Free and open technologies do not democratize education, but strategies to combat educational inequity exist and should be replicated, a new report by digital learning experts recommends.

The report – “From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies” – published this month through the Connected Learning Alliance proposes following promising strategies the authors found that are addressing equity in learning technologies. New technologies, even free ones, they argue, disproportionately benefit students with the financial, social and technical capital to take advantage of them.

The authors – Mizuko (Mimi) Ito, research director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California, Irvine and director of UCI’s Connected Learning Lab, and Justin Reich, executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Teaching Systems Lab and a research scientist in the MIT Office of Digital Learning – met with leading researchers, educators and technologists for in-depth working sessions to share challenges and solutions for how learning technologies can provide the greatest benefits for the most vulnerable learners. The group identified the challenges and solutions outlined in the report.

Among their solutions:

  • Unite around shared purpose: equity-oriented efforts can bring developers, reformers and learners together with common purpose, thus reducing social distance between these groups. When initiatives are co-developed with stakeholders, they are more likely to be better attuned to important elements of social and cultural contexts, and learners are more likely to take ownership of such initiatives.
  • Align home, school and community: One fruitful strategy for reducing digital divide is building the capacity of parents and mentors alongside that of children. Intergenerational learning experiences can strengthen family ties while giving parents and children new skills to explore new domains.
  • Connect to the interest and identities of minority youth: Peer-learning communities are exclusionary when they reflect a dominant culture in ways that create a hostile environment for outsiders, but they can also be harnessed to create safe affinity spaces for minority youth. Powerful learning experiences result when students have the opportunity to connect their interests from outside of school to learning opportunities in more academic contexts.
  • Target the needs of subgroups: When developers and reformers understand the specific needs of the communities they serve, they can deploy targeted programs that give the greatest advantage to the neediest groups.

“We stand at the cusp of widespread adoption of new technologies that have the potential to both radically reduce or exacerbate existing forms of educational inequity. A concerted push for research, innovation and joint action around a common purpose of deploying learning technologies in the service of equity could dramatically enhance our understanding of how new technologies can truly democratize education. The time is ripe for a coalition that unites research, practice and design, and that cuts across the public-private divide in the service of a more equitable future for learning technologies,” Reich and Ito write in the report.

The full report is available free online. Published by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, it is part of a series on connected learning, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

-Mimi Ko Cruz, UCI Digital Media and Learning Research Hub

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