The Intersection of Technology and Educational Equity—Before, During, and After the Pandemic

Teacher and student working with iPads

While technology and education came to the forefront in the pandemic, schools have long used technology to enhance teaching and learning. Technology has the potential to close achievement gaps but also exacerbate disparities. At the beginning of the pandemic, Michael Garet, vice president and institute fellow, led experts from across AIR to launch the National Survey of Public Education’s Response to COVID-19. This project was designed to better understand what was going on in our nation’s districts and schools and stimulate conversations with policy makers about needed supports. We spoke with him and Tracy Gray, managing director, AIR Equity Initiative and the project director for the 2017 National Education Technology Plan, about equity, technology, and the future of education.

Q: How do you define equity in education as it relates to technology? What are the areas where inequities most often exist? How does technology come into play?

Hear more from Michael Garet and others on educational equity. Join our May 25th roundtable event on helping all students thrive beyond the pandemic.

Gray: The 2017 National Education Technology Plan (NETP) offers a good starting point to define equity in education. The Plan refers to increasing access to educational opportunities to close achievement gaps and removing barriers faced by students (definition available here). It focuses on using technology to transform teaching and learning with the goal of providing greater access to high-quality learning experiences for all students. This transformation is possible only if funders and educators recognize that the hardware and software require a comprehensive infrastructure that includes leadership, ongoing professional development, digital learning content, and technical support. To that end, experts have underscored the importance of investing in professional development around its use, as well as quality content developed specifically for online learning.

AIR’s extensive work with school districts nationwide, including the NETP, indicates that technology really can make a difference in learning when students have an adult—a teacher, a parent, or an aide—who understands the power of the tools and supports. In a way, it’s like having books in the home: the mere presence of books is not the same as having an adult or a sibling to read to the student, to create that interactive quality. Many students use digital tools to complete the same academic exercises they used to complete on paper, like worksheets and multiple-choice tests. Others maximize the capacity of the digital tools through collaborative science experiments or project learning exchanges with students within or across districts. This is known as the digital use divide.

Garet: Another aspect of equity concerns what might be called “voice.” Are students and their families able to express their goals, their concerns, and their experiences to teachers and school leaders? Equity is not just making technology accessible, but also eliciting student and family perspectives on its use.

Furthermore, there are multiple dimensions of equity. For example, students with disabilities may benefit from certain uses of technology, while English language learners may benefit from others. The issues may differ for students living in poverty; students living in rural settings; and students who are engaged in different kinds of programs—for example, vocational training. All of these groups have different challenges and issues of equity may play out in different ways for them.

Q: Technology can help alleviate disparities, but it isn’t a panacea. What do people need to understand about the limits of technology in our education system?

Gray: The districts that were well-resourced prior to the pandemic—those that had established, ongoing professional development programs that engaged teachers and parents, coupled with access to quality interactive tools, content and the hardware and software—were able to marshal those resources quickly. Districts that did not have the infrastructure in place had to scramble during the pandemic, leaving teachers to fend for themselves and their students.

To address the question of equity and access, some districts set a goal of getting a laptop in every home. They soon realized that a laptop in every home was only the first step. For example, if a family had two or three children working simultaneously, a single laptop was insufficient. Likewise, with parents often working from home alongside their children, there was often a strain on the internet connectivity, and sometimes students didn’t have enough bandwidth to pull down their assignments from the web.  

Garet: The PERC survey showed that, on average, students in more advantaged districts received more instructional time. But there was also a remarkable amount of variation, based on state policy, the different capacities of different districts, and the amount of professional development and infrastructure-building that had taken place prior to the pandemic.

Q: Why is professional development around these technology tools important?

The goal isn’t just to use technology; it’s to improve equitable outcomes for students.

- Michael Garet

Garet: I’m reminded of a study we did on reading education a while back. We chose schools that had adopted curricula that were supportive of good reading instruction. But we discovered that, though schools had adopted the curricula, some had never unpacked—literally—the full set of material. In some schools, materials were sitting in a closet somewhere, unbeknownst to the teachers.

You could ask similar questions about technology resources. Schools may have officially adopted them, but was the required software fully installed? Were the computers updated to use adopted programs?

Gray: It all comes back to strategic technology planning investment—budgeting for the total cost of ownership. The district buys the technology and software, and they budget for those initial costs. But they also need to budget for the necessary updates and licenses, replacement devices, security systems, and other key elements of an IT infrastructure. Teachers don’t have the time or the expertise to try to make the technology work for themselves and all their students. In addition, because technology is also constantly evolving, it requires more than a one-time training.

We’ve found that teachers benefit when they’re able to share their knowledge with one another, across schools and districts—discussing specific examples of how they used the tools, what worked, for which students, under what conditions.

Q: Technology in education is here to stay. What are the challenges for schools, teachers, and districts in implementing future technology needs? What supports are available to education leaders as they navigate these needs?

Garet: The pandemic forced more use of certain kinds of technology, including Zoom, adaptive learning platforms, learning management systems, and so on. What we don’t know is whether these uses will be sustained, or how well they’ve been implemented. The goal isn’t just to use technology; it’s to improve equitable outcomes for students.

The technology is just a tool…its use must align with the needs of the students, the curriculum, and the teacher’s goals for learning.

- Tracy Gray

Gray: The technology is just a tool. If we dropped off a piano at every school in the country and came back six months later, we would find, at most, one or two Chopins or Bachs who would be able to play a sonata. How can students become great composers, with no one to train them and no one to tune the instruments? The same with technology—its use must align with the needs of the students, the curriculum, and the teacher’s goals for learning.

Garet: We need to implement technology in a way that honors the fact that we’re still learning about it. We also need to conduct the work in a way that allows us to track our progress. As we invest in technology programs, we should conduct experimental or descriptive studies, so we can understand how that investment is paying off for students. Technology actually facilitates evaluation, because it’s much easier to track student use and outcomes than print curricula. But we shouldn’t assume we know what works.