Connected Learning Equity & Access Media Literacy

Why We Need a #techquity Conversation


Why is it that when young people use technology on adult terms, they are praised as 21st century learners, but when they use technology on their OWN terms, they are castigated as deviant rule-breakers?

—Nicole Mirra, Innovators, Not Hackers. Stop Portraying Youth as Digital Deviants

This quote from Nicole Mirra’s post on DML stuck with me after I read it not long after it appeared on DML Central’s website in May of this year. Her question, prompted by her dismay at the news media’s portrayal of students during the rollout of a 1:1 iPad pilot in LA Unified School District, shines a spotlight on the narratives adults create about youth and their use of technology. Her question prompts educators to not only choose their words and stories carefully, but to reflect on how well we plan for increased access to digital tools in schools.

We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race…And yet, its as if, day after day, I say, “I have a bag of gold, would you like a bag of gold? and people say, “where do you find time for bags of gold?”

—Gardner Campbell, No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable About Open Educational Experiences

Like Mirra, Campbell expresses frustration with educators who seem too harried to think through the digital sea change he observes from his perspective as a technologist and teacher in higher education. The tongue in cheek dialog he shares are indicative of the disconnects that arise in schools of all kinds pretty much everywhere right now as mandated online standardized testing dictates that schools increase access to the Internet and hardware tools. Technologists like Campbell, like me, see increased access as an opportunity to strengthen teaching and accelerate learning that schools may not recognize, much less seize.

An equitable education system…is one in which student achievement and learning are not predictable by race, class, language, gender, sexual orientation, or other such social factors.

—Elena Aguilar, The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation

Aguilar’s quote reminds me that our equity goals should rise out of our long, tangible experience with inequity. Our experiences with equity in education are too fleeting and too scarce for us to marshall large scale, long standing examples. Instead, we can identify a problem we hope to solve in order to pursue equity. For educators, the problem we must focus on as we seek to change schools- regardless of how Internet access is working or not working- is the despicable predictability of how students will achieve or access opportunity based on race, class, gender, language, sexual orientation and social factors.

In an impromptu discussion I initiated on Twitter, a number of educators expressed interest in creating a hashtag focused on equity issues in educational technology, and having a twitter chat devoted to these issues. Before we got to the discussion we needed a snappy hashtag. In a flurry of tweets, we quickly eliminated #EdTechequity and #tequity as hashtags, the former because it had too many characters, the latter because it looked graphically too much like “tequila.” We settled on #techquity.

In the post that follows one of my Twitter colleagues, Maha Bali, an Associate Professor of Practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, discusses with me why #techquity is relevant to us from our vantage points.

Maha: What inspired the idea of #techquity? I know there was the article by Nicole Mirra, but I am guessing there is a background why this topic is close to your heart and also why you think hashtagging it is a good direction to take the conversation further.

Joe: Students’ interest in technology and equity stokes my own interest. My clunky job title- Instructional Coordinator for Educational Technology- means in part that I’m a suitable “expert” when youth ages 11-14 want to interview someone about this topic. Late last spring my alarm rang early so I could join a Google Hangout with two eighth graders from Jack Zangerle’s 8th grade English class in New York’s Hudson Valley. The questions they asked that morning sounded a lot like the questions another set of 8th grade students asked me a week or so ago in Jessica Cuthbertson’s literacy class on the eastern edge of Aurora, Co. The students from the Hudson Valley and Aurora displayed an interest in technology, access, and fairness. They also showed important agency for their learning by approaching me for an interview. Those recent experiences lead me to believe that an open #techquity conversation involving all kinds of stakeholders is an entry point for youth to engage in connected learning.

In addition to the interest students show, technology and equity is on teachers’ minds, too. At an EdCamp, unconference-like event early this year in my school district, teachers expressed interest in having a conversation about equity of access. They wrote their questions about equity on half sheets of paper and taped them to a brick wall in the high school cafeteria where we planned our professional learning. When participants chose their sessions though, the equity conversations never materialized. Teachers opted instead to seek training on Google Docs in the classroom, or similarly practical concerns. I understood the immediacy of their need for training but I was sad the equity discussion had not materialized. This experience, too, highlighted the need to specify a channel for youth and educators alike to talk #techquity.

