VT Secretary of Education speaks on equity in Vermont

“I don’t believe you can be an educator committed to student voice and not be a powerful advocate for equity.”

international student voice conferenceThis past August, the University of Vermont played host to an international conference focused on ways to amplify student voice and increase student partnership in the classroom.

Attendees were lucky enough to hear an address by Vermont Secretary of Education Dr. Rebecca Holcombe, who spoke powerfully on the need for intersectional equity in Vermont, in supporting students.

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What work-based learning in Vermont can look like

On exploring flexible pathways to learning

equity in educationThis past August, Vermont Secretary of Education Dr Rebecca Holcombe addressed the 2016 Amplifying Student Voice & Partnership Conference on the topic of equity in education. She was also kind enough to allow us to record and share her remarks.

In the first of two installments, we hear from Secretary Holcombe as she highlights the story of one particular student from Randolph Union High School, who, along with support from his community, found a way to channel his passion for farming into work-based learning in Vermont, and from there, a world of high-level business skills.

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Equity begins with engagement

Care about equity in education? Start with engagement

equity in educationEducators care about equity. We all want to bring out excellence in our students, but the thing that keeps us up at night is our constant striving to do that for ALL of our students.

There are many systemic barriers to equity. Our students and schools mirror society, so the efforts of educators slam up against macro forces such as generational poverty, distressed families, institutional racism, and other forms of social injustice.

Yet we still have the power to light a spark.

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Z is for Generation Z

Who are Generation Z?

who are Generation ZThe term Generation Z refers to teens and pre-teens born after 1995 and was officially launched in 2014 as part of a marketing presentation. The salient characteristic of their generation is its apparent fondness love of and comfort with new technology.

So, in order to find out more about Generation Z, we asked middle school students about theirs and their families’ relationship with technology. And found no easy generalizations.

And what does this all have to do with that pesky “digital natives” conversation?

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X is for eXtra credit

How does edtech affect extra credit?

how does edtech affect extra creditIs extra credit still a valid notion as we move towards ubiquitous learning, and grapple with questions of equity in education?

If the goal is anytime, anywhere learning, how can we quantify certain activities as eXtraneous to that learning space?

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Beyond Bling: how do we deepen Makerspace learning?

How do we move all new learners to the deep end of the pool?

how do we deepen Makerspace learning?

Photo by Cecilia Denhard. CC 2.0

As I walked through an innovation showcase at SxSw 2015 (one of the the largest convergences of creative and critical thinkers last March) I was struck by the juxtaposition of two tables that were adjacent to each other.

One offered “Creative Circuit kits provide girls with all of the materials to make 10+ arts, crafts, and fashion projects with technology” the other offered “opportunities for students to replicate experiments you perform in your classrooms using an Arduino kit and a sensor kit on a nano-satellite via Nasa’s CubeSat Launch Initiatives.”

As a long time advocate for initiatives that increase the confidence and skills of girls with technology, I appreciate that the “creative circuit kit” might provide a great opportunity to engage girls with technology, but I find myself concerned that it would be easy to gain a false sense of accomplishment if we don’t move beyond ‘bling’.

I find myself wondering what are the steps that connect the excitement from “blink blink” to the curiosity that leaves you wondering “what type of sensor do I need to create an experiment that I can test in space?”

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Equity and technology in schools

How do you level the digital playing field?

equity and technology in schoolsHow do you even start taking on a task like that?

Equity has always been a thorny issue for schools to deal with, and adding technology to the mix has added a whole new layer of complications.

As more research emerges linking technology to student engagement and decreased drop-out rates, the stakes get higher, and the consequences for students with diminished access to technology grow more drastic.

So what can you do?

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Is extra credit an equity issue?

What is the worst consequence of our best idea?

That’s a question that Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, asks his team when trying out new strategies in their high school. It’s a question I want to pose to all teachers when considering issues of equity in our classrooms.

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Digital divide in the classroom

Digital divide[1], participation gap[2], cultural divide[3]: over the decades the language of equity issues in technology have shifted along with the technology.  This shifting language reflects the way we view technology and our relationships with it.  What hasn’t changed is the challenge that these terms highlight—that some individuals have greater access to technology, both inside and outside the classroom.

Two fundamental components of access to technology are a fast, consistent internet connection and an appropriate device: Who in your classroom has internet at home?  Who has a device they can use at home?  What tech is in the classroom? What controls on student use exist?

