Will Free Benefit the Rich?

Today I have a video op-ed up on the Harvard Graduate School of Education website, where I address some of my concerns about the role of education technology in expanding educational inequalities. Here’s the video, and I’ll expand on my concerns below:

Basically, I think there are two visions for free and Open educational resources and technology, that can be summarized by these two figure:

Two Scenarios of Education Technology and Equity

In the left figure, we have the “closing gaps” vision. In this vision, everyone benefits from new educational technologies, but low-income students disproportionately benefit. The hope here is that as the ecology of education is flooded with new free and nearly free resources, low-income students will have access to resources previously only available to students in schools in affluent places. Take Khan Academy as an example. It’s possible that students in wealthy schools have access to great instructors and plenty of content resources, so Khan Academy is just one more tool in their kit which only offers a minor benefit to these students. But maybe students in schools serving low-income kids have more novice teachers and fewer content and instructional resources, so Khan Academy with it’s free material represents a major boon for these learners. This is a hypothetical scenario of how Khan Academy might disproportionately benefit low-income students.
In the right figure, we have the “rising tide” vision. In this model, everyone still benefits, but now the wealthy disproportionately benefit. From a John Rawls framework, this is still a good thing–everyone is better off than before–but the opportunity gap between wealthy and poor has expanded. Consider Khan Academy again. Maybe teachers in wealthy schools–with fewer students per teacher, more students passing tests, more prep periods, fewer classes to teacher, more curriculum support, more IT support, etc.–are better able to use Khan Academy videos not just to push content to students, but to reimagine pedagogical models. These teachers use the content to flip the classroom, differentiate and personalize instruction, release students from seat time requirements, etc. Any of these new models are possible because teachers can assume that every kid has reliable broadband internet access at home and on their mobile device. By contrast, maybe teachers working in schools serving low income students simply can’t make as much use of the Khan Academy videos because they lack the planning time, broadband access, etc. In this model, schools with greater fiscal and human resources have more capacity to take advantage of even free and open resources.
This second model is actually quite troubling in its implications. If this model is generally true, then virtually every education technology initiative which does not specifically target the needs of particular populations will disproportionately benefit the wealthy, even if the materials are free.
We don’t necessarily have to sit around and guess which model is true, we can use research to answer these questions empirically. This is what I have tried to do with my research with wikis. My assessment of our findings is that in the case of wikis, the second scenario is certainly true. Wikis are more likely to be created in wealthier schools, more likely to persist longer, and more likely to create opportunities for students to develop 21st century skills. Even within schools, wikis are more likely to be used with AP and honors tracked students (who in turn are more likely to be affluent) than with lower tracked students. I don’t think low-income students are harmed by the innovation of wikis, and I think there are plenty of instances where low-income students have had great opportunities with wikis to work collaboratively and create multimedia publications of their understanding. But I am also very confident that wealthy students have benefited much more from these innovations. (This research is forthcoming in Educational Researcher this January, a pre-print paper is in my publications link above.)
Of course, research about wikis doesn’t answer every question about these two models of ed tech and inequality. Are blogs any different than wikis? Possibly, though I can’t imagine why. Are Khan Academy videos different? Possibly, although again, it’s not clear why they would be. But these are empirical questions that we can answer with research.
So if education technology does disproportionately benefit the affluent, what should we do about it? Let me offer three suggestions for teachers, developers and funders.
For teachers, the orientation towards inequality with technology is very important. Educators need to make a commitment to using social technologies with all their students, not just honors and AP students. Many teachers working with at-risk youth are concerned about inequities with technology access within their classrooms, but urban school teachers need to be more concerned with inequities between schools. We need to ensure that urban and rural students have the same opportunities as their suburban peers. We can’t make it so no students in a class have a tech-rich learning experience because some students have difficulty with access. That’s fair within a classroom, but not within a society.
Technologists, designers and researchers need to develop technology initiatives that specifically target the neediest students. TechGoesHome is a fabulous program that provides netbooks and internet connections to students, along with computer training for the entire family. The Glitch Game Testers in Atlanta, have built a program that hires African-American male students as game testers, teaches them the AP Computer Science curriculum, and has an incredible placement rate in not only getting these kids into college, but into engineering and CS majors. Bootstrap is a terrific program that teachers students to program their own video games, developing algebra and computer science skills at the same time. . The Leadership Public Schools use CK-12 Flexbooks to develop content for math and science courses that build literacy skills while teaching domain knowledge. These programs are much more likely to benefit the students who most need our support and investment.
Finally, the big foundations supporting ed tech innovations: NSF, Gates, Hewlett, and MacArthur need to be sure to focus a considerable part of their funding streams on students who most need support. A terrific example of this are the Gates/Hewlett Next Generation Learning grants, which target specific kids in specific high-risk courses. I’m sure down the line that all students will benefit from these kinds of experiments, but if we start by focusing on the kids with the most needs, then we’re more likely to create a scenario where education technology is vehicle for meliorating rather than exacerbating educational opportunity gaps.
So those are some of my thoughts on the topic… obviously there is much more to say. If you are interested, I will be giving a Berkman Luncheon talk on the topic this January: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2012/01/reich. If you have questions or reactions, please leave me a comment!