Finally, Mirra writes about the hasty planning or lack thereof in LA for their iPad rollout and partnership with Pearson. In my work, I influence this type of planning, so her commentary causes me to reflect on my work, though with our size we will never be mistaken for LA, and we definitely don’t ever talk about dollar figures as high as those at issue for LA Unified. Still, her strong voice about the poor planning among the adults stirs me to action and inspires me to open up this conversation so I can listen and learn better about access and equity issues all the time.

Maha: It’s almost intuitive for me to care about ed tech equity. I live in a developing country and work at its most prestigious higher ed institution. I teach ed tech for teachers, some of them public school teachers who have access to very little tech, whose students often have very little access, and yet they’ve been made to believe that technology will empower them, help them teach better. And while that can sometimes be true, it’s a problematic deterministic viewpoint they bring to the class, and it often makes them overlook more important pedagogical opportunities that are low tech and low cost.

Joe: In Egyptian universities, how much interest is there in digital tools, connected learning and #techquity?

Maha: I cannot speak for universities outside my own, except to say for sure that in public schools (not univs) they get technology (mostly hardware) through grants and then lock the door on the lab, with little or no teacher training to make use of that technology, and it’s as if they’re afraid to let students into the labs, lest they “damage” the equipment. What’s the point of having the equipment, then? Or teachers are allowed some lab time but no access to software or internet. How much can you do with computers nowadays that is truly valuable without internet? Private schools are different and often have better technology, but I am not sure about the pedagogical approaches to using it. But on my campus (the American University in Cairo) there is a lot of interest in tech, a lot of money spent on tech, and on training people to use it effectively in their teaching. There are still some equity issues that exist in Egypt, though:

– Gender equity: some parents believe girls should not spend lots of time online e.g. Lest they encounter explicit content. For some reason, they feel no such problem with boys. Boys can also go to internet cafes to access internet, while girls usually cannot. In homes where there are shared computers, boys often get more hours of access. I don’t have stats, just my students’ hearsay and rudimentary research on this. There are still attitudes about girls naturally not being good with computers, on one hand, and on the other, not realizing how some uses of tech are gendered. Quick story: my undergrad degree was in computer science and I graduated with highest honors. My dad (a doctor) always thought he knew better how to fix computer problems than me. My husband (a surgeon) also does this quite often.

– Utopian tech determinism: expectations that ed tech will solve education’s problems… Drives me nuts. A student actually explicitly said he found ed tech the “silver bullet” (!).

– I am concerned about how differences in digital literacy will affect how youth are able to develop and continue to learn… When some are hyperconnected while others are totally offline; and some are connected but dangerously not digitally literate.

– Like you say earlier (Mirra and Gardner’s quotes) I think teachers are still not leveraging the potential of open learning for empowering youth; they continue to use technology to push information at students rather than for giving them a voice and to become producers.

Joe: Are you an outlier where you live, with your interest in technology and open learning.

Maha: I would say I am. We had an open access event last Spring and invited people from all over Egypt interested in the topic, and they are all outliers, in the sense of other academics not appreciating their interest in open publishing. But that’s not what we are talking about here, is it? I don’t know how far open learning truly goes to reduce #techquity issues – because open connected learning is only really accessible to:

– People with digital literacy (i have loads of tech savvy ppl at work who don’t have the literacy or attitude to benefit from cMOOCs)

– People who speak English but also speak the discourse of connected learning, if you know what i mean.

– People who can afford the time (and of course find it valuable enough to spend time on)

Joe: What is Internet access like in Cairo?

Maha: I’ve lived in the US and UK, and I have relatively good bandwidth here in Egypt. The Internet used to be reliable before 2011, but since then all sorts of weird things are happening, and very recently we started having electricity cuts, and those are affecting internet (even 3G sometimes falls apart). This means that some people who live in poorer areas (where internet and electricity are worse) may go for days with very choppy or nonexistent internet. This is important for me as a teacher-educator because my student-teachers sometimes can’t do their assignments because of that.

When I taught cross-cultural video dialogue, I noticed the difference between participants in some (rural) areas in Arab countries and those in the West… their poorer bandwidth, bad tech support at their institution and language skills all stood as barriers to their participation as full members of these dialogues.

Technology continues to be touted as the savior of mankind (think Sugata Mitra’s hole in a wall) or the downfall of all that is good in the world (think the backlash on MOOCs and Facebook). Hopefully the conversation between Maha and I helps spark more open discussions about how educators and the communities we serve see and experience issues of #techquity. We need to dig deeper into ways of leveraging technology’s potential for learning, while remaining critical and mindful of #techquity issues, addressing them head-on so we can imagine ways to overcome/solve them.