Our current education systems ensure that historical inequities are maintained. We need to collectively acknowledge this, and fix them.
Education. On the surface, it's the great mobilizer. The equalizer. It should underpin a wonderfully equitable and meritocratic system that helps everyone to realize their fullest potential. But in reality, it still predominantly belongs to the privileged and lucky few.
Access to education is determined in many cases worldwide by skin color, family income, and the gender assigned at birth. And in places like our USA, where access to education is sold as equitable, in truth, market forces (read: 'skyrocketing tuition') combine with nepotism (read: 'legacy admissions') to create a positively-reinforcing and unyielding system of disparity-maintenance.
Let's narrow in a little. It's no secret to anyone that racial disparities are widespread in today's education systems. Children from Black communities are less likely to complete school, to be prepared for college, or to enter higher education. There is a complex interplay creating these circumstances, including historical disempowerment, widespread lack of socioeconomic power, and perception and treatment of Black youth once in school. For example, Black kids are more likely to be suspended, expelled, and sent to the Principal's Office than their counterparts for the same reasons.
Data from the United States Department of Education (USDE) reveal that in 2016, 31% of Black children in the US were living in poverty (not just low income - I mean real poverty), while 26% of Latinx children, and 10% each of White and Asian children were in the same socioeconomic stratus. To be clear, NO child should ever be in this situation, but we want to sensitively acknowledge the gap.
When in school, there exists a wide achievement gap among students of different races. As per USDE data from 2017, at the grade 4 level, there was a 26 percentage point gap in reading achievement scores and a 25-point gap in mathematics scores between White and Black students. This is sobering given that reading and mathematics ability are key determinants of career success in students' lives, and likely will only get more important as the 'age of automation' looms.
At the primary school level, when state or city policies dictate that children must attend schools in their neighborhoods, students of color are often concentrated in schools with fewer resources and less-qualified teachers. These inequities begin to shape children's lives at early ages. And this is how disparities are created, maintained, and perpetuated.
Okay, this is bleak. So what should we do?
As long as our default systems of learning remain confined to geographic location, physical spaces, associated with hefty tuition costs, and reliant on help from family members who have 'done it before', people of color will continue to be inherently disadvantaged for a long, long time. But online education is literally throwing the opportunity at us to break down so many barriers.
Education technology opens up new spaces for learning. It opens up new methods of learning. Affordably accessible by anyone, anywhere, on any device. High bandwidth, low bandwidth - it doesn't matter. Access to quality resources widens. Good pedagogy is there, baked in, measurable, and always improving. Students can get what's just right for them, at scale. Learning software built to engage today's student allows us to create inclusive learning communities right from the start - ones that don't sort students based on the color of their skin or their zip code. There is a future where smart use of education technology closes gaps and removes irrelevant factors like wealth and race from the success equation. And that future is already here.
How education technology can help to create the inclusive learning communities that we need
🏛 They enable contextually appropriate places to learn
There are spaces online that students clearly love spending their time. Online coop games like Minecraft or the latest MMO come to mind. Discord. YT. Snap. TikTok. Education technologies that take a nod from these platforms and create spaces for students to engage and learn will undoubtedly end up doing wonders for the vast majority of students who use them. You spend more time with things you like - it's pretty simple.
In these communities, all of a sudden it doesn't matter if you're black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor. There is one collective community with students collaboratively learning in a way that is meaningful to them.
👥 They enable connection between students
Every student is learning something that millions of other students have learned before. Educational technologies can connect learners to each other from a data-perspective, similar to how Spotify implicitly 'connects' listeners. This way, one student's work benefits every other student on the same path. This lowers the mean amount of unnecessary work that each student has to do, so that they can spend their time with loved ones, working in their communities, or helping their peers. For communities that don't necessarily get as much quality time with their family units, every little bit of refunded time helps.
They can enable overt connection between students, too. Particularly in a time like this pandemic, students are feeling more disconnected than ever from each other. What if they could learn together in an engaging way? What if they could chat, video, and type together working through the same learning paths? This technology is all available right now. (Schools - you listening?)
🚀 They enable career success
Finally, education technologies can give students the ability to connect their learning directly to the needs of employers. If education for most ends up as a game of credentialing (prove me wrong), there is no smarter strategy than to skill oneself toward exactly what employers are looking for. Students thus use EdTech to guide their credentialing to meet the needs of employers around the world, without needing schools to do this career planning and readiness for them.
Given that we live in a world where your name determines the number of callbacks you receive, having your academic work speak for itself, Github-style, is exactly what learners need.
Technology can help us to right the historical wrongs that continue to segment society into slices of color. As people around the world come together to raise their voices against systemic racism and societal injustices, we must push to reform one of the biggest maintainers of injustice: our education systems.
Purpose-built education technology gives us the tools needed to alter the life course of every marginalized population, at least on the educational attainment front. The question is: will we finally take advantage of its offerings?
Interested in learning about how you can use Sophya to start making a difference?
P.S.: We are offering our software and time, free of cost, to institutions devoted to serving historically underserved or discriminated-against communities. We recognize that humans have created great societal and educational inequalities, and we want to do our part to strive for an equitable and just educational system.
If you don’t know us, we are Sophya. We build learning software that keeps learners at the center. We work with thousands of students all over the world and can help you create a learning experience that is meaningful to and magical for your learners.
Interested? Give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org!
About the authors:
Vishal Punwani is the CEO of Sophya, the world's first Learner Optimization platform. He is a resident physician, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs, and a mentor for startups at Harvard and Oxford Universities. He loves animals, worldly adventures, and extreme sass. Follow him on Twitter @Vishy_vish.
Sehr Taneja is studying Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She lives for the magic of conversations that change her perspective, books that allow her to dream, and ideas that transform the world. Her survival kit includes chocolates, tea, and puppies. Follow her on Twitter @sehrtaneja6.
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