Digital equity

Darcie is out of town this week, so I’m doing a bit more than usual to take care of the girls (with the invaluable help of Darcie’s parents). This means that rather than staying at my place after my 10am-8:45pm Wednesday teaching marathon, I went to Darcie’s apartment–and encountered the Wednesday-night math homework that I normally miss. This isn’t going to be a math post–I can multiply numbers, and there were only five problems to work on.

However. The sheet also had QR codes that students were supposed to scan to check their answers (incidentally:


I really do enjoy things like this, and for the above you can thank this doohickey.)

I was too tired Wednesday night to get really worked up about this, and maybe I’m insane for getting around to angst by Thursday morning, but this is 3rd-grade math homework. Are we really expecting kids to have access to a QR reader? Maybe we’re expecting parents to all have smartphones that they let their kids use? Or smartphones at all? Isn’t this simply perpetuating educational inequalities that already disproportionately disadvantage kids from certain socioeconomic backgrounds? If it’s classroom work, and there are iPads or whatever for kids to use, that’s fine, but as homework I worry this adds an element that all these kids won’t have equal access to.

And another thing: what value does this actually add? Sure, QR codes aren’t uncommon, and they have their uses, but I don’t see how this helps anyone learn math, or how QR-code-scanner-use is a relevant skill for a 9-year old. I use the things for boarding passes when I travel, and now I have one sending unsuspecting/irresponsible scanners to my website; you can get by without knowing what to do with the things, and by “get by” I mean “experience no real change in your quality of life.” At least using a calculator (slide-rule? Abacus?!) to check your answers requires you to think about what you’re doing, and use a device people frequently encounter in either physical or software form, instead of just pointing a camera phone at a code and seeing a number pop up in response.

Maybe the intent is simply to give students something kind of fun to play with, something interactive, and maybe there is value in that. Personally, I don’t think this particular approach is really all that fun or interactive (especially since I won’t hand the iPhone over for her to use herself), but maybe that was the intent. But frankly, this seems about as passive a way of checking an answer as I can think of, and I tend to think that getting it wrong wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

Whatever the case with the QR reader and 3rd-grade math homework, I do think this raises a larger issue in relation to our application of digital technologies in higher ed. We tend to assume that our students do have internet access, and laptops or smartphones or tablets, and that they’ll be able to engage with whatever educational resources we’re developing. I realize these things are relatively standard for many of our students at UMW, and for those without, there are labs in the academic buildings and libraries to provide access. But the basic costs of higher education are already rising to an extent that does exclude many people, and technology is another cost. In my last job, in a county where more than 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, I did have students without smartphones, and without internet at home because it was unavailable or unaffordable where they lived in rural Minnesota; they could be out of touch for days in severe weather, unable to check the LMS or email (although I also suspect some just used that as an excuse).

As we assign digital technologies a more central role, students faced with the realities of those limits may be marginalized–despite what some of these approaches offer in terms of useful skills and wide accessibility, and sometimes lower costs in some respects. I’ve had students pull up readings on smartphones in class, and I’ve asked them to form groups around those with laptops on a given day to do some work online, but I’ve also been careful not to assume that everyone had some device they could use, and to form groups around students who had tech in evidence. Online discussions have provided adequate forums for student discussions as we’ve dealt with snow days this semester, but they are qualitatively different than the conversations we have in class (though I think more experience with that format could make my approach and my students’ involvement far more effective), and at least at this point they are a fallback rather than a substitute for seminar meetings (unlike my mother’s community health seminar meetings, in which students doing internships currently meet once a week, but which her department/college has decided will be moved to online-only spaces next year–I tend to think this is the result of a combination of administrative pressure to utilize Blackboard, and full-time faculty working to further minimize their face-to-face instructional time in a department where several “part-time” faculty are teaching higher credit loads than the full-timers).

But I do think most faculty adding digital elements are doing so in thoughtful ways–if nothing else, the fact that it’s rarely the easiest route for our teaching, takes additional work for us to learn and implement, and requires another level of monitoring student work, encourages us to be selective in what we use and how we use it, and to consider what it offers to our students. And I think that careful, conscious approach is important to maintain in the midst of what can sometimes be a rush to add digital elements simply for the sake of having them, to meet administrative mandates, etc. While these digital elements obviously can add tremendous educational value, they don’t necessarily do so, and the value they add may not always balance the costs–financial or educational or social–to our students.


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