Is the inequality inside or outside of your classroom?

Posted by on Dec 29, 2011 in DCLC, Digital Divide | 3 Comments

I’m getting ready for talk at the Berkman Center on Jan. 17, and I’ve been continuing to think a lot about issues of equality and education technology.

Students in Flat Classroom Project

I have one observation that I’ll be trotting out in that talk, along with a corresponding suggestion.

There are lots of different kinds of inequality that teachers encounter in their professional work. Indeed, one of the very cruel, almost Hellenistic tragedies of the education profession is that many of us go into education to ameliorate inequality, but the systems we create and sustain often exacerbate inequalities. Encountering, managing, and triaging inequality is on in a days work for many educators.

In my fieldwork in U.S. schools (research mostly done in 2009, all over the country; I’m still in schools or working with teachers online almost every week), I did find systematic patterns in how teachers conceived of inequality and choices that they made in regards to technology integration.

Teachers who had concerns about digital divides and did not use technology in the classroom often focused on within classroom inequality. They would talk about variability in home access, not wanting to have students feel shame, concerns that not all students could complete online work. Since not every student had equal access–or an equitable baseline of access–to technology, these teachers argued that technology highlighted inequities in their classrooms and disadvantaged certain students. Therefore, they tended to avoid technology or to avoid integration strategies that involved any technology work outside of classtime.

Teachers who had concerns about digital divides and did use technology in the classroom often focused on between school inequality. The gaps that concerned these teachers were between the suburbs and their own urban or rural schools, not the inequities in their own classrooms. They knew that technology access was more difficult for some students, but they reasoned that ceasing technology integration for all students because of challenges with a few students would be unfair to the entire group vis a viz the kids in the burbs. Some teachers were very explicit about how hard it was for some kids to get access, but they argued that these challenges made it all the more important for teachers to create activities and incentives to encourage kids to find ways of getting online.  Others pointed out that often times the  students with the most difficult access challenges could be supported by ensuring that classroom, lunch, before- and after-school access were prioritized to support those students.

I have an opinion about what I think is best practice, but I want to preface my opinion by saying that I have tremendous respect for both of these positions. Teachers make a zillion hard choices every day, and both within class and between school inequalities are important to manage.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that I think that teachers should frame these issues around between school inequalities (and researchers, administrators, and school leaders should coach teachers to think this way). Education technology offer opportunities to see places outside of local neighborhoods, to communicate with people from around the world, to publish and to collaborate that  students in low-income communities should be able to take advantage of as much as their wealthier peers. If we make classrooms in low-income neighborhoods more fair (within the classroom) by saying that no one can take advantage of routine experiences in high-income neighborhoods, then I don’t think we’re serving kids in the best possible way. We shouldn’t be insensitive to these inequalities– we should consider how we can use mobile devices (which many kids have better access to), how we can prioritize resources outside of classroom time to serve the students with the worst access, and how we can structure activities (assigning online work over a week rather than over an evening) to help students navigate access challenges. But ultimately, we have to try to achieve parity between schools more than within them.


Photo Credit: superkimbo


  1. Writings for the New Year | Leading Change in Changing Times
    January 2, 2012

    […] EdTechResearcher, Justin Reich published Is the inequality inside or outside of your classroom? As he prepares for a January 17th talk at the Berkman Center, he writes: Teachers who had concerns […]

  2. Undergrad Follower
    January 9, 2012

    Let’s not forget between classroom inequality. The greatest segregation in schools today is often students found in enrollment figures of AP courses, honors, average, and remedial within a school.

  3. Justin Reich
    January 9, 2012

    UF, you are absolutely right, and the issue bears directly on EdTech use, in my research and my consulting since, I’ve heard constantly that technology is more likely to be used and used more innovatively in higher track situations. The digital divides of usage that I document in my research are probably much worse than my between school comparisons create.


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