I want my high-tech classroom to help, not hinder in closing achievement gaps

I’m about to complete my 25th year as a high school teacher. I could be finishing out my career by lying low and coasting on the same lesson plans and methods I’ve always used—but I’m not. Instead, I’m finishing year three of creating a classroom that is in step with the ever-developing technological advancements of the 21st century by personalizing my students’ educational experience.

“Blended Learning” and “Personalized Education” are a couple of the latest buzzwords that seem to be found in every other education article. For both, technology is used as a tool to help students learn to manage and advance their own learning. While the goal behind these approaches is to provide students with key skills for success in the world they will inherit, I worry that, if not done right, it will be one more hurdle in the way of closing the achievement gap.

I see blended learning as a student-centered approach that combines face-to-face and online learning so that the student is given more control over place, path, time and pace of the learning. Personalized education is paced to students’ needs, tailored to learning preferences, styles and specific interests.

There are clear learning goals and, when a student shows they have mastered the concepts, they are allowed to move on in the curriculum. Ultimately, students will have an educational experience based on their strengths, weaknesses and interests, giving them more control of the pace, place and learning activities they use to meet goals. Equipped with a personalized education and technological skill sets, these students will be prepared to be competitive as they continue on to higher education and eventually enter the workforce.

Our challenge is effectively providing all students with what they need to prepare for success in college and life—regardless of their socio-economic circumstances and regardless of whether they attend school in a big city, small town or sprawling suburb.

A 2013 Pew Research Poll found that 31.4 percent of households with school-age children and an income of under $50,000 do not have Internet access. On the opposite end, in households with school-age children and an income over $50,000, only 8.4 percent do not have Internet access. My students are as diverse a group as you can find. Last year, half of our students were white and half were students of color, and more than 40 percent came from low-income families.

Even within my classroom, the disparity is clear: there are students who own multiple devices and have 24/7 access to the Internet, while others have access only while at school because they will be sleeping in a shelter or on a friend’s couch after school lets out.

The possibility that the very blended learning I hoped to leverage to eliminate the achievement gap for my students might be widening it has been a concern even as I saw great results in the classroom.

My student Jason was a sophomore when I first introduced blended learning. He loved using the technology in class to control the pace of his work but often failed to complete assignments during the school day. He often asked to stay after school and use the computer in my room to finish his work. Jason’s enthusiasm for the technology should have been heartening—but I was worried.

Jason was homeless and, without a stable place to live, he didn’t have the seemingly simple luxury of a home computer, let alone a wifi connection. Instead of furthering his education, I was concerned that the use of blended learning—when he didn’t have easy access to a device and the Internet—would actually put him at a disadvantage and widen the achievement gap.

But Jason made me rethink my concern. He said to me, “Ms. Howton, if you don’t let us use technology to learn in school, when are we going to do it? I don’t want to go to college without good skills. That’d be really embarrassing.”

We hear all the time that we are educating today’s students for jobs that “don’t yet exist.” To prepare our students to be successful in those jobs, we need to teach them not only to acquire and use information, but also to incorporate critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Yet, most schools are trying to prepare these Generation Z students using outdated or limited access to modern technological tools, and many teachers are technologically lagging behind their students and haven’t received the necessary professional development to incorporate those tools into their instruction.

So – why bother? For the simple reason that all students deserve to have careers that allow them to support their families and contribute to their communities. If we don’t address the digital divide between students, we will continue to perpetuate conditions that contribute to the achievement gap.

If we don’t provide all students with experiences using technology while they are in school, our communities will incur the cost of adults who are unprepared for the available jobs. Businesses will continue to have to invest in training programs to close the skills gap or hire workers from other countries who have the needed technical skills. Students who are intelligent and creative may not realize their full potential in high school if they don’t have access to the necessary technology or trained teachers.

Our communities need to create schools with plentiful access to technology and provide teachers with the training they need to comfortably use this technology and transform how students experience this thing we call school.

The challenges are big; yet, I find myself as excited ending year 25 as I was entering year one because the possibilities for providing every American student with a world-class education are right there – just beyond our fingertips. Who else is ready to reach out and grasp it?

What do you think?
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Robyn Howton

Robyn Howton

Robyn Howton teaches AVID, AP Language and Composition, 9th grade and 12th grade College Prep English at Mount Pleasant High School in the Brandywine School District in Wilmington, DE and is a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow. Her district is part of a consortium in Delaware that offers intensive training on blended learning to high school teachers from seven school districts covering more than half of the students in Delaware. Robyn is the mom of one son, who is joining her in the education field next year. When she began training for blended learning and personalized education, her son had to be on-call 24/7 as tech support when she couldn’t figure out how to find a file she saved or where to plug in the printer cord. Today, she creates online lessons with hyperlinks to screencasts of her lectures that she saves on YouTube for students to watch at their own pace.

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