Why Just Having the Technology Isn’t Enough

One reason I find educational technology so exciting is the potential to increase equity in education. Last fall, I was lucky enough to come across Mark Warschauer’s Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media. This book examines the ways that schools use technology and the obstacles to fully integrating it in a meaningful way in classrooms.

Over the years, as the price of technology has dropped, the ratio of computers to students in schools has increased quickly. Although the in-school access gap between low-SES children and their more affluent peers has narrowed, Warschauer points out that we still have a ways to go before the technology gap closes.

Focusing on use rather than device ownership paints a richer picture of today’s equity issues in the uses of technology for learning.

  • Children in low-SES schools are more likely than their wealthier peers to use technology in class for drill and practice, like recalling math facts or finding the grammar error in a sentence.
  • Children in wealthier schools are more likely to use technology to work on more complex projects and problems that require higher-order thinking skills, like evaluating the health of an ecosystem.

Many argue that low-income students are more likely to need the technology for drill and practice in order to build a basic level of knowledge or prepare for state tests. However, according to Learning in the Cloud, research has found that it’s unclear if learning gains from drill exercises persist long-term, and some research indicates that these exercises may negatively impact learning. Plus, solving problems in an overly narrow context makes it more difficult for learners to apply their knowledge to solve more varied problems.

There is some knowledge that needs to be memorized to the point of automaticity, but it’s up to schools, teachers, curriculum developers, and ed tech product creators to ensure that these drills and practice are balanced with access to richer problems and learning experiences that allow students to apply what they’ve learned in challenging and novel ways. Otherwise, the differences between the affluent and the less affluent in the use of technology lead to a widening of the achievement gap.

Reading Warschauer’s book not only helped me to better understand the different ways technology is used and supported (or not supported) in classrooms, but also expanded my views on evaluating how we measure the use and spread of technology across schools. Ownership data gives us some sense of where and how much technology is permeating different areas of society, but we need to move beyond ownership data and begin to focus more on how devices are being used in order to ensure technology is being implemented in equitable and meaningful ways.