When Tom Rooney’s school district began piloting competency-based learning with a small group of incoming high school freshman, he spoke with the students in advance to prepare them for how their high school experience would be different.
“I explained that it’s not about what grade you’re in, it’s about where you are in your learning and us guaranteeing you learn it,” says the superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District, a California district where more than 90 percent of students are from traditionally underserved groups. “We really don’t want to send you out of our school system unless you have certain skills and academic proficiencies.”
One of the eighth-graders raised a hand.
“So what you’re saying is you’re never going to give up on us?” the student asked. He went on to describe how his teachers gave up on him when he was just seven years old and had been pushing him through the system ever since. As a result, he was about to enter high school despite being barely able to read.
“Kids rely on the school system to give them a path to success. How many kids know that adults have given up on them when they’re 6, 7, 8 years old, and how unfair is that?” asks Rooney, whose district has made positive leaps in student achievement by using education technology to create a system in which it’s impossible for students to fail, regardless of what disadvantages they may face.
With a 94 percent graduation rate and a 75 percent college enrollment rate among graduates, Lindsay Unified serves as a noteworthy model for how school districts can employ edtech to close opportunity gaps for students. But, as Rooney will be the first to admit, while technology provides a valuable hinge on which educators can pivot to meet the complex needs of underserved students, it’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
“Edtech is a tool. You still need thoughtful teachers and good pedagogy,” says Matt Hiefield, digital instructional materials coordinator for Beaverton School District in Oregon and a member of the Consortium for School Networking’s Digital Equity Advisory Council.
The key to creating equitable opportunities for students is to recognize from the outset that simply deploying technology isn’t enough. Educators need to begin with a focused strategy and a clear understanding of how edtech can help them get there. The good news is that they don’t have to start from scratch; forward-thinking districts like Beaverton and Lindsay Unified have already tried and proven a variety of tech-powered approaches that can help close opportunity gaps for underserved students.
Adapting learning to meet students where they’re at
In one Beaverton school, students learning about post-Civil War reconstruction curate their own museum each year. Working in groups, they brainstorm research topics on different aspects of the era, then choose a presentation style based on their skills and interests. At the end of the unit, they invite members of the community to tour their museum and experience what they’ve learned.
“Some students did a more traditional computer presentation with slides, some constructed dioramas, some analyzed music. One team even worked coding into their project,” Hiefield says. “There were some criteria that had to be met, and there were checkpoints along the way for the academic aspects of their research, but it wasn’t like taking a 100-point multiple choice test. What struck me is that the kids were excited about what they were presenting.”
Every step of the learning process, from content delivery to homework to assessments, can present a multitude of built-in barriers for disadvantaged students. Through approaches such as project-based learning, educators can break down these barriers by offering students multiple pathways for learning – and for demonstrating their learning – so each individual can work at their own pace and choose a path that meets their needs.
Today’s edtech allows teachers to personalize learning to a degree that would have been too time-consuming and burdensome just 15 years ago.
On the content delivery side, adaptive software is a powerful tool for differentiating learning. If a teacher wants to share an article with a class that includes English language learners or students at different reading levels, for example, they can use lexile software to adjust the article content to a higher or lower reading level depending on each student’s abilities.
“It’s the same article with the same concepts, but the vocabulary changes,” Hiefield says. “If you want to challenge yourself, you can read at the highest level you’re comfortable with. Or if it’s too hard, you can go down a level and it’s fine.” Similar adaptive software is available for math problems, he added, so kids can practice at their own level.
When it comes to assessments, multiple-choice tests and other traditional one-size-fits-all models often fail to accurately measure learning, disadvantaging some students while rewarding others. Providing alternatives, such as making videos instead of writing reports, using outlining tools such as PowerNotes to scaffold essay writing, or choosing a creative project that aligns with their strengths, empowers students to demonstrate their learning in ways that are accessible, engaging and culturally relevant to them.
Identifying problem areas in real time for early intervention
Author and speaker Jenny Grant Rankin, a Fulbright specialist for the U.S. Department of State, likes to compare traditional assessments to an autopsy – they provide important information, but only after it’s too late to do anything about it. The complex student data systems available to school districts have the power to revolutionize education, she believes, but only if educators use them to perform operations instead of autopsies.
