” Educational Policy 18.4 (2004): 562-588.

Solomon, Gwen. “Digital Equity: It’s Not Just about Access Anymore.” Technology & Learning 22.9 (2002): 18-20, 22-24, 26.

Talbott, “Do We Really Want a Global Village?” from The Future Does Not Compute

Natriello, Gary. “Modest changes, revolutionary possibilities: Distance learning and the future of education.” The Teachers College Record 107.8 (2005): 1885-1904.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s