Techquity: Why access is only one part of achieving edtech success

Acclaimed education leader Ken Shelton says schools must empower and listen to all students.

Techquity (d): Merging the effective use of educational technology with both culturally responsive and culturally relevant learning experiences to support student development of essential skills.

Educator, consultant and speaker Ken Shelton says there is far more to achieving equitable outcomes for students than simply providing them access to technology, devices and apps, although that is still very important. The other piece, which he defines above as “techquity,” is that what they are learning must be immersive, inclusive and culturally applicable.

Speaking at the Future of Education Technology Conference in January, Shelton delivered a raft of key messages aimed at K-12 school leaders and technologists on the continuing emergence of edtech and the role they play in delivering it responsibly, equitably and empathetically.

Shelton said academic leaders and educators should be critically evaluating what resources they are providing since the digital divide still hasn’t been bridged for millions of learners and offering more professional development opportunities to educators to enhance the experience for all students. They also must understand and listen to the populations they serve.

“Not every student comes in with the same background, the same experience and information and the same knowledge, nor do they learn at the same pace,” Shelton said. “When you work in education, there’s a lot of focus on pedagogy and outcomes. When it comes to learning, what experience do you want students to have?”

Shelton said because some districts are so focused on the technology piece, they often overlook that second part, which is equity. It is only when both are achieved—when learners are embraced regardless of differences and thoughts—that leaders can say they’ve reached their goals. And that includes everyday class discussions and assignments, not just the technology piece.

“Every learner should be able to say, I felt seen, I felt heard and I felt loved,” Shelton said. “Because of that, I realized my full potential. I was afforded the right conditions, the resources and the supports to realize my full potential. And I now have options. Sadly, too many students [say], ‘I felt invisible. I felt dismissed. I felt marginalized. And I had to endure school.’”

Reaching students personally

Shelton shared several personal stories, from both his time as an educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District and as a young student facing classroom barriers—from homework to tardiness, to extra assessments and seating charts that were divisive and gave some students favoritism simply because they had better access, more time and were afforded more understanding from instructors.

A technology teacher mostly at the middle school level at LA Unified, he recognized challenges students faced in their personal lives and also what made them unique. So even with the proliferation of tech and access, he said, other variables must be factored in. He had a color-coding system to help students self-identify when they were not feeling their best, or “red”.

“I knew which students had parents who were in the middle of the divorce. I knew which students had older or younger siblings that had recently been incarcerated or murdered. I knew which students live in areas within the boundaries of the school of which there was a high probability that the police helicopter would be circling above their apartment building an average of two or three nights per week from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.,” Shelton said. “My default response is not going to be, ‘You need to wake up.’ It’s going to be, ‘I know why you’re tired, what can I do? I’m not going to just shuffle you off to an administrator. I will be there with you side by side.’”

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That personal touch is just one part of the techquity equation, and it goes beyond access. “What matters the most in our learning environment is the culture that we create is far greater than how much technology you have, or the pedagogical strategies of the educators in the classrooms,” Shelton said. “How do we foster new ideas, new ways of thinking to achieve that end result?”

Two of the biggest barriers he sees are policing student voice and making every assignment a competition.

“Are your learning environments cooperative or competitive? Because you can’t have both,” he said. “Why would I want you to collaborate with someone I have to compete against? When it comes to equity and accessibility, we want our learning environments to be cooperative. The minute you make a learning environment competitive, you are rewarding those that have access to things that give them a competitive advantage at the expense of those that don’t. It’s not who crosses the finish line first, it’s that we all cross the finish line.”

Shelton said social-emotional programs, for example, often focus on the individuals and fail to consider the group as a whole.

“No SEL program is sustainable or effective if it doesn’t have the following three conditions: professional growth for anti-bias and anti-racism, resource support for the adults (how many SEL programs don’t even look at the social well-being of the adults), and a pathway for a student’s voice.” he said. “When it comes to the use of technology, I would encourage you to look at tech not as a luxury and a bunch of apps. But how do those apps or the platforms’ use of technology ensure the opportunity to access that is aligned with being culturally responsive, culturally relevant, and supports the development of essential skills for learners?”

Quoting Maya Angelou, he said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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