Why Should We Talk More about Equity within EdTech

Hello! Welcome to this series of blog posts concerning edtech and equity. A brief introduction about myself: I am Vincent Liu, a rising junior at Duke University majoring in Computer Science. I was an EdSurge Independent Fellow in the Fall of 2018, and I worked part-time as a Project Assistant for Duke Learning Innovation. This summer, I am honored to join LearnLaunch as an intern to explore how digital technologies can address inequities in education by advancing quality, access, and affordability.

The purpose of this project is to develop an article series with the aim of raising awareness, analyzing the status quo, and providing constructive suggestions on equity issues in the context of the digital revolution. I will investigate the relationship between digital technologies adopted in K-12 education and their effectiveness as well as potential in addressing equity issues. In this way, educators and policymakers will be able to refer to this series and additionally selected resources in order to better integrate technology in the education sector with the aim of ameliorating inequity issues.

In recent years, we have seen significant progress in novel technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality (VR), robotics, and blockchain. These technologies are gradually penetrating the education industry. In the future, these advancements in technology will shape the way we live, work, and learn. For example, a Chinese company already uses AI to evaluate students’ learning by analyzing their facial expressions in the classroom. A blockchain university, Woolf University, relies on algorithms to decentralize university systems, with a focus on reducing their administrative burden. AR/VR technologies enable students to use headsets to learn more immersively. However, with the integration of novel technologies in education, how much progress have we made in genuinely making education better for everyone?

It is hard to define what is better——the word in itself holds inherent subjectivity and therefore lends itself to ambiguity. It could mean better accessibility to content, increasingly effective learning methods, or more personalized/individualized support from intelligent machines. And while technology delivers many benefits to some people, it usually comes with its own set of shortcomings for others. However, if we do not attempt to use these new, cutting-edge technologies to facilitate changes in education, then education itself will not evolve and thus reform in necessary ways. After all, there is always room for improvement.

Attempting to improve education using technology raises concerns for some people, including my friend Caroline Lai. Caroline is currently a Sequoia Fellow and worked at Northern Light, a venture capital firm that has invested in many big edtech names, such as VIPKID. Coming from an anthropology background, she is concerned that many investors apply the same investment philosophy to consumer internet products and education, focusing on numbers that bring profits and make business plan look better rather than the educational quality.

My observation corresponds to her comment about the edtech industry. Let’s take a look at the largest edtech market in the world——China, whose venture capital investment in the edtech market more than doubled from 2.3 billion dollars to 5.2 billion dollars in just one year between 2017 and 2018. Companies such as TAL Education and Songshu AI are striving to build intelligent tutoring systems (ITS) that will reduce the burden of individualized education for students and teachers. Such a concept helps raise lots of funds from both investors and shareholders, but these technologies have not been proven to benefit the general public with noticeable improvements in learning. Amid the hype for technology, we tend to put less emphasis on the effectiveness of edtech products and how they are addressing major issues in education. Under such circumstances, we need to keep in mind, that novel technologies can only be the catalyst but do not constitute the panacea in improving education.

One major issue in education, with which society is constantly struggling, is inequity. If we focus too much on developing advanced technology without considering equity, then the equity gap can steadily or possibly exponentially grow wider. New forms of education with innovative pedagogies and advanced technologies usually are accompanied by high costs and, therefore, are exclusive to a small group of privileged students in richer communities. In contrast, there are many students who simply do not have access to such new technologies. As the ACT Center for Equity in Learning suggests, racial/ethnic, income-based, and geographical disparities still persist in technology access. According to its research on Digital Divide, about 19% of students from “underserved” backgrounds (those who are low-income, first-generation in college, or minority) have access to only one digital device at home. Furthermore, in terms of racial disparities by 2050 the white population is estimated to make up less than half of the US population. To prepare for the growing population of current minorities, we must address the existing equity gaps through policy change, technological innovation, and creative pedagogy. Otherwise, new education technologies will hardly yield the benefits promised by their creators on the projected scale.

Nellie Mae Education Foundation has been a leader in addressing equity in education. In recent years, it has dedicated a lot of time and effort to assess racial equity. The goal of the organization is to ensure that by 2030, 80% of New England learners will be prepared for college and a future career. The president of Nellie Mae hopes that the organization will be able to “bring down that filter of racial equity” on the work they are doing, rather than simply studying disparities as they concern race and equity. Race, a social construct, is unfortunately correlated with socioeconomic status, which is, in turn, correlated with access to technology and resources. To address the inequity issues in society, we cannot spare any effort in identifying structural disadvantages and working towards their minimization. For instance, a broad goal could constitute improving accessibility of technology for people who do not have sufficient resources. However, focusing on simply providing the means might not achieve the greater goal of minimizing inequity. In fact, it may prove to have the opposite consequences in upholding structural barriers engineered by our current society. 

Within the edtech industry, many organizations have started changing their focus to improving equity. For example, LearnLaunch, the leading education technology innovation hub in Boston, plans to emphasize edtech and equity issues in the 2020 LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference, which will welcome more than 1,500 individuals from various professional disciplines, including policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs, education professionals among others. Nat Seelen, the Executive Producer and Director of Marketing at LearnLaunch, spoke about this issue with me in depth. He is primarily concerned about the resource and opportunity gaps between suburban and urban schools, especially pertaining to students of color. He believes that each student has the potential to succeed, but external factors such as the lack of resources usually create and uphold a glass ceiling, which forbids them from reaching upper echelons despite being equally smart.

Immersed in the world of technology constantly feeling its effects, we have oftentimes become oblivious to the changes technology imposes daily on society. On the one hand, technology helps us see a larger world, encourages interconnectivity, and permits a greater reach in society. On the other hand, technology, in the process of transforming education, might also blind us from seeing the fundamentals of education as we are pushed to focus on the purely digital aspects and qualitative results void of any human qualities. After all, education is about humans, not machines. Therefore, when we think of edtech, we should think more about how the digital realm relates to issues of humanity, such as inequity, rather than merely the extent of technological advancement and innovation.

In my next blog entry, I will discuss the obstacles in promoting equity using edtech. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

(Notes: The blog post constitutes my own opinions and, thus, does not represent LearnLaunch. Additionally, I would like to give credit to Mandana Vakil, my fellow intern, and Nat Seelen for giving me suggestions on this post)