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Opportunity Gaps in Edtech Instruction: Barriers and Breakthroughs

Educator and Digital Equity Expert
Updated on June 9, 2022

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Educating students during the pandemic has led to a narrowing of the digital divide in two areas: The number of school-provided devices per student and access to robust Wi-Fi that can transform these devices into powerful learning tools at home and in the classroom. 

A year into the pandemic, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey which showed a jump in the number of adults who believe K–12 schools have a responsibility to provide all students with a device to complete schoolwork.

Most districts have feverishly worked to provide more devices and hotspots for pandemic learning, and this has made a dent in the digital divide. Yet, access to devices and adequate Internet access is just the first step in addressing inequalities as to how students are being asked to learn.

 Technology matters a great deal and it’s premature to say the digital playing field has been leveled. Today, there remains striking differences between the ways wealthier students use technology and their less-affluent peers do in schools separated by mere miles.

The differences in instruction and access to rich-and-engaging materials that meet the needs of individual students can vary greatly between school districts as well as between schools in the same district. These disparities in student experiences are at the heart of what many educators see as critical opportunity gaps that have profound long-term implications.

Drill and Practice vs. Meaningful Learning

Studies have shown "low-income, nonwhite children more often used technology in math class for drill and practice, while affluent white children were more likely to use technology for graphing, problem-solving and other higher-order exercises."

Sociologist Paul Atwell observed in the Connected Learning Alliance Report that even as technology gaps close, a digital-use divide becomes increasingly apparent. Affluent students use the same technologies to support richer forms of learning with greater adult mentorship. The report offers evidence of how inequity persists despite removing technical and economic barriers, and what we know about the social and cultural forces that determine these inequitable outcomes.

The teaching and use of technology becomes a matter of equity and educational opportunity because using technology to "drill and kill" students for test prep saps the creativity and curiosity out of the classroom environment. These types of activities contain little or no collaboration and don't allow for research and deeper inquiry skills.

Using technology in this way might appear to help educators manage classroom expectations (e.g., "finish this practice test in the next 40 minutes"), but these types of lessons encourage boredom, dread, and misbehavior and don’t support critical thinking.

Adding to the opportunity gaps seen when comparing affluent vs. non-affluent schools, implicit biases of teachers can also affect teacher expectations of students and their use of tech. In Digital Divisions, professor Matt Rafalow observes that “as a consequence of class- and race-based attitudes towards students, schools differently imagine their students’ potential” (p. 13).

This can mean a more “locked-down” approach to technology and creativity for schools where the majority of students are students of color, while at schools where there were more white students there was a greater trust. Although exceptions can puncture sweeping generalizations, it is important for teachers (especially white teachers) to think about expectations they have for tech use in their classrooms—especially as it pertains to students of color.

Literacy Tools Can Make a Difference

Despite opportunity gaps created by wealth and implicit biases, there are some positive developments related to instruction. This is especially true when considering the differentiation of reading materials for classes with a wide range of abilities.

For example, some teachers find articles and/or materials that have a single reading level. In this instance, the teacher seeks to implement something that can be both engaging and accessible to most students. However, finding articles like this is often difficult, especially with the proper content.

What if teachers had access to materials that could be delivered in several different Lexile® levels? Many instructional material companies and platforms are starting to do this, and it does make a difference. Instead of forcing students into different reading groups dictated by article difficulty, students can read the same article but choose the Lexile level themselves.

Teachers can challenge students to read at the highest appropriate level, but students can change the level to suit their abilities. This way, students can engage in rich discussions and activities using the same materials while challenging the most advanced readers and those who are just developing.

Changing Lexile levels on the same resource is just one tool. Technology tools that encourage reading “for fun” help engage students and enable them to learn foundational skills while getting that outside-of-class practice they need to build proficiency. Also, reading intervention programs should include peer review, engaging environments, and age-appropriate material, like LANGUAGE! Live, to allow older students who are reading below grade level feel confident and avoid condescension.

Additionally, students with vision challenges can enlarge text. Oral language learners can highlight text and have it read back to them. Students with dyslexia can change the font that can give them greater access, and English Language Learners can turn on translation features as needed. Of course, online dictionaries or “click-to-define” text are features that make word acquisition easier. Encouraging students to utilize scaffolding tools can create a more inclusive environment that mitigates barriers and bolsters the literacy process.

Opportunities to Improve

The pandemic, in many respects, has punished our poorest and most-vulnerable families. Remote learning challenges served to highlight significant opportunity gaps for our students, and for many students these gaps widened. As we transition out of the pandemic, though, it is important to capitalize on some of the tools that can make technology more inclusive and help students build the skills they need to succeed.

It is up to educators to not only examine their own beliefs about learning with technology, but it is also important to figure out how to maximize tools to make learning as inclusive and engaging as possible.

Later this month, I’ll be the guest on EDVIEW 360’s podcast, where I’ll share these and other insights about equity and literacy. I hope you will tune in!

About the Author
Matthew Hiefield
Matthew Hiefield
Educator and Digital Equity Expert

Matthew Hiefield has 25 years of experience teaching at the high school level and is currently a digital curator and Social Studies TOSA for the Beaverton School District in Oregon. He has worked to integrate equity issues into local, state, and national conversations. At the local level, he helps lead district efforts on digital equity. He is the founder of his district's digital equity steering committee, and he co-wrote the district's original Sprint 1 million hotspot grant. In 2017, Hiefield was named Outstanding Telecommunications Advocate for Oregon. In 2018, he was part of Beaverton’s team that won CoSN’s 2018 National Award for Digital Equity Work. In 2020, Hiefield was named one of EdTech’s top influencers to follow. His community outreach includes digital equity and instruction at Latino Parent Nights as well as helping with community outreach and computer education at apartment complexes and parking lots.

He has presented at numerous conferences on digital equity and opportunity gaps and has served as an ISTE PLN Digital Equity co-president, an ISTE Digital Equity PLN editor, a CoSN Digital Equity Advisory council member, and currently serves on his district’s Equity Team. He has participated in CoSN’s efforts to learn, lobby, and inform his congressional representatives.

Hiefield tweets frequently about equity issues @MattHiefield. He has published numerous articles about digital equity issues and has presented at national conferences such as ISTE, CoSN, and ESSEA.

Learn more about Matthew Hiefield