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Will Free Education Technology Benefit the Rich? (@bjfr)

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My own contribution to the Hewlett Grantee Meeting was a talk entitled "When Open Encounters Different Classrooms," which is part of my ongoing campaign to raise serious concerns about issues of equity and education technology.

(Much more detailed papers, videos, and other descriptions of this work can be found here)


The story goes something like this:

When we imagine an Open Educational Resources or education technology ecosystem, one simple model is to assume that Builders make stuff, put it on the Internet, and hope it gets to the brains of learners, either directly or through facilitators like teachers, coaches and librarians.

OER Ecosystem


We also assume that the net result of all this innovation is increased learning: more neurons in young brains are rearranged in pro-social ways.

OER and Learning

This model might work for certain purposes (see the last post for the problems with dividing Builders from Facilitators). But in my talk I propose an important amendment to that model for thinking about ed tech in the U.S. One of the signature feature of the U.S. education system is that it is profoundly inequitable. - America is known as being middle of the pack in OECD rankings and so forth but that's only on average, our wealthiest students are on par with the best students in the world, but our educational outcomes for poor students in the U.S. are shameful.

So as I think about the model of OER systems in the United States, I think about builders and the Internet, but on the other side of the Internet I imagine two parallel sets of learners and facilitators in low-income and high-income homes and schools. Now the hope, is that as builders create new OER and edtech, it passes through a neo-liberal, democratizing Internet and can be taken up by learners and facilitators in both kinds of environments


OER Ecosytem in inequitable settings

So if we amend our model of the OER system we also should amend our model of learning. And my sense is that there are two kinds of stories about how OER and education technology innovations are received in schools serving different populations.

Two stories about learning and edtech

In one story, we imagine that we start with an initial disparity in learning opportunities between wealthy and poor students caused by an inequitable society. Wealthy students already have access to a wide variety of proprietary resources, tools, platforms and so forth, and so OER and other ed tech innovations disproportionately benefit low income students who now have access to these free tools and resources. We can call this the closing gaps scenario.

Another story we could tell, is that affluent schools have much great human, social and technological capital than schools serving low-income students. They have less test pressure, and their teachers have more prep periods, fewer students, more curricular support, and better technological infrastructure. Most new innovations, therefore, disproportionately benefit the already advantaged. Technology acts as an accelerant to the underlying inequities in schools. We might call this the rising tide scenario.  

So which of these stories better represents reality? Well, we don't know for sure, but my research on wikis provides one perspective. In my most recent study, I examined a random sample of wikis used in U.S., K-12 public schools drawn from a population of nearly 200,000 wikis. I found that more wikis are created in affluent schools than school serving low income students, and wikis created in affluent schools are significantly more likely to provide opportunities for students to develop 21st century skills and they persist longer.


Wikis Summary


So with certainty in the case of wikis, these tools are taken up in very different ways in different environments, and while wikis pass from builders through the Internet into schools and homes in high income neighborhoods, for a wide variety of reasons--technological, curricular, pedagogical, and so forth--wikis aren't taken up to the same degree in low income neighborhoods.

OER blocked

In other words, the end result of an explosion of freely available OER and education technology resources could be to widen the opportunity gaps between wealthy and poor students.

So if we think that's a problem, then we should not depend on the Internet to be a democratizing, equalizing platform for distributing learning tools and platforms. We need to think very carefully about how we can design learning tools and distribution pathways that serve students with the greatest needs.

Please follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for more about my work, visit EdTechResearcher.org


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