Preventing technology gaps from creating achievement gaps.
GUEST COLUMN | by Sheldon Soper
Technology is becoming a ubiquitous component of modern day classrooms. Tools like Chromebooks, laptops, and iPads provide powerful ways for students to create, collaborate, and access information. Students benefit from this access and can use it to build crucial skills for their 21st century world.
While technology access inside the classroom can be standardized, it is anything but once students leave. For students without reliable internet access from home, all the rewards and benefits of a technologically infused classroom fade away with the day’s dismissal bell.
Students should be able to participate and engage with any work intended for completion outside of class regardless of their access to technology.
Technology-driven classroom workflows need analog components to ensure students without reliable access to technology outside of school are not left out. Otherwise, the technology gap between those with access and those without will quickly manifest as an achievement gap.
The Problem with Paperless
One of the common rationalizations schools use when transitioning towards technology focused learning environments is the elimination of paper. There is less clutter, fewer organizational issues, and less physical waste. Students can access digital materials quickly and even refer back to prior creations and resources with ease. Learning experiences can become more engaging with multimedia elements and increased interactivity. Teachers can access student work from a single device rather than constantly lugging piles of papers and a gradebook back and forth from school.
While this paperless convenience is hard to deny, it can quickly become a vehicle for disenfranchising students. A truly paperless class creates an unfair hurdle for students without access to the digital content from home.
Teachers still need to maintain some analog components in their digital classrooms to help prevent technological gaps at home from turning into achievement gaps in school. Crucial course materials like study guides and reference materials should always be available in paper form for students to take if needed. Work that is expected to be completed outside of class should be free from rigid, technology-dependent requirements like “this must be typed” when possible.
If technology is to be a key element of a learning experience, that learning experience should be one that all students have the time and opportunity to experience in the classroom.
The good news is that analog work does not automatically mean a return to piles of papers to grade and cluttered “turn-in” bins. Popular workflows like SeeSaw, Edmodo, and Google Classroom all have quick and easy ways to digitize analog student work (paper, projects, models, etc.) using the cameras that are standard in most classroom devices. With just a few taps, paperwork can become digitized and be submitted electronically to a teacher or shared with peers.
Not All Internet Access is Created Equal
While there are a growing number of free and open pathways to internet access for people who need it, educators need to be careful not to assume that these pathways mean their students are on a level technological playing field.
Sure, there are public libraries, homes of family members, school buses equipped with internet hotspots, and local businesses with “free Wi-Fi” signs in the window that all can provide a pathway to access. However, for a student who has to rely on these options, it is no match for being able to enjoy the comfort and security of learning at home like other students have the privilege to do.
Another common misconception is that cell phone data plans and Wi-Fi internet access are synonymous when it comes to accessing digital content for school. Smartphones can be useful learning tools for students, but when those devices do not have reliable Wi-Fi internet to connect to, their bandwidth usage comes at a cost. Teachers must be cognizant of this discrepancy to avoid putting students in a difficult position to decide between accessing their schoolwork and driving up their phone bills with data fees.
It falls to teachers in this age of digital classrooms to try to give all students a fair opportunity for success. When certain tasks or assignments are technologically dependent, they must also then be classroom dependent. Students should be able to participate and engage with any work intended for completion outside of class regardless of their access to technology. Failing to do so drives a wedge between those with access and those without; a widening achievement gap will surely follow.
Sheldon Soper is a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey and a writer for The Knowledge Roundtable, a free tutoring marketplace. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He has a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education from Rutgers University, with teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. He has tutored Reading, Writing, Calculus, Chemistry, Algebra, and Test Prep. Sheldon believes all students can be successful; it is the role of educators to help facilitate growth by differentiating and scaffolding student learning on a personal level.