Susan Pinker’s pondering of whether students can have too much tech (“A computer for every student? It’s backfiring,” Feb. 2) tosses a low, slow ball to any parent. Clearly, anyone can have too much tech.
We take issue, however, with overgeneralizing the findings from the Vigdor and Ladd (2010) study — that providing one-to-one digital access to learners exacerbates, rather than decreases, the achievement gap. Our experience of intentionally designed one-to-one programs demonstrates that providing computer access to all students can reduce the achievement gap, improve all students’ performance and increase student and teacher efficacy in general.
We have evidence from various projects around the Twin Cities that low-income and racially diverse students achieve improved results when given the same (increased) digital access commonly afforded white and/or economically privileged students. This is especially true when teachers individualize instruction so that students have access to learning at the appropriate level and when parents are actively involved.
Pinker does acknowledge that exceptional teachers may inspire improved outcomes from the new teaching strategies made possible when every child has access to online resources both in and out of school. Minnesota is lucky to have a sizable percentage of high-quality teachers; many have learned that it takes district leadership to provide the structured environment for a constructive transition to one-to-one teaching and learning.
It also seems worth noting that although it’s only 10 years since Vigdor and Ladd gathered their extensive data (2000-2005), a tectonic shift has taken place in the use of digital tools among young people. We find that almost all students in the Twin Cities are accessing digital media outside of school — but low-income students are often limited to access via cellular phones not as easily conducive to academic work.
Disparities in technology use between higher- and lower-income schools persist as well. A 2012 survey of 2,400 middle- and high-school students by the Pew Research Center found that lower-income schools are more likely to employ filters that block access to certain sites and have rules limiting the use of phones. Eighty-four percent of all teachers in the survey perceived a widening gap between lower- and upper-income schools in terms of access to and use of technology.
Schools with the most effective one-to-one implementation recognize that the teacher is still the most important influence in any classroom. Unfortunately, not all schools are following identified best practices, and the benefits of increasing technology access in some settings may be shallow, or worse, as noted by Pinker. This is not a new issue. Whenever schools adopt curricular resources (no matter how amazing) but neglect faculty development and implementation support, student gains will be limited.
We encourage parents, students, teachers and administrators to consider the critical importance of:
• Ongoing, in-depth professional development for teachers transitioning to one-to-one.
• Attention to infrastructure needs ahead of implementation (e.g. Wi-Fi, tech support).
• Involvement and education of parents at each stage of implementation.
• Adoption of a shared learning management system to create a backbone for student/parent/teacher interaction that is accessible to all.
• Student development around the ethics, responsibilities and potential of digital access.
What all students continue to need is professional guidance on the following: how to use technology to improve their understanding of the world (beyond their personal interests and the latest YouTube fad); how to use digital tools to build opportunities and open doors for their future, and how to create a world in which they want to be engaged — both digitally and in person.
Teachers confident in these attributes in themselves and armed with the right repertoire of digital tools, professional competencies and administrative supports will be better able to attend successfully to the needs of racially and economically marginalized students and to ensure that all can succeed in what appears likely to be a highly digital future.
Siri Anderson is director for online learning at St. Catherine University. Sean Beaverson is secondary instructional technology coordinator, Bloomington Public Schools. Toni Schwartz is science coordinator and STEM co-coordinator, Hopkins Public Schools. This article was prepared in consultation with Richard Beach, professor emeritus of English education, University of Minnesota; David Boxer, director of information support services, the Blake School; Dave Eisenmann, director of instructional technology and media services, Minnetonka Public Schools; Mark Garrison, director of technology, White Bear Lake Area Schools, and Maelene Krig, technology integration specialist, the Blake School.