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Critical Issue: Ensuring Equitable Use of Education Technology

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ISSUE: When a school or district decides to implement education technology into the curriculum, one of its overriding goals must be to create plans and policies for all members of the learning community to have equitable access and use. Appropriate funding and professional development represent the key means of supporting equitable access and use of technology to ensure technology literacy and to support meaningful learning for all students.

OVERVIEW: Even before high-technology applications began appearing in some U.S. schools, learning opportunities were not the same for all students. Students who are already at risk of educational failure often attend schools that provide fewer opportunities for meaningful learning. The development of high-technology learning tools holds promise for leveling the playing field and ensuring equity in educational opportunity for all students in all schools. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering (1995) emphasize the importance of technology in promoting educational opportunities for all students:

"Technology deployed in education can help remove inequities between the schools of the inner city and the suburbs, between cities and rural districts.... Technology can become the force that equalizes the educational opportunities of all children regardless of location and social and economic circumstance."

Education technology has the potential to provide equal learning opportunities in several ways. Grabe and Grabe (1996) note that technology in the form of telecommunications allows access to people (through electronic mail and bulletin boards), access to interactive services (through on-line discussion groups, interactive conferences, and interactive tutorials), and access to files (through on-line databases, library holdings on a local or campuswide network, and text and graphic files on the Internet).

Jan Weeks' Picture Jan Weeks, a librarian at North Knox High School in Bicknell, Indiana, explains how the use of the Internet helps students learn communication and research skills and allows them to connect with sources of information across the globe. [408k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview for the video series Learning With Technology, program #1, Merging Onto the Information Highway (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994). A text version is available.

Just as those applications can provide quick access to information that otherwise might not be available, distance learning--whether conveyed by satellite or the Internet--also can deliver instruction and access to expertise on various subjects that may not have been available to some schools. As Terrett (1993) points out, "The use of technology, even though viewed by some as expensive and unnecessary, creates a cost-efficient mechanism that gives students access to materials and resources that were previously unavailable" (p. 30). Such access to resources, especially the wealth of information available through the Internet's World Wide Web, provides an important foundation for school-based and work-based learning.

Ironically, those students who have not had equal opportunities to learn and who perhaps could most profit from high-technology applications often do not have equal opportunites to use these applications. The U.S. Department of Education acknowledges the special need for equitable access for urban, rural, and disadvantaged schools. Without equitable access, the gap between the technology "haves" and the "have nots" will widen, further exacerbating the already troubling disparity in the quantity and quality of educational resources that are available to different populations because of location or socioeconomic conditions.

Barbara Singleton's Picture Barbara Singleton, director of technology and curriculum at North Knox High School in Bicknell, Indiana, discusses the information gap that results when students do not have the opportunities to access the Internet and use other education technologies. [349k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview for the video series Learning With Technology, program #1 Merging Onto the Information Highway (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994). A text version is available.

According to Means and Olson (1995), access to educational technology at school can give students from low-income homes, where there is little or no access to technology, "a needed edge to compete with children coming from more affluent homes, where technology is commonplace" (p. 103). Guaranteeing access for all classrooms to affordable education technology in order to achieve curricular goals makes it possible to begin to address the inequities that exist among schools and districts in the availability of instructional resources.

Yet the mere presence of educational technology in schools does not guarantee that it is providing academic benefits to students. Many at-risk students attend schools where available technologies are not being used to enhance student productivity, support collaboration, or engage students in authentic learning experiences. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Using Technology to Enhance Engaged Learning for At-Risk Students.") DeVillar & Faltis (1991) point out that when computers are present in schools serving at-risk students, they usually are used for drill-and-practice programs on basic skills rather than as tools to support students in designing their own projects. Ensuring equity means that all students--regardless of class, race, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, or physical limitations--have equal opportunities to participate in meaningful and authentic applications of educational technology. To realize the benefits of education technology, note Kozma and Croninger (1992), "teachers, school administrators, and policymakers [must] ensure that all students have access to these technologies, that the technologies are used effectively, and that other aspects of schooling also promote high levels of student learning" (p. 440).

Chris Collins' Picture Chris Collins, a sixth-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, explains how she uses technology as a tool to engage students in accessing information for class projects. [224k audio file] Excerpted from the CD-ROM series Captured Wisdom (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1996). A text version is available.

