Shiny Tablets and the Achievement Gap

I am a big proponent of technology equity and access, and digital literacy in the classroom. In the blended learning environments where I worked – each student had a laptop regardless of his or her socioeconomic status. They created beautiful digital portfolios and wrote thought-provoking blog entries, putting mine to shame.

In recent discussions with my peers on the issues of the second digital divide – students’ abilities and use of technology is creating a widening chasm between the haves and have-not – I realized that I have not used a critical lens through which to evaluate technology. I have been naive to think that giving each disadvantage kid a shiny tablet will close the achievement gap and somehow, magically transform them into great students.

A tablet in the hands of a low-income child is not the same as a tablet in the hands of a child of privilege.

This is traced back to the quality of a student’s learning experience with computers both at home and in the classroom. This divide is increasing due to the “Matthew” effect – the tendency for early advantages to multiply over time. In a Philadelphia library study, researchers found that affluent kids and poor kids use technology very differently at their local public libraries. As a result, they engage in different types of mental challenges, and leave with with different kinds of knowledge and experience. The Matthew Effect is further illustrated in the Texas’s Technology Immersion Pilot where the study found that the benefit of owning a computer was significantly greater for students with higher test scores.

Photo by Nick PandolfoPhoto by Nick Pandolfo

Even in school environments, where the principals and educators have control of the technology use in the classroom, evidence shows that low-income schools are far more likely to buy and use software for drill and kill exercises. Wealthier schools, on the other hand, use technology as a method of engagement to immerse students in virtual science experiments and build higher-level thinking skills. If we look at schools like Carpe Diem in Arizona, the one-room schoolhouse – 200 cubicles each equipped with a computer and headset – is the modern day call-center for students. I can’t help, but think that instead of preparing students to be “agents of change,” we are preparing them to live within the constraints of the box and be part of the system.

Looking at the SAMR Model, I believe that educators, administrators, technologists, politicians, parents, and philanthropists should shift their focus and thinking to how technology can be employed to create meaningful learning experiences in both formal and informal learning environments. Or else, the very tool designed to level the playing field, may in fact, create a second divide and contribute to the achievement gap.

Dr. Ruben Puentedura: Creator of the SAMR modelDr. Ruben Puentedura

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