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Making the Case for Educational Technology through an Equity Lens

By Dr. Carol Kelley, Superintendent

Photo: Irving student using iPadInequity in the digital learning space has been a concern since the dawn of the Internet and the introduction of technology into schools. In the past, this “digital divide” largely centered on access to technology and the infrastructure to use technology (e.g. Wi-Fi, broadband internet access). And while basic access is still a concern in many districts, the issues of equity have become more complex as the technology has greatly expanded and become more dynamic and complex.

Like many districts, District 97 has made a commitment to use educational technology to prepare our students for our rapidly changing, digital world. But we’re doing it in a way that ensures equity and even breaks down inequities by using technology to advance and deepen learning for all of our students.

During the 2014-15 school year, the District 97 Board of Education addressed the issue of access to educational technology by approving one-to-one learning—personal iPads—for all students in grades 3 to 8. The board has also supported the district in enhancing the capacity of our buildings to use technology and in providing greatly expanded technology (e.g. renovation of our library spaces to include “makerspaces” and coding activities) in our schools and classrooms. Additionally, District 97 has taken on the potential issue of inequitable access outside of school by establishing the “Internet for All” program, which ensures that our students not only have devices to use in and out of school, but also free internet hotspots so they can connect at home. Breaking down these barriers provides equal access to materials and learning opportunities for students, leveling the playing field. 

The administrators, faculty and staff of the district are grateful for the board and technology department’s leadership and their proactive approach to ensuring access to educational technology.

Photo: Brooks Student Using Chromebook

In addition to breaking down barriers to equitable access to educational technology tools and devices, we have supported our staff with dynamic professional learning opportunities, which have allowed our students to experience positive learning environments where students are empowered to apply the “4Cs” on a daily basis. The 4Cs were conceived by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national collaboration of education leaders, policymakers and the business community, to establish a framework for infusing technology in education. They are:

  • Communication: Students are able to communicate with staff, students, and families as needed to support their growth and learning through face-to-face and online tools.
  • Collaboration: Students are learning and developing their skills to collaborate in person, in groups with a variety of students, as well as, online through tools like Google Drive. 
  • Creativity: Students are developing and applying their creative skills to create projects/work to demonstrate their learning that is choice-based and leveraging different multimedia tools.
  • Critical Thinking: Students are gaining and applying their skills of research, analysis, and synthesis on taking multiple works to analyze and share the learning they gain from the information. In addition, they are doing this work to solve real-world problems locally and/or globally. 

With this framework as our map and equity as our north star, District 97 has worked to make our educational technology efforts rich, robust and rigorous. Here are just a few examples to illustrate this:

  • Preparing teachers – they are the key to success. Providing state-of-the-art technology means little if teachers are not supported to learn how to use it. Without adult learning, high-tech devices can end up as an expensive replacement for pen and paper. District 97 knows the importance of adult learning to support student learning, and is providing ongoing, high-quality professional development to ensure our teachers have what they need. The district currently has two cohorts of teachers engaged in monthly professional development focused on the 4Cs and the application of the ISTE student standards.
  • Differentiated teaching and learning. One of the tremendous benefits of well-implemented educational technology is that it can support students from where they are and help them advance and achieve goals in their unique way. This approach is formally known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which is a research-based framework that addresses learner diversity. As defined by Understood, “the goal of UDL is to use a variety of teaching methods to remove any barriers to learning and give all students equal opportunities to succeed. It’s about building in flexibility that can be adjusted for every student’s strengths and needs.” Educational technology allows teachers to support students equitably with specifically targeted information and activities whether a student needs enrichment and acceleration or extra support to master a concept.
  • “Value-add” learning. One of the most exciting aspects of effectively using educational technology is that new, advanced learning can occur in ways that weren’t possible without it, allowing students to dig into the 4Cs in a much deeper way. Certainly, technology allows for access to endless resources and research, but it also allows students to collaborate with others and use the technology to organize and display their learning in creative, more dynamic ways. This short video from Mrs. Childress’ class at Lincoln Elementary School gives just one example of how learning was enhanced by using technology to research and write a script, then organize and present their learning.

One concern occasionally raised is that educational technology is being used as a replacement for teachers and teacher-student instructional experiences. District 97 sees educational technology as just one of the tools to support our students and their learning while allowing more time for substantive teacher/student interactions. As this article written by Thomas Arnett of the Clayton Christensen Institute articulates, technology cannot 1) provide higher-order feedback, 2) get to know a student or 3) care about a student.

But it can take care of some of the “lower order” work (e.g. correcting grammar and spelling) so the student and teacher can have more time for “high-order” work (e.g. discussing the student’s central research question or working on their prose).

Our educational technology work is not done in a silo; it is woven together with all of our goals and efforts (e.g. to build relationships with students and support their social emotional well-being). Having mobile devices, advanced software, and educators who are well supported with professional learning allows our students and teachers to engage in dynamic, creative, deep teaching and learning in the classroom and outside of school. In District 97, we are weaving educational technology into powerful learning environments and teaching experiences to improve learning opportunities and outcomes for all students.