Guest Post: Edtech, Equity, and Innovation: A Critical Look in the Mirror - Digital Promise

Guest Post: Edtech, Equity, and Innovation: A Critical Look in the Mirror

High school students add backgrounds and visual effects to a video recorded in front of a green screen.

April 23, 2019 | By

We are often reluctant to label anything facilitated through technology as a failure. Instead, we tend to excuse inadequate or unsavory outcomes as necessary growing pains in the pursuit of “innovation.” Technology has become so pervasive in our lives that we have grown reticent to question its value when its use may not support evidence-based practices. In light of the present and future challenges students face, our complacency does them a great disservice.

It’s a matter of equity

Educational transformation is a civil rights imperative, so every investment we make must be evaluated through a civil rights lens. Unfortunately, too many of our investments in educational technology (edtech) have fallen far short of our civil rights aspirations. In our current education system, we continue to see gaps in graduation rates and unequal access to high-quality public schools.

True equity can be achieved when one’s zip code, race, disability status, household income, native language(s), and other factors out of a student’s control don’t impact that student’s access to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that open doors to a happy, fulfilling life. As NCLD’s Director of Innovation, I urge us to take a critical look at the “innovations” that may be negatively impacting our students, especially those from traditionally marginalized backgrounds.

Taking a more critical look at edtech

Why do we hold edtech products to a lower standard than many other educational factors that interact with our students?

When schools persistently graduate less than half of their students of color and students with disabilities, we call those schools dropout factories. When an educator is unprepared and unable to access high-quality resources to meet our unique learners’ needs, the system penalizes the educator.

While the system chastises teachers and schools, edtech products often go unscathed—and are even celebrated as innovative—when they may be one of the causes for our education systems’ inability to successfully educate each unique learner. Shouldn’t we collectively hold the edtech market accountable for failing our diverse learners? Why is it that, despite often resulting in the same or much worse outcomes, virtual schools and edtech products are labeled as “innovation” rather than failure?

Many other equity advocates in the education innovation movement share similar views. This is exactly why, as a movement, we must ensure the terms “new” and “innovative” are not conflated. Educational innovation is, at its fundamental core, a pedagogical undertaking, not a technological one. A worksheet on a screen may save trees, but it will not inherently provide research-based strategies to support every unique learner.

Education is too fundamentally important to the health of our society. As such, we have to establish standards that differentiate strong and weak pedagogy in edtech tools and help us decipher between real innovation and snake oil.

We need to make a change

Real change can come from our unanimous stance against ineffective edtech, including predatory companies who make baseless claims in order to sell their products. We can embrace the potential value of edtech to eliminate the inequalities in our education system while demanding evidence that demonstrates products’ claims. These basic tenets can guide our stance:

1. Writing a blank check for edtech maintains the status quo and may embolden predatory behavior.

The purpose of every dollar we spend on education ought to be preparing our young people for the future. When we take a step back from accountability, tolerate persistent failure, and write a blank check on edtech products, we are allowing the market to continue to design for the mythical “average” learner.

By purchasing products without trustworthy, research-based evidence around how they were designed, we are reinforcing those product developers’ notions that baseless claims sell. If we develop standards which demand that products prove to buyers that they were designed for all learners, we can powerfully invest in well-designed products and push the market to meet the needs of all learners.

2. Like any business, the edtech industry includes actors that prioritize profit.

This is not a condemnation of edtech as much as it is an acknowledgement that edtech is a business. And like every business, edtech companies are driven by people, many of whom have the best intentions—and many of whom are also focused on profit margins. As advocates, we must shine a spotlight on both the products that were designed with equity and research in mind and the products that weren’t. By developing design standards and demanding products uphold those standards through our investment decisions, we can guide the market to build products that meet the needs of each unique learner.

3. We can’t allow frustrations to lead us toward alternative examples of mediocrity or failure.

Research by the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (COLSD) highlights that in the case of moving their children to virtual education programs, many parents of students with disabilities aren’t choosing virtual education because of any inherent advantages, but simply out of exasperation with treatment by their child’s brick-and-mortar school.

Many parents eventually find that their children’s needs are still not being addressed by the virtual learning environment, and increasing responsibility for administration is placed on them upon making the shift. These challenges force many families to go back to the brick-and-mortar school.

Clear, concise information shared by trustworthy third-party sources about what we know to work and not work is now at a higher premium than ever, and we as an education field must respond accordingly.

4. Technology should support rather than replace human interactions.

What was reaffirmed by the amount of time parents spend supplementing the use of virtual programs and the emphasis stakeholders across our personalized learning initiative placed on educator capacity is that education inherently remains a human endeavor. To the extent that a specific edtech product optimizes the quality of human interactions, edtech can be successful. However, where edtech attempts to replace human interaction, it will likely fail. While there are certainly exceptions, this human interaction standard can serve as a compass to guide our investments and advocacy.

Let’s start a movement

As a parent of a toddler, I know it will be clear to me whether I made the right decisions in the years ahead: Will my investments of time, love, and resources have helped my daughter graduate college and lead a meaningful, happy life in 20 years? As a policy and equity advocate, the question is not much different: Will all children—regardless of disability, race, income, or other factors—benefit similarly from our social investments of time, support, and resources?

We are not doing our important movement any favors by failing to hold accountable the low-quality edtech products in our mix. We need to develop standards to identify those who have perpetuated the inequality in our education system, while shining a light on the exemplary designers who are building products for students at the margins. I am grateful to organizations like Digital Promise and people like you, the reader, for being thoughtful advocates who refuse to compromise on the future of our youth.

Explore the Edtech Marketplace Today blog series to hear other voices from the field share important perspectives on challenges and strategies to improve the edtech market. Visit the Product Certifications website to learn more about the edtech marketplace and subscribe to Digital Promise’s Action Report to stay up-to-date on their work.

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