Technological Accessibility to Education

Technology has impacted almost every aspect of life today, and education is no exception. Opportunities for communication and collaboration have also been expanded by technology. Traditionally, classrooms have been relatively isolated, and collaboration has been limited to other students in the same classroom or building. Today, technology enables forms of communication and collaboration undreamt of in the past. For one, technology has greatly expanded access to education. In medieval times, books were rare and only an elite few had access to educational opportunities. Individuals had to travel to centers of learning to get an education. Today, massive amounts of information (books, audio, images, videos) are available at one’s fingertips through the Internet, and opportunities for formal learning are available online worldwide.

One persistent challenge for educational policymakers and planners related to the potential use of informational and communication technologies (ICTs) in remote, low income communities around the world is that most products, services, usage models, expertise, and research related to ICT use in education come from high-income contexts and environments.

One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and 'made to fit' into what are often much more challenging environments. When they don't work, or where they are too expensive to be replicated at any scale, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant -- and possibly irresponsible.

When school districts began closing in mid-March, education-technology usage dropped over 60 percent in the first week. After that initial drop, usage has increased steadily, but with an alarming set of trends. According to an analysis of 2 million students and teachers throughout the United States, fewer students have been accessing education technology, but those who have been are accessing it 40 percent more often than they were prior to closure of schools.

In other words, those who are using education technology are using it more, while those who are not are getting left behind. This is the very definition of an expanding digital divide. The ‘digital divide’, which was once primarily thought of in terms of access to technology, and increasingly as a function of access to reliable power, is now understood as well to be about the skills and abilities of people to benefit from access to technology.

Technology has also begun to change the roles of teachers and learners. In the traditional classroom, the teacher is the primary source of information, and the learners passively receive it. This model of the teacher as the “sage on the stage” has been in education for a long time, and it is still very much in evidence today. However, because of the access to information and educational opportunity that technology has enabled, in many classrooms today we see the teacher’s role shifting to the “guide on the side” as students take more responsibility for their own learning using technology to gather relevant information. Schools and universities across the country are beginning to redesign learning spaces to enable this new model of education, foster more interaction and small group work, and use technology as an enabler.

Technology is a powerful tool that can support and transform education in many ways, from making it easier for teachers to create instructional materials to enabling new ways for people to learn and work together. With the worldwide reach of the Internet and the ubiquity of smart devices that can connect to it, a new age of anytime anywhere education is dawning. It will be up to instructional designers and educational technologies to make the most of the opportunities provided by technology to change education so that effective and efficient education is available to everyone everywhere.

It is quite evident from the above stated arguments that there needs to be more emphasis on the effectiveness and impact of the technology than mere access and engagement. It's also important that with the rapid acceleration to online and remote learning, it is essential that states and districts ensure their technology tools comply with federal regulations and state laws related to student-data privacy. Cost-effective decision-making will be key to ensure individual students get what they need to succeed.

While many things are unknown in this evolving learning landscape, one thing is certain: policymakers that work together to support safe, equitable, and cost-effective infrastructure to support learning for all students will not only bounce back quicker, but also avoid expanding the digital divide.