Jerry Fingal
Digital equity starts with teachers-in-training

For teacher educator Nicol Howard, addressing digital equity issues starts long before K-12 students ever get close to a classroom.

One of the key starting places is the training those students’ teachers receive in their degree programs. But it’s not as simple as teaching new educators how to address digital equity. The process is often complicated by digital equity issues the student teachers themselves have experienced or are currently facing.

“I have some students who might not have a laptop with the space they need or they might not have the connectivity they need at home,” said Howard, an assistant professor in the education department at the University of Redlands in California. “They’re dealing with those issues at home. They’re coming from some high school programs where they didn’t use the technology in ways that we’re trying to prepare them to use the technology with their future students.”

Much of the attention paid to digital equity is focused on hardware, software and bandwidth. Howard would like shift some of that attention to how teachers-in-training are prepared to use technology as a teaching tool.

“It’s time to close the gap between what our preservice teachers need to know and what is happening in the field right now in K-12 classrooms,” Howard said. “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We can focus in on just what our current teachers are doing, but we also need to look at how to prepare the future generation of teachers so we’re not repeating the cycle.”

Participation gap hampers students

A key part of breaking the cycle is addressing the “participation gap.”

“Addressing the achievement gap was where I was years ago, and then it was the opportunity gap, and now, tied to digital equity, it’s addressing the participation gap, which is another nuance to this,” she said. “It’s more than just access to the tool, you need the participation and the learning experience.”

That participation gap shows up in the students she teaches. During a recent lesson, she had students asking her how they could share an assignment with her, a simple digital task. She finds some students are comfortable with using technology but it’s on the level of typing a paper and emailing it.

“I know that’s digital literacy but it’s still a part of digital equity in my mind because if we’re not exposing students to these different tools and allowing them to become comfortable using them, then how do they learn it? How do they explore it? When do they have an opportunity to create if we don’t bring it in?”

That’s especially true in teacher training programs where it takes a depth of understanding to effectively use technology in the classroom.

“We can create opportunities for them to go out and observe our K-12 teachers but they still need the opportunity to practice the use and actually self-evaluate their use of technology,” she said. “I think that’s key as well, evaluating the tool they’re using, understanding the purpose for it, using it and then self-evaluating it and figuring out, ‘Did I really use that effectively and would I use it again?’ They need those opportunities.”

Moving from theory to practice

The pace of change in technology poses another challenge.

“With how fast technology changes, it’s hard to keep up for a teacher in a K-12 classroom, let alone someone who’s farther away from the K-12 classroom on the higher-ed level where we’re talking a lot about of theory and talking about practices. It’s like we have to close that gap too, to move from theory to practice. You have to be connected to what the current practices are when it comes to the use of digital tools.”

Despite all the barriers to digital equity, progress is being made. The state of California now requires prospective teachers to embed technology in lessons as part of the credentialing process. At the University of Redlands, digital equity and the use of technology is woven throughout the curriculum.

On a personal level, Howard makes accommodations for digital equity issues in her classes by providing loaner tablets, redesigning lessons to be more collaborative to allow for sharing of devices or by assigning tasks that can be accomplished on a smartphone.

“I’ve seen improvements in not just how they’re doing it, but in the attitude toward this,” she said. “There’s an acceptance of this new digital culture, the recognition that you need to be more tech-forward and in the bravery that our K-12 teachers have in their willingness to take on technology a little bit more.”

Find ideas for reducing the equity gap in higher education in Nicol Howard's new book Closing the Gap: Digital Equity Strategies for Teacher Prep Programs. 

Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer who focuses on digital education issues. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.