To promote student learning, technology must be used in effective, engaging ways. According to Becker (1992), understanding the impact of technology requires asking the right questions: "Rather than asking how many schools have VCRs, we should ask, 'At any one time, what portion of students are engaged in learning based on the material viewed through video?' " He points out that "the critical questions about equity are about equal access to effective uses of technologies."

Teachers who promote meaningful, engaged learning through authentic uses of technology are providing students with opportunities to interact with a wealth of resources, materials, and data sets. When educational technology applications such as the Internet, distance learning, CD-ROMs, and video are used at the classroom level to help achieve challenging educational standards, they provide powerful alternatives for creating more effective learning environments and more productive learning opportunities.

As schools and districts develop their technology plans, they need to emphasize equity. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Developing a School or District Technology Plan.") They can focus on three strategies to ensure all students have access to technology that supports meaningful learning: (1) determine equipment and wiring needs, such as hardware, software, and a networking infrastructure that supports a technology-integrated curriculum; (2) secure appropriate funding to cover initial costs, such as installation of a "backbone," as well as the ongoing costs of maintenance and technical assistance; and (3) provide professional development for educators, so that technology is implemented in the classroom in meaningful ways and contributes to the attainment of high standards by all students. To assess the extent to which these strategies support technological equity, schools and districts can ask the following questions: How does the distribution of the amount and types of education technology among classrooms or among schools affect the equity of access and use? In what ways does equitable access and use depend upon the total amount of funding available to the schools or district for education technology purchases, installation, and operation? In what ways do the ease and availability as well as the type of professional development opportunities affect the equitable access and use of education technology by students?

In developing the first strategy, schools and districts need to implement a base level of connectivity and infrastructure and ensure that it is upgradeable and expandable in terms of equipment and software. Part of this decision is a consideration of how the amount and types of education technology will be distributed among classrooms or among schools. Means, Olson, and Singh (1995) note the importance of both quality and quantity of access:

"Technology cannot become a useful support for students' work if they have access to it for only a few minutes a week. Technology-supported, project-based instruction requires a high degree of access to the tools of technology and to communication systems. Schools are faced with reality of a limited budget for equipment, telecommunications, and software, and they must make hard choices about how to get the most out of what they have." (p. 71)

According to Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, and Rasmussen (1995), implementation decisions should be guided by four access indicators: connectivity (access to networks within and outside the school, including the Internet), ubiquity (quick and convenient access to computers, printers, and other technology), interconnectivity (access that allows students and teachers to collaborate in various ways), and equity (access to extensive resources for all students). Access is one of several indicators of high technology performance that schools and districts can use to guide their technology implementation efforts. As they begin their technology planning efforts, schools and districts would be wise to develop policies for providing adequate technology access and equalizing technology access, as well as strategies for allocating computers to ensure that all students have equal access.

The second strategy for determining equitable access and use of education technology is appropriate funding. Schools and districts should enlist community support in developing funding strategies for education technology that recognize technology as an ongoing investment. Individuals and groups responsible for funding decisions must keep in mind that over time, teachers and students will want and need access to multiple technologies (such as CD-ROM, satellite, full-motion video) for various purposes. The education technology that is implemented today must allow for increased capabilities in the future, rather than the threat of total replacement of the system. Careful planning, budgeting, and ongoing evaluation of technological needs and goals will ensure that the technology is appropriate and adaptable. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Developing a School or District Technology Plan.")

Appropriate funding can be acquired through a combination of short- and long-term measures, including local tax revenues, bonds, grants, and reallocation of school funds. Policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels must take the lead in developing policies and regulations based on a goal of universal access and in providing resources to ensure technological equity for all students and teachers. One federal program, the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, offers states an opportunity to provide school districts--especially those with high rates of poverty--with funds that will help them meet their most important technology needs. The federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grants program provides funds to consortia that include at least one local educational agency.

