The New Digital Divide: Academic Support

I have taught in many different communities during my time in education. Early in my career, I worked primarily with a community in east Austin comprised of 98% “free-and-reduced lunch” students. Then later, I worked in the other extreme as only 2% of such students existed in the district on the west side of town. In both locations, I spent a great deal of time helping integrate technology effectively in the classroom. While my purpose may have been the same in both situations, the actual content and outcomes were vastly different.

Students in both communities had to meet the standards put forth by the state of Texas on the high-stakes assessment. However, in one community, the assessment was an afterthought while in the other, it was front-and-center. As a result, this greatly influenced the interactions and use of educational technology as academic support in both locations.

In the underserved community, I was told that “kids don’t have time to play on computers, they need to practice math facts.” It was really the first of many red flags when it came to the perception of how technology should be used. Since then, even with more devices in the hands of kids, I’ve seen this gap widen over time. As a consultant working in schools with a variety of socioeconomic statuses, the gap isn’t about access, it’s about learning. In many ways, even the educational tools that are being used increase this learning divide.

Lower Bloom’s Tools

In underperforming communities, systems that help with credit recovery or remediation are the top sellers. The rationale is simple; Use the technology as a automated tutor of sorts to help kids build up the skills and basic memorization tasks. The students aren’t actually learning anything or thinking critically, they are just memorizing algorithms and facts to get a better score on the state assessment. Think of those lower level tasks on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Now look at the opposite environment. When the state assessment isn’t the main motivator of learning, students are allowed to create more freely and think more critically. In more affluent communities, students test much higher on state and national assessments like the SAT. This is a result of many factors including students from those areas having access to more personal tutors and test-prep materials that help them “game” the system. As a result of this higher quality academic support, students in these communities can spend less time focusing on daily repetitive testing tasks. They can work on collaborative projects and design challenges that deepen their understanding of concepts. The irony is, learning more deeply and critically would also be effective in the “drill and kill” environment if it was more widely accepted.

In an effort to close the academic gap, low SES campuses are forced to make some hard decisions on what to focus on and what to cut. Building critical thinking skills and expanding social-emotional learning take a back seat to repetitive or gamified tools geared to improving retention and memorization. Creativity and collaborative projects are left for the month of May after assessments are over. Any type of additional academic support like tutoring is cost-prohibitive to these communities so it falls on the teacher to work extra hours.

A student listens to a math lesson from behind a protection shield at a socially distanced desk.

The Great Learning Realignment

The world has changed significantly in the last two years. Remote work, increased automation, and reduction of “in-person commerce” mean our students will experience a much different world than us. Schools too have started to see a shift in their thinking of how learning can be supported in a multitude of ways. I wrote about this Learning Realignment last spring and believe online learning could be a useful model going forward to close the gap when it comes to academic support.

Virtual or online school is not a unique concept. Prior to the pandemic, there were many schools (most notably Florida Virtual Schools) that excelled teaching a completely online environment. Unfortunately, that environment can be less than ideal for certain students. Further, only those with the means to do virtual with the right home environment can access this, thus furthering the divide.

In order to make this work for those students in traditionally underserved communities, there has to be a tool that can both support the traditional face-to-face teacher AND provide academic support that encourages critical thinking. In other words, not just another tutor or program telling the students what to do. As I was writing this article, I looked at several online tutoring programs. Many seemed to support the traditional model of tutoring and at an exorbitant cost to the parents. That cost is a big reason why students in affluent communities continue excel while students in lower SES areas do not. But cost isn’t the only barrier to this academic support conundrum.

A Time Famine Challenge

In the traditional classroom setting, a teacher stands alone facing a group of 20-30 students on a daily basis and possibly more depending on the grade level. Being able to assess and evaluate each of these students becomes an increasing challenge. Add to that, the “time famine” that we are already facing, and you can see we have a math problem that doesn’t add up. When faced with a decision to prioritize, teachers opt for the low-hanging fruit of repetition and practice to help those behind.

In an environment where a large portion of the students are academically behind, this can be an almost futile effort. Add to that, the additional academic slippage (yes, I hate the phrase ‘learning loss’) many students experienced during the pandemic, and you can see the struggle schools are facing. The truth is, there is no magic bullet that will fix this.

Schools generally don’t provide online tutoring as they instead ask their already overworked staff to stay late and come in early to support those struggling students. Also, those that do have some sort of external tutoring support rarely connect with the teacher of record to update on student progress. Most if not all of these programs rely on parental purchase. These seem to just be the traditional model of tutoring, only online as well. I began to get frustrated in my search, but as fate would have it, I found a possible solution when chatting with a friend online. I was having a conversation with Mike Washburn recently and he told me about his new company called Paper.

A social studies teacher participates in an online staff meeting alone in his classroom at Middletown High School.

Next Generation Academic Support

Every one of the challenges I complain about in schools, his product had an answer. The online component is real people, not just a bunch of chat bots or AI scoring a student’s test. It can be used BOTH after school and during school. It helps the teacher get better insights into what a student is thinking. And the best part for me was finding out that the tutors on the platform don’t just give students answers and formulas, they ask them questions to refine their thinking. In many ways, I really think this could be the next evolution in academic support and expanding critical thinking.

Their platform is built around a model of something called “high-dosage tutoring”. What I like about this research-backed model is that it isn’t about just repetitive practice to help kids catch up. They provide unlimited 24/7 support for homework help, writing feedback and more. Paper also helps teachers by allowing them to use their platform as a virtual teaching assistant that checks student work, review essays, and additional insights into student progress.

Schools are overworking their teachers already in an effort to recover from “learning loss”. Using a tool like this hits a sweet spot for academic support that we’ve needed in K-12 for a long time. I know there are a lot of funds earmarked for this recovery from the federal government. My fear is that much of it will go to traditional drill and kill apps or extra hours for already over-worked teachers. A tool like this takes advantage of the increased access to devices in schools and leverages the online learning environment for just-in-time support. By providing this for staff and students, schools can provide an equal opportunity that kids in underserved communities might not have had before.

Solving the Gap

As I mentioned earlier, there is no magic bullet that’s going to solve our this divide of academic support. That doesn’t mean that we should continue to do what we’ve been doing in the past that has widened this gap. Schools need to shift focus and time away from remediation tools and push towards deeper learning. Having a tool like Paper is just the tip of the iceberg of what is now possible in schools. If our leaders have the right vision when it comes to tackling academic loss, we can start to close this divide in academic support.

About MrHooker

Educator, global speaker and consultant, event organizer, educational strategist and CEO of HookerTech LLC, Future Ready Schools Faculty member, author of the 6-book series "Mobile Learning Mindset", "Ready Set FAIL!" and his latest book "Learning Evolution: The New Era of AI in the Classroom." He also is the host of the ISTE Learning Unleashed podcast and the UnDisruptED podcast by Future Ready schools. He is most importantly, a husband and father of 3.

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