Technology = Equality? Not Automatically

The opening debate June 7th saw Katherine and Bob faceoff against Ian and Ainsley on the topic, “Technology Creates Equity in Society”. Taking the stance of “Agree”, Katherine and Bob referenced a recent development in the delivery of health care in Saskatchewan: Robots! At first mention, this sounds rather shocking, but as I read the article,   5 ways robots are delivering health care in Saskatchewan, I began to develop an appreciation for how this technology has the potential to create “equity” in the delivery of health services. Currently there are 11 medical robots in Saskatchewan – more than anywhere else in Canada, and the “Doctor in a Box” devices allow for a different way for doctors to deliver health care.

Source:  https://pigflaps.wordpress.com/tag/robot/
Source: https://pigflaps.wordpress.com/tag/robot/

Why is this needed, and how does this create equity? Well, many patients live in remote northern areas with limited access to specialized health care. These devices allow doctors to connect diagnostic equipment for rapid assessment during emergency transport, or to prevent the need for costly ambulance or airlift of patients to larger centers by allowing doctors to diagnose medical concerns remotely. Robotic house calls allow for interviews to take place in a patient’s home, cutting down on doctor travel time, and greatly increasing the number of patients which can be served each day.   Extended globally in humanitarian efforts, these devices promise opportunities for people in remote communities to connect with medical specialist they would not normally be able to access. Though arguably not “equal” to a face-to-face doctor visit, these devices aim to create equity by providing access to services which would not otherwise be available.

From an education perspective, the group discussed their thoughts on open education classes and suggested that the traditional university model is not providing people with sufficient value. In her TedTalk, What We’re Learning From Online Education,   Daphne Koller argues that education, and specifically quality education, is not accessible in all parts of the world. Even in North America where quality, higher education programs do exist, it may not be within reach of the vast majority of people. Regardless, she feels courses having the best content, learning from the best instructors, receiving personalized lectures, peer grading, timely feedback, and individual practice should be offerings for all people. Open education platforms such as Kahn Academy, Coursera, and MOOCs stretch the “one size fits all” model of education and are one way to address the equity issue in education. (Additional information regarding MOOCs can be found in Alec Couros’ post, Developing a Framework for Teaching Open Courses).

In their opening video, Ian and Ainsley urged the audience that technology does not provide for equity in society. They defined equity as everyone getting what they need in order to be successful. This is not something that naturally occurs in society. It does not promote fairness in education for all members of society. In the blog post, Ed Tech’s Inequalities by Audrey Watters, Audrey contends that new technologies actually extend the advantages of the already advantaged (The Digital Matthew Effect). Audrey cites critic Evgeny Morozov term “techno-solutionism” as the simplification of complex societal problems into apps and algorithms. She argues that MOOCs cannot solve the opportunity gap because those without a college or high school degree are less likely to have adequate internet access. She declares, we cannot confuse access with equity, because access does not look the same for different socioeconomic groups. It is not good enough to ask, “does a students have access to technology?” We must ask ourselves, “what does that access look like?” Is it a cellphone with limited data, or an expensive laptop connected to a high-speed network? Audrey proposes that education technology does not confront systemic inequalities within the education system. The team’s closing video highlighted the ways in which technology fails to level the playing field for students. It seems much more will need to be done if the spirit of the popular equity vs equality meme is to be realized.

Photo Credit: Craig Froehle
Photo Credit: Craig Froehle

This certainly appears to be the experience of several of my classmates.   Nicole Putz recognizes that “many of our students are coming to school without having their basic human needs met at home which undermines them as learners and puts them at disadvantages when accessing any sort of education, with or without technology”.   Kelsie makes an interesting comparison of technology and a hammer. She states, “Technology is a tool. It does not solve problems by itself. It’s like expecting a hammer to build a house by itself and being dumbfounded when it does not”. Teachers require support and training if these tools are too be used effectively. As was discussed earlier in the semester, the TPACK Model and the SAMR Model are two good starting points. But that is not enough. As Kyle Dumont states, “The parents have a role within this as well. They will need to be involved in their child’s learning, they need to take a proactive approach, especially when the tech tool is a specific one designed for assistance with a diagnosis, or specialized learning plan put in place for the individual. The parents then need to also be educated on how the tool works, and what its capacities/limitations are.”

And finally, Tayler utters as statement I am sure many teachers (and parents) can relate to: “Fair is not always equal”. It would be equal to provide each school with “x” numbers of laptops as part of a computer upgrade, but would that be fair? Should a school of 600 receive the same number of devices as a school of 200? Even if you break these numbers down into an “equal” ratio, do each of these schools require the same technology upgrades to consider the upgrade to be fair? Physical constraints within the building (multiple floors, thick brick walls, etc.) may deem necessary additional devices which change this ratio. Is this equal? No, but if it allows students the access and opportunity to use technology as provided in other schools, it is fair.

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5 thoughts on “Technology = Equality? Not Automatically

  1. Great post, Dean! Your summary of the debate was concise but included all the important elements! I appreciate how you included that picture from Craig Froehle. I love that picture; it is printed out and up in my classroom. I feel that students sometimes don’t understand the difference between fair and equal, and using examples like that picture really help them visualize what it means. I always use the example of glasses, too. If it were equal, everyone would have to wear glasses, or nobody would. Whereas fair means some get to wear glasses because they need them, while others don’t. I like that you finish off with perhaps the technology ratios are not equal, but they may be fair. It something to consider, of course!

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    1. I like your comparison to glasses. I will have to keep that example in mind for future reference. It reminds me of an experience my wife is currently having with her grade 1 and 2 students. Some of her students benefit from the use of “fidgets”, standing desks, etc. She unfortunately does not have the resources to provide all of her students with these aids. It can be difficult to convince a 7 year-old that they do not need the same wiggle seat to help them concentrate that their neighbor beside them is using!

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      1. I have to commend the teachers in my school leading up grade 5/6. I have fidgets rocking chairs, alternate seating areas, and stools in my room. My students understand that these are to support learning and when I say fair doesn’t mean equal, my student’s get it! Stephanie posted a great picture this week of animals. I think I am going to use this in my room as well as an example when students need the reminder.

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  2. Good points Dean. I’m of the same opinion that learning needs to be individualized and each child’s needs will be very different. Tech can’t be a silver bullet to solve all our issues. If used to support individual leaning needs, it can be a powerful tool.

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  3. Technology can be an effective tool to close the gaps “for some”. But like Kelsie stated it is just one tool that with others can be very effective. Technology alone is useless unless we have proper trained people with the willingness to share with others on how it can enhance our lives.

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