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Digital Matthew Effect: Ed. Tech Does Not Level the Playing Field!

Dear Commons Community,

Tricia Kress, an associate professor and colleague at UMASS-Boston, sent along this article from Slate that concludes that the infusion of educational technology might widen the achievement gap between rich and poor. The “digital Matthew effect” (a term derived from Robert Merton)  refers to a phenomenon that when technology is deployed extensively in a school community, rich (mostly white) children will do better than poor (mostly minority) children and can tend to exacerbate the achievement gap.  Here is an excerpt:

“The unleveling impact of technology has to do with a phenomenon known as the “Matthew Effect”: the tendency for early advantages to multiply over time. Sociologist Robert Merton coined the term in 1968, making reference to a line in the gospel of Matthew (“for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”).

“…researchers are beginning to document a digital Matthew Effect, in which the already advantaged gain more from technology than do the less fortunate. As with books and reading, the most-knowledgeable, most-experienced, and most-supported students are those in the best position to use computers to leap further ahead. For example: In the Technology Immersion Pilot, a $20 million project carried out in Texas public schools beginning in 2003, laptops were randomly assigned to middle school students. The benefit of owning one of these computers, researchers later determined, was significantly greater for those students whose test scores were high to begin with.

Some studies of the introduction of technology have found an overall negative effect on academic achievement—and in these cases, poor students’ performance suffers more than that of their richer peers. In an article to be published next month in the journal Economic Inquiry, for example, Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor and co-authors Helen Ladd and Erika Martinez report their analysis of what happened when high-speed Internet service was rolled out across North Carolina: Math and reading test scores of the state’s public school students went down in each region as broadband was introduced, and this negative impact was greatest among economically disadvantaged students. Dousing the hope that spreading technology will engender growing equality, the authors write: “Reliable evidence points to the conclusion that broadening student access to home computers or home Internet service would widen, not narrow, achievement gaps.”\

The article concludes that:

“Access to adequate equipment and reliable high-speed connections remains a concern, of course. But improving the way that technology is employed in learning is an even bigger and more important issue. Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks.”

Without a doubt, there has been an overemphasis on hardware and software when the real challenges for implementing educational technology involve professional development and sustained support services for all involved.

Tony

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