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The use of technology is growing in schools, but we’re missing critical opportunities if technology isn’t being used to close the pernicious achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers and between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
While we’ve seen limited, and not necessarily linear, progress on the race gap, the income-based achievement gap has been particularly stubborn, and research suggests it is widening between students from the poorest families and those from the highest-income households in the United States.
As a computer scientist and a former middle-school math teacher, I believe strongly that we can marry the promise of new technology and evidence-based instructional practices to address inequities in our public school system. One area where this can happen now, if schools take the right steps, is with online homework tools.
Many online homework tools already exist, and they allow students to practice what they learn in school and get immediate and very focused feedback on their work.
Students can see right away whether they did something correctly, and they are prevented from practicing strategies incorrectly because these tools let them know when they’re off track. That’s vastly better than assigning students homework that doesn’t provide feedback and resembles busy work, be it photocopied word searches in the elementary grades or repetitive math worksheets across the school years. Those dull, outdated assignments don’t further learning goals and only serve to disengage students.
Online homework tools provide teachers with rich, targeted data about where students are struggling, which allows educators to tailor assignments to the specific needs of students. That kind of instructional practice resembles what you see with one-on-one tutoring and can be a powerful lever for improving teaching and learning. However, while the benefits of moving some student homework to interactive, online platforms are clear, we can’t ignore the question of access. These programs can only work — and narrow, rather than widen, gaps — if all students have equitable access to digital resources.
Youth from low-income homes often lack access to reliable technology and the internet at home. So giving out online assignments may require students without a computer or internet access at home to stay after school or visit a library to complete web-based assignments, which may not always be possible. According to the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of teens can’t always finish their homework because they don’t have reliable access to a computer or the internet.
Simply put, we must ensure equal access to technology if we’re going to use it in schools — something that hasn’t always happened in public education. The good news is that more organizations today are devoting efforts to giving underrepresented groups greater access than in the past, according to a new report by the State Educational Technology Directors Association. The report highlights a number of steps that states are taking, including creating one-to-one laptop programs, increasing statewide broadband networks and making Wi-Fi hotspots more readily available.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Native American/Alaskan and black students have the lowest rates of internet access at home. As individual schools and districts consider digital policies and practices, it makes sense for them to take note of which students lack access to a laptop at home and prioritize getting those students a computer.
As we push for greater access to technology, it’s critical that we in the research and development world continue to innovate and design the systems that actually increase student learning. According to the Pew Research Center, 96 percent of surveyed teachers agree that digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience,” and 78 percent agree that digital technologies “encourage student creativity and personal expression.”
It is also important to remember that educational technologies should be designed with equity in mind. Within the educational technology industry, there are companies that don’t always carefully consider how their products might affect different student populations.
In fact, studies have shown that student-paced learning tools may sometimes exacerbate achievement gaps. A 2013 meta-analysis by Duke University researchers of 23 studies examining the efficacy of “intelligent” tutoring systems showed that self-paced education technology that personalizes learning for each student worsens achievement gaps by allowing already highly motivated students to progress while leaving unmotivated students in the dust. On the other hand, this same meta-analysis showed that systems that were part of a teacher-led homework routine did not worsen achievement gaps and led to increased student learning. Nightly online homework, monitored by a teacher, may help to close achievement gaps.
Rather than hastily introducing educational technologies to schools, we should test new digital tools to ensure that they are effective and help all students. At the same time, when we do see that technology can improve teaching and learning in a powerful way, we need to harness that power and make it available to all children. Doing that, on a national scale, would truly be an equity game-changer.
Neil Heffernan is a professor of computer science and director of the Learning Sciences and Technologies Program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is also a co-developer of ASSISTments, a free web-hosted digital homework platform.