The other divide

We’ve come to expect magic from technology. Tap a screen and you conjure a map of the night sky, the time and distance of your run, your favorite music, all the restaurants near the train station where you’ve just arrived, the latest video to go viral.

But two educational researchers and former urban high school teachers caution that there’s only so much magic we should expect from technology in education. It may be possible to close the digital divide by giving every kid a smart phone or tablet, but that isn’t going to close the more important divide: the achievement gap and literacy gap between poor and privileged students.

Shiny new toys are, well, just shiny new toys. It’s what else happens in the classroom that counts more.

Thomas Philip and Antero Garcia write in the Harvard Educational Review that at one school, soon after students got their new phones, many tucked them away in their lockers after they discovered that restrictions were placed on texting, calling and Web access. Sometimes attempts to transplant youth interest in technology to formal learning environments can even backfire because young people resent having their cultural forms appropriated by schools.

“The persistent allure of technology as an easy remedy for educational issues of equity and achievement is intricately tied to naïve assumptions about student interest and the possibility and desirability of ‘teacher-proof’ classrooms,” the researchers write.

Rather than narrowing the gap in educational opportunity, the researchers argue that pushing technology into urban schools without the right pedagogy can widen the gap. The iGen discourse has tended to overlook teachers and pedagogy.

“Educators routinely and appropriately attempt to build on students’ ever-increasing amount and varying modes of informal digital communication, such as texting. But attempts to presumably win youth over with textspeak can also sacrifice the limited opportunities that students have to grow as participants in academic discourse,” the researchers write.

Asking students to use cell phones to text 160-character summaries of Shakespeare passages might be very engaging, but the danger is these byte-size fragments bring a diminishing return in literacy, especially for poor urban youth.

It is helpful to think of the 3Ts—text, tools and talk—to get beyond the trappings of technology and assess how it will enrich the pedagogy, the authors write.

Below are questions educators should ask themselves about incoming technology to be sure it makes an authentic contribution to education:

Text—New technologies provide instant access to a vast variety of texts with the touch of a fingertip. What new texts will be introduced by the technology? How are traditional texts altered by the new technology? Why are these texts important for what students will learn? If educators can’t answer these questions, they should step back and reevaluate the assumptions they are making about the textual opportunities that are gained.

Tools—How does the tool offer ways of collecting, representing, visualizing, analyzing and communicating information to improve learning? What is the context of learning that makes this tool imperative to students’ lives. Software that allows students to create word clouds has to be accompanied by good pedagogy or else students might spend their time changing the background color on the word cloud.

Talk—New technologies can redefine communication within a classroom. Classroom discourse and interaction is one of the most overlooked aspects of incorporating technology in learning. Questions to ask: How do we support classroom talk that leverages text and tools introduced by the technology to support student learning? Can discourse be made more robust as a result of this tool?

“The Importance of Still Teaching the iGeneration: New Technologies and the Centrality of Pedagogy,” Harvard Educational Review, Summer 2013, Volume 83, No. 2, pp. 300-316.

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