Just as appropriate funding contributes to equitable technology use, Terrett (1993) notes that the use of technology itself contributes to equitable use of funding:

"It has been my experience that the effective use of technology allows a more equitable expenditure of school district funds. The use of technology, even though viewed by some as expensive and unnecessary, creates a cost-efficient mechanism that gives students access to materials and resources that were previously unavailable." (p. 30)

Allocation of funds must reflect the school or district's curricular goals as well as its technology planning goals. Perhaps the most common allocation approach is to provide less-advantaged school buildings with extra funds and resources for technology, enabling these schools to achieve parity with other sites in the district that already have equipment and wiring. Another approach is to guarantee that every classroom has the same set of equipment--such as a set number of student computer-learning stations, a television monitor that meets certain specifications, a teacher workstation, and a telephone line. In this way, assistance will be targeted to the disadvantaged schools because the other schools probably have at least some of the base-level infrastructure in place. Taking this approach entails specifying technical and software standards so that the infrastructure already in place throughout the district is coordinated with the new infrastructure that will be obtained. In still another approach, districts may choose to address equity concerns by distributing technology dollars evenly among the various school buildings. Of course, these choices should be guided by an understanding of the curriculum at each grade level so that the curriculum is well served by the technology tools that are made available.

A final strategy in ensuring equitable use of education technology is ongoing professional development in technology and its applications. Teachers must have knowledge and experience with the vast range of educational technology and must learn strategies for using it effectively in the classroom (Hilliard, 1992). Ramirez and Bell (1994) note:

"Professional development must support teachers as they attempt to implement technology in the most efficient way possible as well as help them identify the most effective curricular models for their classrooms." (p. 59)

Professional development issues require schools and districts to consider how they will help teachers learn about technology equipment and its applications. To ensure that students have equitable access to technology, teachers first must become knowledgeable about technology's interactive and networking capabilities.

Marla Davenport's Picture Marla Davenport, special projects supervisor at Technology and Information Educational Services in Roseville, Minnesota, talks about teachers' needs for hands-on practice with technology tools and for technical support in order to effectively use the technology in the classroom. [196 k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview for the video series Learning With Technology, program #1, Merging Onto the Information Highway (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994). A text version is available.

As they become proficient with the technology, teachers should be provided with assistance in integrating technology into various subject areas. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Integrating Technology into the Curriculum" [under development].) When technology is used to support curricular goals and meaningful instruction for all students, it reflects the indicators of engaged learning. Teachers must have a reason to use the technology in the classroom and should be given opportunities to collaborate in developing projects that apply technology to student learning. (For more on the role of professional development in improving student learning, refer to the Critical Issue "Realizing New Learning for All Students Through Professional Development.")

To ensure the equitable implementation of technology throughout the curriculum, professional development should include strategies for involving a majority of teachers in technology use and providing technical support for technology use and maintenance. Equal learning opportunities for students rely in part on the commitment of schools and districts to invest in teachers by providing ongoing professional development and access to on-site support personnel responsible for troubleshooting and assistance after the technology and lessons are in place.

As policies and procedures to ensure equitable use of education technology are implemented, administrators, teachers, policymakers, parents, and community members must think ahead to how they will document that technological equity has been achieved. More important, they need to be able to demonstrate how equitable use of technology affects student learning and helps meet goals for school reform and accountability.


ACTION OPTIONS: Superintendents and administrators, teachers, and policymakers can take the following steps to ensure technological equity for all members of the learning community:

Superintendents and Administrators:



IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Technology plans may be determined and technology may be purchased without adequate consideration of where the computers and equipment will be placed. To promote equitable and effective use of technology, planning should ensure that students and teachers have easy and frequent access to it. (Refer to the Critical Issue "Developing a School or District Technology Plan.")

Because of financial constraints, schools and districts might choose one type of technology over another simply because it is less expensive or because it is all they can afford initially. Such manner of purchasing can lead to inadequate selections that soon become obsolete. Instead, technology planning should allow for both short- and long-term purchasing based on projected future use of education technology. Buying state-of-the-art technology is the best bet in ensuring that the school or district can use it effectively as long as possible.

Schools and districts may attempt to implement education technology without paying attention to teachers' needs for professional development. Programs that provide little support for teachers in helping them to make technology a regular part of their classroom activities will end up with inevitable inequities in student access and use of technology. Teachers need adequate hands-on courses as well as ongoing training and technical support to ensure their proficiency in technology.

Technological equity will not occur if some students are relegated to drill-and-practice programs while others are allowed to use technology tools for creative and exploratory applications. To promote meaningful learning, all students must have access to the same kinds of technology and must have opportunities to use it effectively.

