Tech & Opportunity: Can customizing educational technology serve all kids equally?

Dec 6, 2013

Higher education is abuzz right now with excitement over MOOCs---massive open online courses---that have the potential to open up classes typically held behind Ivory Tower walls to anyone with a computer and internet access.

The conversation for elementary and high school, when it comes to online education, so far has revolved around using it in homeschooling situations or to avoid bullying. Earlier this year, Alex Wilson wrote about the rise in online education to question, "What the right way to bring technology into the classroom?" His questions about access and the types of skills children need to effectively use classroom technologies ran through my brain when I saw this trailer for a film called, Divergent, recently.

If you don't have time to watch the trailer, the gist of the film is this: in a not-so-distant future teens, with amazing skin and hair, will still be subject to standardized tests. Only now the tests are in the form of a liquid that induces a technology-inflected trance. They're supposed to "trust the test" and it will tell teens their life path. As Kate Winselt explains the test to a lecture room of parents and kids, "The future belongs to those who know...where they belong." The heroine of the film, it turns out, is "divergent." The test doesn't work on divergents, who are renegade individualists. 

As with most sci-fi, we might be a long way off for such a scenario to come to fruition, but we have inklings of using tests and technology to determine one's life path. In a forthcoming collection of columns, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself​, law professor Glenn Reynolds advocates for customization and gamification as potential solutions to what he characterizes as the need for  dramatic, but necessary shift in how we approach education in the 21st century. 

What if, Reynolds proposes, schools could use video game-like scenarios for student learning to make it "more like play and in which the nature of their performance changes what comes next on an ongoing basis." Reynolds contrasts this model as beyond achievement tests and tracking. But you have to wonder how the ways we already use technology will escape the inequalities we have today?

Yesterday, for Jennifer Guerra's reading list rundown, I shared an article by Kentaro Toyama. Toyama argues that technology can't solve our problems; that it can only magnify human intent and capacity. When it comes to using customized technology to help student learning, let's hope educational software developers keep in mind all of the ways in which structural issues of class, gender, race, and sexuality shape our educational opportunities. It would be great if tracking becomes a thing of the past. What wouldn't be great is if it merely takes on a different name, such as "customization" or "personalization.