By Mica Pollock, Kim Douillard, Mike Salamanca and Barb Montfort
On January 28, 14 teachers crowded into the UC San Diego Faculty Club to ask a key question. Which uses of technology in schools help create equity, and which don’t?
“Smart Tech Use for Equity” is a spring 2015 series for local educators led by the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) and UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence (CREATE), with funding from the National Writing Project and Teaching Tolerance of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The day’s events were led by the San Diego Area Writing Project Director Kim Douillard; Director of Education Services at South Bay Unified School District and SDAWP Teacher Consultant Barb Monfort; and Madison High School math teacher Mike Salamanca, all supported by CREATE Director and UC San Diego Education Studies Professor Mica Pollock. Participants were science teachers, math teachers, special education teachers, and teachers of English learners, as well as English teachers, each exploring tech use with their low-income school populations from elementary through high school. Future efforts hope to stretch to include more teachers across the region.
“You were all recommended to us by somebody for your willingness to dive in and engage in issues of equity, and for your willingness to explore,” Douillard told the group. “We see educators as equity designers,” Pollock added. “And we want to enter the conversation about tech use through the equity door.”
A frame from Pollock then set the stage, defining “equity” effort as pursuing “the full human talent development of every young person and all groups of young people.”
“In the tech realm, ‘equity’ might most obviously equal tech access itself,” Pollock began. “But way beyond that, is the use of tech actually supporting student learning, success, and well being?” she added. “When is a use of technology really better than a pencil?” Douillard added.
“We want to invite tough questions,” Pollock continued. “IS it always enhancing a classroom to ‘add tech’ to it? IS putting kids on iPads in preschool better than playing with oatmeal or water? Does the tech we use matter, or just look cool? And how do we know if it’s actually having benefits? What are the indicators or evidence of pros and cons? We want to get into a habit of asking equity oriented questions about our tech use. We want to be people who are always evaluating the equity implications of tech use and designing toward ‘smart tech use’ with equity in mind.”
Smart vs. “Less Smart” Tech Use
Then the group brainstormed examples of “smart” and “not so smart tech use” they’d seen in action. Less “smart” uses included “using a promethean board as just a regular whiteboard,” “sticking all kids on an app where they are just having fun but not rigorously learning,” assuming that “kids online all alone” was a good thing “rather than also learning to talk and be social,” or asking students to “make fun videos” about school projects without weighing the implications for student learning.
Other examples included replacing a hands-on lab activity with an online lab activity in high school science just for expediency, and “kids in class looking at an online textbook that is really just still a textbook — it just happens to be online and isn’t adding anything.” Several mentioned the difficulty of “navigating the road of selecting effective technology” because “there are so many options of technologies to use,” with too few evaluating the consequences for students as a barometer.
Smart Tech co-leader Mike Salamanca, above, presented tech use examples he designed and piloted at Innovation Middle School, inviting analysis of the pros and cons for students of every use of technology in the project.
Barb Montfort shared an introduction to principles and strategies of action research, preparing teachers to define a use of tech they wanted to explore and to consider evidence they’d need to collect to make a case for its pros and cons.
Visions for “smarter tech use” shared over the day included tech used “only as needed,” with “personalized” classrooms where some students were working on materials in person, while others used tech for particular reasons; using tech to support the “meaningful exploration” expected by the Common Core State Standards, not just “glitzy apps,” to support students in “persevering through problems” and “using appropriate academic language,” simple tech uses that could support students to talk through “spicy” math problems, like using Skype to support 3rd and 8th graders to discuss core math concepts; or “actually learning how to use equation editors on Excel to calculate the prices of the plants going into a garden.”
Simple Tech Solutions for Equity Learning
Participants noted that often, it was very simple uses of tech that got students to talk, think, write and create that seemed most likely to create “equity” in schools, not “glitzy apps” that often made students more passive consumers of information.
One middle school science teacher from Sweetwater had just supported her English learners to use a simple video tool (Explaineverything) to talk through their understanding of a science lab investigation using the laws of physics. She described being “blown away” by how much students understood and applied a concept that they had not been able to describe using a traditional lab notebook. So, she planned to try using the video tool again in a more extended pilot. She’d invite students to talk through their understanding in English and then transcribe their words into written English, to see if they gained skill with the written academic language of science as well.
Others planned to test simple social networks or Google Docs to see if young people might create community offline that would link to in-class discussion. One teacher planned to extend her use of blogging to support young people’s writing. Another wanted to experiment with how video might help math students record and share their math talk in small groups, to improve their skills in explanation and analysis. And still other teachers wanted to explore more systematically the pros and cons of online vs. in-person science labs for supporting student engagement in science.
Sharing Tech Use Results
Fourteen teachers from across the southern part of San Diego county are participating in this initial Smart Tech Use for Equity series. Each teacher will explore an example of tech use with equity in mind, and create a product sharing their learning with next teachers. “As educators that care, we probably do this sort of testing all the time – this is formalizing this a little bit and ensuring that we share it,” Monfort said.
Participants left with hopes and dreams for their students assembled in a “wall” at the Faculty Club. Hopes included “students getting opportunity despite a label,” “making sure that all students leave classrooms with the skills they need to succeed,” “developing effective ways for students to use new 1-1 computers and be a model for other teachers,” “students leaving 12th grade as confident collaborators and creative thinkers,” and helping students “to be curious, contribute to community, and get excited” and ”engage in questioning, reasoning, making contributions.”
“I want to see tech as a tool – not the end but a bridge,” one teacher said, while another argued for “Internet access as a right not a privilege.” Teachers left excited to move beyond working “in isolation,” with new colleagues ready to discuss the equity implications of technology.
As one participant tweeted afterwards,