When computer activities are confined to a lab and designed by a computer coordinator, the technology learning tends to be inert rather than dynamic. Instead, students should receive regular classroom assignments that require the use of technology tools. Using technology in this manner harnesses the power of technology in the service of the core curriculum.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some experts argue that technology implementation efforts should focus primarily on the teacher in the classroom. They believe that successful programs arise from teachers who already have acknowledged the potential of education technology to transform teaching and learning. Teachers who effectively integrate technology into the curriculum and engage all students contribute to greater technological equity among students. In this perspective, the strength of the technology program comes from its status as being locally implemented, and specific policies for achieving equity may be considered unnecessary.

Educators may have differing opinions on other equity issues, such as whether all grade levels should receive the same technologies, whether certain technologies are more suitable to specific grade levels than others, what strategies for allocating computers and other technologies should be used, and whether a particular building has the space configurations and infrastructure capacity to accommodate certain technologies. For instance, the elementary school students in many districts have greater access to computers than do students at the middle school or high school. On the other hand, interactive video distance learning has been more prevalent at the high school level.

Some educators believe that a district should expose students to a full range of education technologies over time, concentrating on different technologies or different applications at various stages in a student's career. Choices might include graphical interfaces, multimedia, Internet access, spreadsheets, word processing, and many other possibilities, with functional use acting as the guiding force in the way that the technology is implemented across the curriculum.

Other educators argue that in order to guarantee equity, students should have available all of the technology tools they will need all of the time, with the choice of which technology to use dependent only on the requirements of the work. This approach would argue for a full range of technologies to be available to the student, although it might mean a fewer number of any one kind of technology.


Northbrook Middle School, Houston, Texas

Tucson Unified School District, Tucson, Arizona

Equity statement of the Hawaii State Department of Education


Center for Education Technology
National Education Association
1202 16th St., N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-7360; fax (202) 822-7987
Contact: Barbara J. Yenter, Director

Center for Educational Leadership and Technology (CELT)
165 Forest St.
Marlborough, MA 01752
(508) 624-4877; fax (508) 624-6565
Contact: John R. Phillipo, Executive Director

Center for Gender Equity in Technology, Science, and Mathematics Education
College of Education, University of Washington
112A Miller Hall, Box 353600
Seattle, WA 98105
(206) 616-8371; fax (206) 616-8584
Contact: Jo Sanders, Director

Center for Technology in Learning
SRI International
333 Ravenswood Ave.
Menlo Park, CA 93025
(415) 859-5248
Contact: Lucy Omo, Webmaster

Computer-Using Educators (CUE)
1210 Marina Village Parkway, Suite 100
Alameda, CA 94501
(510) 814-6630; fax (510) 814-0195
Contact: Jennifer O'Sullivan, Operations Manager

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)
155 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 462-9600; fax (202) 462- 9043

Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education (ITTE)
National School Boards Association
1680 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 838-6722; fax (703) 683-7590
Contact: Cheryl S. Williams, Director of Technology Programs

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)
1787 Agate St.
Eugene, OR 97403-1923
(541) 346-4414; fax (541) 346-5890

International Technology Education Association (ITEA)
1914 Association Drive, Suite 201
Reston, VA 20191-1539
(703) 860-2100; fax (703) 860-0353
Contact: Kendall N. Starkweather, Executive Director

National Center to Improve Practice in Special Education Through Technology, Media, and Materials (NCIP)
Education Development Center Inc.
55 Chapel St.
Newton, MA 02158-1060
(617) 969-7100, ext. 2387; fax (617) 969-3440
Contact: Bonnie Johnson

National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE)
Road Ahead Technology Program
1201 16th St., N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 822-7839; fax (202) 822-7779
Contact: Marilyn Schlief, Senior Program Officer

National Center for Technology Planning (NCTP)
P.O. Box 5425
Mississippi State University
Mississippi State, MS 39762
(601) 325-7253; fax (601) 324-0677
Contact: Dr. Larry S. Anderson, Founder/Director

References Button References

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Rosemary Bell, former policy analyst with the Evaluation and Policy Information Center at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, and Rafael Ramirez, senior research associate with the Center for Technology Projects at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Development and production of this Critical Issue were supported in part by the North Central Regional Technology in Education Consortium.

Date posted: 1997
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