A Tale of Two Students

Tech Goes Home

Tomas and Jackson are both good students. They go to the same inner city school, participate in extracurricular activities, have involved and interested parents, and similarly challenging academic courses. Both are students in Mr. Mitchell’s History class. Mr. Mitchell is known as one of the best teachers in the school – pushing his students to dig deep, ask questions, seek primary sources, provide evidence of their thinking, and to meet or exceed his high expectations.

Every year, students in Mr. Mitchell’s class must write a five-page position paper. Students select an issue from a list he provides and they then have one week to complete the assignment. Both Tomas and Jackson are excited about the opportunity to show Mr. Mitchell all they have learned and to hopefully receive high grades for their effort.

Now imagine that Tomas has technology at home, while Jackson uses the computer at his local library for hardware and access. Tomas works diligently every night, researching, drafting, re-writing, communicating with peers about the project (via email and chat), and sharing his draft for feedback (via Google Docs). He finally prints out his final draft on Thursday night, ready to turn it in on Friday.

Alternatively, Jackson goes to the local library. He waits his turn in the queue for his 30-minutes of computer time. He gets as much done during his turn as he can, and then gets back in the queue. He has to stop his research after a few days in order to move on to the actual typing. He handwrites his draft while waiting in the queue for his turn.  He saves the document to a thumb drive and takes it to school early on Friday so he can use his guidance counselor’s printer to print it out.

Tomas and Jackson work equally hard, but cannot produce equally thorough responses.  Regardless of having significantly different opportunities and challenges, they are graded with the same rubric and Jackson never seems to achieve the same grades as Tomas.  How many Jacksons out there are labeled “underperforming” when, in fact, they just don’t have access to the necessary resources?

Those with [hardware and technology] access have more opportunities to learn, more opportunities to communicate, and are likely to have vastly different outcomes than their equally talented and equally motivated peers. I find this discrepancy unacceptable.

This story plays out every day in our schools. As mentioned in the commentary in Ed Week on 1/29/13, written by Helen Brunner ( Equal Internet Access is a Must Have ), opportunities must be ubiquitous at school and home for all K-12 students.  As Brunner writes, “…access to the Internet has become a need-to-have – not just a nice-to-have – when it comes to student success.”  In fact, in a recent survey , the Nellie Mae Education Foundation found that 41% of high school students feel unprepared to use technology in college or at work.

We, as educators, would never accept allowing only some of our students to have access to textbooks or seats in the classroom.  I would argue, however, that by not having equitable access to technology, we are doing just that. According to H. Brunner, “…more than half of American schools expect to adopt e-textbooks in the next two to three years.” Not to mention the ability to access the free support and teaching resources which are regularly used by those with access – Kahn Academy, MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses), and other OER (open education resources).

The availability of such free on-line resources seems to sadly do the opposite of leveling the playing field. Only those with hardware and technology can get access, thereby widening that existing gap. Those with access have more opportunities to learn, more opportunities to communicate, and are likely to have vastly different outcomes than their equally talented and equally motivated peers. I find this discrepancy unacceptable.

The time has come to ensure that we are providing every child with the opportunity to be successful. Hardware and access are no longer optional for any of our children. For the many Jacksons who are currently in our schools, we must commit to finding a solution.

Deb Socia is chair of Open Air Boston and Exective Director of Tech Goes Home , a program that has helped tens of thousands of Boston residents bridge the digital divide. She has been involved in education, primarily in middle schools, since the early 1980s. Deb was the founding principal of the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, MA, served as a Dean of Curriculum and Instruction, a central office Curriculum Coordinator, an administrator in a residential treatment center and the Program Director for the Coalition of Essential Schools. Most of her experience as an educator, however, has been as a mathematics teacher for 7th and 8th graders.