A harder to see component of access is the participation gap and cultural divide: Who is consuming digital media? Who is participating and engaging in digital experiences with others? Who is being taught how to understand and critique media?  Who has the resources (time, cultural understanding, money) to create digital work that improves their social status (both inside and outside the classroom)? [4]

These two frames demonstrate how a technology gap must be understood as occurring on multiple levels, from hardware and connectivity to our roles as consumers and producers of digital media. We can use these frameworks of access to assess technology in the classroom, specifically ones own classroom.

As the evolving construct of the issue demonstrates, the way we as educators use the technology impacts our individual students and the divide. When we become more aware of ourselves, the differences our students bring, and how we react to those differences we are more equipped to set up a meaningful learning environment.


How we think about technology

Technology is a tool, and like any tool, the way we think about it impacts how we use it and how we ask our students to use it.  We can use it to enhance traditional ways of learning and producing, such as word processing and memorizing.  We can use it to increase participation, both between students inside the classroom and outside the classroom, through collaborative tools and multi-media. We can also use it to develop critical cultural skills of questioning and evaluating digital media and power structures.

When we limit our view of technology to a digital pen and paper, we miss the ways students can increase their participation, build relationships, and develop cultural capital.  For those students whose primary access to technology is through the classroom, this further widens the gap. When we use technology to allow for a variety of ways to access, evaluate, and develop knowledge, we demonstrate how we value multiple avenues of knowledge.

As a classroom teacher when you become aware of the frameworks you use you can increase your choices of how to use the technology available to you.

Questions to answer:

  1. How do you use the tool of technology?
  2. Do you consume, produce, and/or participate?
  3. How does your personal use of technology shape the way you think about the tool?
  4. How do you critically think about the tool?
  5. How can this tool be used to connect people, build participation, increase critical awareness of equity issues?
  6. How do you think technology allows for various forms of knowledge to be valued?        


How we view others

How we think about technology shapes the way we approach planning our use of it.  How we think about our student’s use of technology shapes the way we interact with them and their use of it, much of the time when we are unaware of it.

Research looks at the technology gaps, both in hardware/connectivity as well as use in the classroom.  Holfeld, et. al. 2008, have found that schools with lower socioeconomic status have stricter student use policies and teachers who are more likely to use technology for rote learning, rather than creative engagement.[5] These schools and teachers are most likely not aware they are furthering the technological divide.

The cultural message that children and youth are more tech savvy than adults can also affect our policies and practices that increase the tech divide. This message implies it is a “natural” thing for children and youth to be good at tech. This hides the socio-economic and cultural factors of tech access. It also produces the flip side of the message that when children are not good at tech, for lack of access, they are individually flawed. For teachers who unknowingly believe this message it can result in preferential treatment to those students who have access outside of the classroom, thus furthering the divide[6].

Just as increasing our awareness of our framework is helpful in impacting our behavior and reducing the divide, increasing our awareness of how we think about other’s use of technology impacts our behavior and affects the divide.

Questions to answer:

  1. What is your first thought when a child seems to be “tech savvy”? Does it just seem “natural” to them?
  2. What is your first thought when a child doesn’t seem to be at ease with technology?
  3. How do you engage students in questioning technology, questioning the viewpoint of sites, analyzing the credibility of games? Do you engage different students differently in this critical thinking?
  4. How do you think about the reasons for the economic and social circumstances of your students (at all SES levels)?
  5. Do you think about how your SES shapes your relationship to technology?
  6. Do you try to control the content of some students more than others?
  7. What are your judgments of differing family involvement?
  8. Do you set up technology use so people with a wide range of backgrounds can use it?
  9. How open are you to learning, and incorporating, the way your students think into the way you teach and use technology?

Wrapping it up

Access to hardware and connectivity is only part of accessing technology.  Accessing the possibilities of participation and cultural knowledge is harder to see, but more within the classroom teacher’s control.  When educators see technology as a meaningful, varied means of expression for students, it invites students to participate in unique, every-evolving ways.  When students see themselves as capable of learning and using technology, they are empowered to continue accessing participation and cultural knowledge. This empowerment moves us all towards a reduction in the technology divide.



[1] http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2007/01/your-guide-to-the-digital-divide017

[2] http://www.exploratorium.edu/research/digitalkids/Lyman_DigitalKids.pdf


[4] http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/27_02/27_02_vangalen.shtml

[5] Hohlfeld, T. N., Ritzhaupt, A. D., Barron, A. E., & Kemker, K. (2008). Examining the digital divide in K-12 public schools: Four-year trends for supporting ICT literacy in Florida. Computers & Education, 51(4), 1648–1663. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2008.04.002

[6] http://www.exploratorium.edu/research/digitalkids/Lyman_DigitalKids.pdf

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