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The time is right for digital inclusion


Picture a typical American grade school classroom with 35 students. You will see advanced learners, several recent immigrants, and a child who has just moved from another state in the middle of the school year—all of them individuals with different needs and experiences. With this diversity of student language, culture, and learning readiness, how can a teacher most effectively practice her art and help students deeply understand subject matter? Ed-tech in the service of great teaching can support higher quality, in-person time to meet the real needs of learners, and provide the access students need to help them reach their full potential.

For those who need it most, that empowering digital access is missing, both during and outside of “regular” classroom time. In its “For Each and Every Child” report, the Education and Excellence Commission states that those who “attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates schools in developing nations.” A 2013 PEW research study confirms that access is noticeably different between higher and lower income schools. More than half of teachers—55 percent—of higher income students said they or their students use e-readers in the classroom, compared with 41 percent in low-income schools. And 52 percent of teachers of upper and upper-middle income classrooms say their students use cell phones to look up information in class, compared with 35 percent in the lowest income classrooms. Only 18 percent said that all or almost all of their students had access to the digital tools they need at home.

[tweetable alt=””]Investing in ed-tech simply cannot wait if we want to close opportunity gaps.[/tweetable]


Rethinking technology, time, and education

As technology advances and we use our devices anytime, anywhere, the educational model at most schools is a 5 or 5.5 hour school day. Schools are in session for nine months with a three-month summer break, a “remainder” from an agrarian society that may no longer be the best paradigm when less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population currently live on farms. We need to think about altering this traditional schedule to expand learning time and conform to the way the world works today, and how students make use of time and devices when they have access.

Expanding access along with the learning day

I often wonder how many students across this nation lack access to effective learning technologies that support classroom practice and can be seamlessly integrated into blended learning. Would students be better served if more of them had access to formative learning experiences that were supported by engaging and effective learning technologies? At one North Carolina school, math scores were below national standards, and many of the students lacked Internet access at home. “Project K-Nect” provided the North Carolina ninth grade students with smartphones, which they could use to access additional instructions and collaborate with peers, at any hour of the day. After just one year, the students who had the phones saw an impressive 30 percent increase on their test scores. When you give children access to technology, they use it, love it, and take advantage of its power to move them forward in their learning.

Research shows that increasing the time students are actually engaged in learning, along with other factors such as high expectations and the use of data to guide instruction, results in what we want for all students: confidence, love of learning, and higher achievement. When the walls of the classroom come down, learning opportunities open up. Expanding learning time to before school, after school, extended day, summer, at home, and other extended-learning experiences can stem learning loss, accelerate student achievement, and improve the in-classroom experience.

Faster broadband speeds greater equity

However, investing in even the finest ed-tech tools and programs is futile without fast, reliable Internet access—something that is lacking in many urban, suburban, and rural schools and communities. Right now, over 63 percent of U.S. schools lack the Internet speed needed for digital learning.

I view the latest FCC ruling for an open Internet as an essential foundation to the kind of access I envision for learners everywhere. While the new rules on net neutrality may yet be challenged, I agree with Barbara Stripling, the head of the American Library Association who said, “School, public, and college libraries rely upon the public availability of open, affordable Internet access for school homework assignments, distance learning classes, e-government services, licensed databases, job-training videos, medical and scientific research, and many other essential services. We must ensure the same quality access to online educational content as to entertainment and other commercial offerings.” Democratizing learning depends on fast, unrestricted broadband for all.

The future of learning is open, inclusive, and lifelong

In the future, education will not be, nor should it be, limited by four walls, a door, and a ceiling.I believe we are going to move rapidly and permanently to an anytime, anywhere model that equally supports learners and their learning guardians—teachers, parents, tutors, and administrators. As Michael Horn stressed in a recent article, “The key, as with all revolutions powered by technology, is to start with the redesign of the model itself, in this case the instructional model, and then use technology in purposeful ways to accomplish key goals and solve pressing problems.”

In the very near future, students will be increasingly involved in their own acquisition and demonstration of knowledge through the use of technology and support of their learning guides, and it will not be age-or grade-defined. Instead, learning success will be defined in terms of mastery. If you have fourth graders ready for sixth-grade content, technology will facilitate that. It is not going to depend on what can be accomplished between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

By providing the right digital tools and equitable access, we can satisfy the innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge that children have, and foster a lifelong love of learning. If we do this, we will help all kids unlock their learning potential and in doing so, unleash their innate human capabilities. That’s when we all win.

Join me at SXSWedu on March 10 for EdTech for Educational Inclusion. I’m honored to be part of this featured panel that is considering inequalities in the education system, the use of technology by educators to support and empower students from diverse backgrounds, ways we can cultivate confidence in students who could be left behind, and how we can prepare to meet the challenges of globalization. If you cannot join me and my fellow panelists for this important discussion, I hope you can take part in the conversation at #SXSWedtech.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson