How do we Decrease the Gap?

Another week filled with tremendous resources. There was so much I wanted to comment on.  However,  this week, in honour of Black History Month, I want to focus on marginalized youth and the digital divide.

The first reading entitled Connected Learning from the Connected Learning Research Network spoke to the idea of connected learning and what it could do for adolescents.  If you don’t know what exactly it is, definition follows: ”learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person pursues a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career possibilities, or civic engagement”.  My immediate response to this was that this is great! When you have students who are supported by their peers, have a strong interest in the topic, and that topic is academically oriented, strong learning can occur outside of the classroom. This made me think of corporate initiatives like the Google 20% (whereby Google employees get 20% of their time to pursue passion projects), or 3Ms 15% time.  Connected learning could be the catalyst to send a whole new group of innovators and design thinkers into the workforce.

However, as always, my spidey senses started to tingle; what about the students on the margins?  It is wonderful for those who are white, middle class and have the support and funding for parents and other role models, but what about the others?  I was quite pleased as I read further, the report mentioned this: “There is also a growing gap between the progressive use of digital media outside of the classroom, and the no-frills offerings of most public schools that educate our most vulnerable populations. This gap contributes to widespread alienation from educational institutions, particularly among non-dominant youth”. Further reading into the document reveals: “Despite the recent gains by African American students in educational testing, they still lag far behind their white counterparts”. I thought to myself, this is great, we are getting to the crux of the problem; how do we provide access for everyone, so that we level the playing field?

Mimi Ito, one of the researchers for Connected Learning, speaks to marginalized youth in her Edutopia Interview about the research.

Again, there is great promise with this concept of up-skilling adolescents by them pursuing their interests.  She speaks about a minimum baseline knowledge that all kids should have, but there is no direction as to how all of them should get there. In her 21st Century Talk, she is much more direct, which I was happy to see.

She points to statistics of upper class versus lower class kids, and the huge difference in access to after school specialized programming, and of course technology. As opposed to closing the gap, as was once the common thinking, the gap is actually increasing between those adolescents with privilege, and those on the margins (see graphic below). Furthermore, she points out that MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), are mostly taken by those in the upper classes.  So again, those on the margins fall further behind. Unfortunately, in both videos, we are not offered any insight as to how we (as privileged, educated people) can help to solve this problem.

Hansen and Reich, 2015

A few days ago I participated in a Twitter Chat from with a theme centered on Black History Month.  One of the questions surrounded role models for marginalized students, and I think this highlights part of a multifaceted problem.  I mentioned that I had a grade 12 student tell me several years ago that I was the first teacher of color that she had ever had, and for her it made a huge difference to see a role model that looked like her.  I think if things are going to change, we need teachers, administrators, and district level leadership that represents those students in the margins. I remember being promoted in my school board back in Canada.  Walking into our first district leadership meeting, I was flabbergasted.  These were monthly meetings for all Principals, Vice-Principals, and district level leaders. In a school board of nearly 100 schools I could pinpoint those leaders who looked like me. If marginalized adolescents are to be in leadership roles, they must see themselves in the leaders in front of them. This is at least one way to move things forward.

In Kaufman’s TedTalk about the first 20 hours in terms of learning a new skill he speaks to removing the barriers.  Now I know in the context of his speech he is talking about distractions as barriers. But in the context of our marginalized youth, the barriers are much more significant. How do we overcome these barriers that minorities face?  Barriers such as access to technology, parents and role models to demonstrate the learning, time to invest in the technology, a network of supporters, academic guidance, and others.

Matthew Garoffolo

The internet was supposed to be the great saviour.  It would magically lift those who are in poverty, in the margins, and minorities, out of gutters, and onto the digital freeway with everyone else.  Unfortunately, that has not happened, and as we can see in some instances, is actually getting worse. The big question I am left with, and I leave you with, is:

How do we use technology to lift the ‘others’ up and give them the same opportunities as those who have access to everything, so that they may be truly connected?