The great digital divide…

Last semester I took a course on Curriculum Design and one of our texts emphasized the importance of integrating technology into the curriculum.  There is no doubt a digital divide between students in low-income communities and their suburban counterparts.  With such large class sizes in many low-performing schools, adaptive technology can help teachers differentiate their instruction which is essential to getting all kids to grade level, yet there are no reforms being made to integrate technology.  The following is an essay I wrote in my curriculum class that emphasizes the importance of technology in closing the achievement gap.

Closing the proficiency gap is a top priority for most principals serving students in low-income communities.  In addition to lower proficiency, access to instructional technology within these schools, as well as within student’s homes, limits teacher’s ability to engage students.  Despite these circumstances, some schools have been able to narrow the proficiency gap by building positive relationships with students while integrating technology.  In his article, “Teacher Excellence Narrows the Achievement Gap”, Mariko Nobori (2011) attributes the turnaround of Cochrane Collegiate Academy in Charlotte, N.C. to professional development that supports an approach the school calls Interactive Learning.  A TIME Magazine article, “A is for Adaptive”, by Kayla Webley (2013), describes a personalized learning technology called Knewton that is able to adapt to specific student’s needs and improve student achievement.  The common thread of these two articles is that technology can be used to engage students and narrow the proficiency gap by making it easier for teachers to differentiate.  Nobori (2011) attributes the success of one school to a strong emphasis on using technology to raise achievement while also building strong relationships with students.  It seems as though a hybrid of relationship building, student-centered instructional strategies, and technology integration may be the way to close the proficiency gap.

At Cochrane Collegiate Academy, teachers use an instructional model called Interactive Learning (IL) which specifically promotes collaboration, inquiry, and a high degree of interaction.  Teachers must implement ten IL non-negotiables in every class.  Some of these non-negotiables include activation strategies, clear outcomes that are communicated to students, limited lecture, and student movement.   In addition to adopting this model, Cochrane’s school district implemented a standards-based, targeted-assistance program called TI MathForward (Nobori, 2011).  “Each student receives a graphing calculator so they can do practice problems and get instant feedback on the classroom’s electronic whiteboard.  Teachers get a precise reading on how well the students understand key concepts, and the students stay engaged thanks to the cool gadgets (Nobori, 2011).”  To support the implementation of IL and TI Math Forward, Cochrane’s academic facilitator, Shana Oliver, has taken a modeling approach to professional development.  Oliver runs her sessions just like a class, using the same set of non-negotiables, and teachers confirm that seeing and experiencing themselves  how it can be done has helped them implement the strategies in their classrooms (Nobori, 2011).

Knewton is a math program that uses algorithms to build a personal profile for each student.  The program takes into account how long it takes for a students to answer a question, their answers to hundreds of other questions, and the answers of hundreds of thousands of other people to similar questions before determining the next question on the screen (Webley, 2013).  This technology, also known as adaptive learning, is able to predict student outcomes and could be the future for differentiated instruction.  “It is impossible to provide one-to-one teaching on a mass scale, but technology enables us to get closer than ever before (Webley, 2013).”  The feedback that this technology gives teachers allows them to help struggling students before they fail and it is too late.  Additionally, the technology has the ability to remediate students on prerequisite skills.  “Students in the same math course go through different sets of lessons as Knewton adapts the material to fit their individual learning needs (8).”  For example, Cienna Bungard, a middle school student states, “Knewton is based on what you can do, not what the class can do (Webley, 2013).”   In addition to the technology keeping students engaged, they are able to get more out of their math courses because of it and it has transformed the classroom from one-size-fits-all instruction to tailored intervention.

The turnaround at Cochrane was not only possible due to the integration of technology and interactive learning practices, but also through a strong emphasis on building positive relationships with students.  These relationships are built on a level of trust that allows teachers to challenge their students.  Teachers greet students individually and pay attention if something seems off, they show up to sporting events, ask students questions about how they are doing and listen to the answers, and model politeness and respect.  Since implementing these changes in 2007, Cochrane has more than doubled the percentage of students performing at grade level and reduced the achievement gap by thirty five percent (Nobori, 2011).  “There are so many stigmas that seem to suggest that students from this demographic cannot learn; that they are destined to fail.  But now we have data that proves that our students can go so far.  That’s a testament to what education can do (Nobori, 2011).”  Teachers and staff acknowledge that there is still work to do and have recently launched a one-to-one laptop program while working to build better relationships with parents and continuing to hone their instructional model to reach more students (Nobori, 2011).

Both articles mentioned the ability for technology to engage students while providing teachers with quick feedback about student performance that allows for the differentiation and adaptation of instruction.  Coupled with a focus on student-centered instruction and relationships, technology has allowed Cochrane to be able to significantly reduce the achievement gap at their school.  What both articles miss is the ability to use technology in the classroom in creative ways that may further engage students.  Tim Tyson (2010) states, learning will be made irresistible when students’ positive emotional connection to curriculum is authentically engaged in a learning process that focuses on producing high-quality, digital-knowledge products for everyone – the students, their peers, their parents, the community at large (Jacobs, p. 123).  Schools should also use technology to engage students in authentic, creative assessments that will make learning irresistible in all content areas.

The proficiency gap is a hurdle that many school leaders are faced with.  Unfortunately, there is often a lack of funding that allows for schools with low proficiency to integrate technology.  If this is the case, as Cochrane has shown, gains can still be made by targeting professional development for teachers in a structured way that will model student-centered instructional approaches as well as foster positive relationships with students.  The gap could be further reduced, or in many cases, virtually eliminated, by implementing technology that provides teachers with instant feedback to differentiate instruction while engaging students through interactive technology.  Furthermore, students can be engaged through technology not just through the use of “cool gadgets” but by using it in ways that will allow them to develop 21st century skills through the creation of high-quality products for authentic audiences.  Focused professional development that models student-centered instruction, building supportive relationships, and integrating technology could enhance the curriculum across disciplines, thus making learning irresistible and ultimately reducing the proficiency gap.

Further reading:

Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World by H. H. Jacobs