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When Is Your Computer Unlike Mine? When We Consider Technology Opportunity Gaps

Regular readers of this blog will know that EvCC, like many community colleges across the country, continues to engage with knotty, challenging questions of equity in higher education. Conversations about equity have been central to Guided Pathways efforts at the college (and long before), and they’re also part of our work at the Center for Transformative Teaching. A few months ago, I wrote on this blog about my initial investigation of potential equity gaps in online course enrollments, and I’ve continued to think about this problem since then.

Equity in online, hybrid/blended, and technology-enhanced learning environments is in many ways a classic manifestation of the digital divide — inequalities in “access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies” (Wikipedia). The heart of the problem, in my mind, lies in the final part of that definition: the impact of technologies on the people using them. While we tend to be pretty good about asking important questions related to students’ access to technologies, all too often we overlook an even more significant question. Once we’ve ensured all students have access to learning technologies (for instance, through low-cost laptop rentals — a service we provide to students here at EvCC) what are we doing to ensure that the use of those technologies is providing the same advantages to all students? Are we inadvertently perpetuating inequities by assuming that the beneficial effects of educational technologies are evenly distributed and available to all?

Those questions were on my mind when I recently encountered this brief article: “Is Technology Widening Opportunity Gaps Between Rich and Poor Kids”. It’s a few years old now, but well worth reading. One of the most troubling findings of the research it summarizes is that, once access problems are addressed, students’ socioeconomic backgrounds appear to determine how they use technologies.

granted access to technology, affluent kids and poor kids use tech differently. They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience. [Emphasis added]

And again from the same article:

Slogans like “one laptop per child” and “one-to-one computing” evoke an appealingly egalitarian vision: If every child has a computer, every child is starting off on equal footing. But though the sameness of the hardware may feel satisfyingly fair, it is superficial. A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege. [Emphasis added]

I don’t have a solution to this problem — not even close — but I think that any honest conversation about equity and educational technologies needs to acknowledge and then try to grapple with it. Fortunately, that is happening more and more frequently as groups like the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub seek to promote understanding of equitable and participatory learning in networked environments.

Surely part of the solution (though perhaps only a very small part) has to be rethinking our own default assumptions about technology and its supposedly obvious affordances, since these clearly aren’t automatically available to everyone. Far too many of us (in the educational technology realm, that is) tend to see technology as a solution in itself when, in fact, the original problems are almost always reflected or reinscribed in the whatever new technology landscape we happen to be entering. (Consider, for instance, the idea of the filter bubble: technologies and services that were heralded as creating unprecedented openness and connectedness have, perversely, contributed to closed, narrow-minded isolation. Not a perfect example, maybe, but you get the point.)

Another clear need is a more systematic accounting of the specific types of mental activities involved in a variety of technology-enhanced learning scenarios, so that we can better understand where these technology use- and opportunity-gaps exist and how, exactly, they may be impeding disadvantaged students’ progress. I know I will certainly be giving this issue a great deal more thought.