“I’m a big fan of little exit tickets,” Rankin says. Using a tool such as Kahoot! or Socrative to perform a quick poll each day before students walk out the door allows teachers to adjust their lesson plans on the fly while determining who needs additional support and who’s ready to move on. “It’s not perfect, but it gives you a really good idea. There’s so much a teacher can do that’s live, immediate responding.”
Frequent, low-stakes formative assessments can alert teachers in time to step in and help students who are struggling. To use this data effectively, however, educators need to be prepared to act on the insights they’re receiving.
“Most of all, we need to use the real-time classroom-generated data to make more valid and reliable instructional decisions,” write Brent Duckor and Carrie Holmberg in an article for the ASCD. “Do we stop? Do we re-teach a portion of the lesson tomorrow? Do we revise our curricular activities and formative assessment strategies as we prepare for the next unit?”
Lack of training and support, the inability to quickly analyze and interpret data, and a short supply of time are just a few of the challenges that prevent teachers from maximizing the potential of student data. There’s also the intimidation factor; the prospect of constantly adjusting instruction based on student feedback can be daunting, especially in a large classroom.
“A lot of teachers worry about the chaos that can happen when they get into a system of using data on the fly,” she says. “But once they see it working like this fine-tuned machine, they’re never going to go back.
Engaging students in extracurricular activities
Not all learning happens in the classroom. Extracurricular activities provide invaluable benefits, helping students reach greater levels of academic achievement, build essential skills and advance their social-emotional development.
While more than 80 percent of young people participate in extracurricular activities, students with disabilities, economic challenges or other barriers to entry often lose out on the lifelong benefits after-school activities can provide.
A growing number of districts are turning to esports as an opportunity to get traditionally underserved students involved. As esports continue to gain recognition around the world, they’re opening new doors – including college scholarships and a wide array of career opportunities – for students who are unable or uninterested in participating in traditional sports.
“Not having an esports team is now an equity issue,” says Chris Aviles, a middle school teacher and esports coach in New Jersey. “There are now 195 colleges offering $17 million in scholarships. If you go to a school that does not have an esports program and I go to a school that does, one of our resumes is going to look better than the other.”
For schools in underserved communities where funding is limited, esports offer a relatively low barrier to entry compared to other extracurricular activities.
“You can field an esports team for zero dollars,” Aviles says. “You just have to have a willing and supportive school and IT staff.” While it helps to have high-end PCs for gaming, the same computers schools use for STEM learning can “magically transform into esports computers after school,” he says.
Giving students agency over their learning
Twice a week, Hiefield stops by his district’s high school to help out with the after-school homework club, where students can get help with their class assignments.
“When we’re working with a student, we ask how they’re doing and what classes they’re struggling in,” he says. “Edtech, if used properly, can help a student explain where they are in the learning process. In math, they might say, ‘I’m not very good at this Euclidian concept, I need to work more on that.’ It’s pretty telling when I can talk to a student, and they can narrate how they’re doing. If the student has no clue why they’re not doing well, something is wrong.”
Creating learner agency is critical for underserved communities, where parents often work long hours and may be undereducated themselves, Rooney says. When a student is struggling, having the vocabulary to express what they need enables them to ask for the right help at the right time.
“When learners own their learning, they become the best connectors for their parents. They know where they are in their learning, they know how they’re scoring, and they know where they need to go next. The learners actually show their parents where they are in their learning, what they’re struggling in and what they need to do better in.”
By breaking down learning goals into specific competencies and giving students a real-time window into their progress, Lindsay Unified empowers disadvantaged students to take control of their own learning while providing them with the vocabulary to talk about it.
“When learner agency exists, learners are going to thrive in the midst of whatever situation they’re facing,” Rooney says.
While edtech isn’t a cure-all for equity issues, in the hands of skilled educator it can go a long way toward closing opportunity gaps for underserved students.
“I think edtech is an equity game changer when used well and thoughtfully,” Hiefield says. “It opens up worlds. But when it’s not used correctly, it tends to punish our poorest and most vulnerable students. It’s incumbent on districts and education systems to make sure students get the benefits of edtech without creating bigger opportunity gaps along the way.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.