Technology is the promise of the future. It is touted as the great equalizer. The tools that will bring education to the underprivileged, those with disabilities and those on the margins of society. It has the promise of breaking down barriers, of helping us all communicate better and of bringing equity to the world. But, is technology living up to these promises? What is the evidence that we have indeed begun bridging the digital divide? In a recent Financial Post Study, evidence suggests that even in a developed country like Canada, disparity with regard to access and internet fluency not only still exist but are being exacerbated. As is noted in the study, age and income both play significant roles in who accesses technology and also how it is used.
“People with some post-secondary education (and who were no longer students) had Internet-use rates nearly 10 per cent higher than people with just a high school diploma, and nearly 50 per cent higher than those without a diploma.” -Financial Post
The question has to be asked, can technology really bridge gaps such as income disparity? After-all, at the end of the day the technology has the potential to allow access to a myriad of learning opportunities. People have access to apps like duolingo, coursera, MOOCs, online information hubs, and translations tools. The problem is not necessarily the programs and software but the access to internet service and hardware. How can these services be considered equitable learning opportunities if students do not all have access to the technology? In addition, it has become clear that technology, even when applied across a range of different socio-economic classrooms, does not benefit all students in the same way. Harvard Education has undertaken a study outlined in the video below that indicates that the use of a platform such as wiki as an example, is disproportionately benefiting those students who come from higher income brackets and have higher socio-economic status.
So what is the solution? Clearly the teachers and innovators need to have a strong social justice focus as we engage in these questions. As mentioned in the video, tools that are specifically designed and targeted at low income and marginalized youth can have a greater impact than simply applying the same broad technology strokes to the entire class and expect the technology to magically transform our students. Technology in education is an amazing gift and I use it every day and am so thankful for it, however, it can not take the place of personalized learning. Due to issues of access and socio-economic status, we are still not able to offer the same advantages to these students as the privileged already receive.
Growing up in Africa meant I was able to experience a different world of education than what we are accustomed to here in Canada. My friends went to school in which they had 1 pencil for every 10 students. This meant that as the students sat in rows on the dirt floor, the first person in the line would copy down the notes, pass the pencil on to the next person and so on and so forth. Is it equitable that these students do not have the opportunity to experience technology in their education? Maybe not, but it may not be that far off. Programs like Youth Learning, and the Text to Change project are being implemented in third world countries in order to engage youth in technology and give them a voice in a digital world in which they were not citizens.
“Technology has the potential to be a huge force for good but it is not a silver bullet, a fix-all solution to how to fix the education and employment problems for young people in developing countries,” says Kenny. “Yet one thing is clear – it will undoubtedly play an increasingly important part of millions of young people’s lives across the world.”-Charles Kenny
Technology has tremendous potential to affect positive change in the lives of millions of people who are not currently a part of the world you live in right now. The ease with which we can access and share information across the world in this day and age is unprecedented. In our own schools here in Saskatchewan, tech tools are allowing creativity to flourish in those that would not otherwise have an outlet. They are giving hope to those can can’t access traditional learning environments, they are giving a voice to the voiceless. But the work is not done. As you are reading this, just remember that there are millions of others around the world right now, and probably in your city or town, who have no way to read this blog. As educators, let us not be caught in the techno-colonial trap of presuming that as we bring technology to the poor and downtrodden of society, we will be the saviours once again. Equity must mean more than simply providing the same tools to all. Personalized learning is the key to success. We must ask ourselves, what are the individual needs of this student, of this class, of this community? For many students throughout the world, physiological needs will supersede a simple piece of technology.
Then again for others…