3 Things Mobile Device Programs Can Teach Us About Educational Equity
In today’s digital age, nearly every aspect of our lives requires working with technology. Among social apps in our personal lives, digital devices in our workplaces, and educational technology in our schools, we find ourselves using tech skills every day. For educators, this technological revolution has led to concerns about educational equity, as although some students have personal tech devices in their homes, others may only have access to the computer lab at their school or public library. With this in mind, how can educators help all their students develop the tech skills they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world?
Many school districts are attempting to address this inequality by providing laptops, tablets, or other mobile devices for each student, and data on the success of these increasingly popular 1:1 mobile device programs seems promising. According to the 2017 research findings of Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering students in the 21st century, 60 percent of school principals reported that each of their students was provided with a laptop, tablet, or Chromebook for school use, an increase of 9 percentage points from the year before.
However, while 1:1 mobile device programs are growing, we must bear in mind that they are not universal; some school districts simply don’t have the budget to accommodate such a program, while others have concerns as to whether providing mobile devices would truly meet their students’ needs. As always, educators, administrators, and technology leaders are best positioned to assess the unique needs and priorities of their school district.
Whether or not your school district has chosen to distribute mobile devices, there are lessons to learn from 1:1 device programs that apply to everyone. For instance, research shows that successful mobile device programs teach “soft skills,” provide a framework of support and guidance for students and staff, and plan ahead for future technological needs. School districts that do not provide 1:1 devices for their students can still use these techniques to encourage educational equity in an increasingly digital world.
1. Building “soft skills”
One of the primary benefits of 1:1 device programs is the opportunity for all students to grow comfortable working with the same technology pieces. However, tech-savvy educators also know that true digital fluency isn’t about learning to use one specific device or program; instead, it's to help students feel comfortable using technology in every aspect of their lives, which will include learning to operate new devices, try new software, and use a variety of online tools.
This sentiment is echoed in the briefing paper for the Project Tomorrow report, in which Dr. Julie Evans writes, “It is commonly accepted now that for students to be able to successfully compete and contribute in a global information-intensive economy and society after graduation, they must be fluent in new essential workplace skills including critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communications.” Writing for The Techedvocate, Matthew Lynch also made a case for using digital tools to teach soft skills such as flexibility, adaptation, leadership, and productivity. According to Lynch, “The need for soft skills isn’t going away—if anything, these skills will become more important in an increasingly digital workspace.”
Whether or not schools employ a 1:1 device program, we can build educational equity by teaching students the softer skills they’ll need in a technological world. All students can—and should—be taught how to adapt to using different resources, how to use their time and tools wisely, and how to problem-solve and ask for help when needed.
2. Creating support systems
Another feature of successful mobile device programs is tech support. Just as some students may have personal tech devices at home while others do not, some have learned basic computer skills from their parents while others depend solely on teachers and school staff for technology instruction. Thus, simply passing out identical tech devices to each student isn’t enough to promote educational equity, and mobile device programs often succeed or fail based on how prepared the school staff is to provide equitable tech instruction and support. Indeed, one major concern noted in the Project Tomorrow survey was inconsistent implementation; although 83 percent of surveyed parents felt that the use of technology in school was important for their child’s future, 51 percent said they were concerned that technology use varied too much from teacher to teacher.
Providing adequate professional development is a key component of any technology program’s success. As noted in the K-12 Blueprint (Clarity Innovation’s planning resource for 1:1 computing): “If providing computers to all students merely enhances traditional teaching methods that focus on passive consumption of information and memorization, the expense is not likely to realize the expected benefits. For this reason, professional development is a key component, perhaps the most important component, in a 1:1 initiative.”
As well as educating existing staff on new technology, school districts also need to plan for additional staffing when necessary. As Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools discovered, a 1:1 device program needs more tech support than a single instructional technology coach can provide—particularly when that one coach is already spread out across seven schools!
School systems that do not provide 1:1 device programs can also learn from this research, as ensuring that schools are well-staffed and educators have up-to-date professional development are essential steps in building educational equity. As much as students need access to digital devices, they also require educators who can support and guide their technology use.
3. Planning for the future
Unsurprisingly, 1:1 device programs require a great deal of planning before implementation. Writing for the Edudemic, Alex Schrader asserted that creating a complete vision is critical to a mobile device program’s success. Before enacting a new ed tech program, he advised that schools should take stock of how these technology pieces will support their priorities, goals, and overall vision for their students. (The aforementioned K-12 Blueprint gives a comprehensive planning resource for school districts considering adopting a 1:1 device program.)
Even if school systems choose not to implement a 1:1 device program, it’s still important to plan for how technology will play a role in students’ education now and in the future, so the considerations outlined in the Clarity Innovation blueprint are helpful regardless of available technology resources. Whether students use devices from home, at a computer lab, or school-supplied technology, schools must have a vision for how digital literacy fits into their overall curriculum. Moreover, it’s important for this planning phase to include educators—after all, these are the people who will be taking the lead on developing students’ tech skills and providing guidance and support. This brief from Education Dive cites a 2016 survey from TES Global and the Jefferson Education Accelerator that shows one key area of concern: While 63 percent of surveyed teachers wanted to be the primary decision-makers about technology in their classrooms, 38 percent reported that they weren’t involved in the decision-making process. Involving educators from the beginning planning stages allows them to have a voice in the technology they will be teaching and advocating within their classrooms.
How to mobilize for educational equality
Schools that have successfully implemented 1:1 device programs do much more than purchasing and distributing gadgets. By teaching students the necessary “soft skills,” providing tech support and training for students and staff, and planning ahead for future technology use, school systems can prepare their students to succeed in the digital age. Whether or not a school system chooses to provide 1:1 devices for students, incorporating these features into technology education can help build educational equity.
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