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Education Conference Pushes for Inclusivity, Understanding

In order to make learning more inclusive, ed tech expert Ken Shelton believes schools need to look beyond digital equity and consider changing the very culture of public education.

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Ken Shelton speaking as part of the 2021 CoSN Conference.
Digital equity remains a key concern of educators and parents as millions of public school students continue their courses virtually during COVID-19 school closures. But access to devices and Internet connectivity is just one component of educational equity, according to ed tech expert Ken Shelton, keynote speaker of the 2021 Consortium for School Networking Conference. 

Shelton, an educator of over 20 years and an Apple Distinguished Educator, Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and Google Certified Innovator, said schools must also embrace a culture change to level the playing field among students. Moving beyond digital equity, the next obstacle is making sure that classroom technologies help to create an inclusive and culturally conscious learning environment.

Shelton calls this “techquity,” or the intersectionality between technology and equity.

“I do not believe that it’s possible to have a truly equitable learning environment that is absent of technology,” Shelton said during his Tuesday webinar, held as part of a series of presentations and workshops lead by educators, policy advocates and school stakeholders. 

“It’s not just the introduction of devices. It’s not just the accessibility of broadband. It’s also, how are you using the devices? What narratives, information and resources are we now provided access to as a result of having the technology?”

Shelton encouraged educators and officials to reconsider their approach to standardized pedagogies. He said it’s time to rethink grading systems, teaching styles and antiquated curriculum lessons that he believes often overlook the perspectives of Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

“If we limit ourselves to what’s just simply in the books that we are mandated to use or the resources we are mandated to use, then think about how that information has been skewed, sanitized and, in some cases, whitewashed,” he said during the webinar.

According to research from the National Academy of Sciences, Black students in the United States are subject to disciplinary action at rates much higher than their white counterparts. Disparities such as these, which also affect neurodiverse students, have led many education policy advocates to oppose what they see as a punitive approach to misbehavior and academic performance.

Shelton instead advocated a “restorative” approach, involving focused, positive support and being mindful of students’ backgrounds, to increase their chances of success.

“Culture is a far greater indicator of the student experience and the pathway to student success than anything else, even in terms of using the top tier technologies and using all of these different pedagogies,” he said. “If I enter a learning environment, and I know that I’m not going to be seen, heard and loved, then what is the likelihood that I’m going to be invested in my learning experience?”

As concerns about learning loss and the “homework gap” during school closures remain, Shelton said schools should reconsider the amount of homework they assign to students, noting that homework itself is inequitable by design.

“Think about the very nature of homework. I’m making the assumption that I’m giving you something you have to do outside of the support of the school and that every student is going to have the same access to the same resources — human or financial — to be able to do it,” he said.

But changing the cultural paradigm of education isn’t just a matter of how things are done, according to Shelton. It’s also a matter of who helps make those changes, and who benefits from them.

When Shelton was a public school student, he noted that many Black students weren’t encouraged to take advanced placement courses at the same rate in which his white peers were, and the perspectives of students of color were often dismissed when included in assignments like essays.

Shelton said many schools today still need to update their hiring practices to recruit and retain more teachers of color, as well as policies that may be holding students of color back from taking advanced honors courses.

Representation is among the key concerns in anti-racist workshops that Shelton gives to those in the education community. Throughout most of his years as a student, Shelton said he hardly ever saw Black male educators.

“For my entire schooling experience — kindergarten all the way through graduate school — I only had one teacher that looked like me, and that was my sophomore year at UCLA, my sociology professor,” he said, adding that he was often the only Black student in his AP courses.

“If you have diversity of representation of your student population, and I look at the data, am I going to find that students that look like me constitute a disproportionately high percentage of redesignation to special ed, low percentage of representation in honors and AP-level classes and a disproportionately high percentage of students that are suspended or even expelled from school?” he later continued. “Because if that is the case, you need to examine your habits or mind, cultural norms and look at what internalized systems are in place that allow that to endure and continue.”

Despite systemic issues such as these, Shelton remains hopeful that educators can use new and emerging ed tech tools to help widen the scope of the curriculum to include more perspectives and to “democratize access to information."

While others are skeptical about an increasingly digitized educational landscape, Shelton thinks technology could play a role in creating a new culture of inclusivity for historically marginalized populations.

“We can say [technology] makes us more disconnected, but we can also say that it can make us more connected,” he later continued. “After all, look at how all of us are together right now. If it were not for technology, we would not be able to share this same digital space together.”

CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said changing the culture and methodology within schools will require systemic changes on the public policy level. For too long, he said, many policymakers “have not seriously been dedicated to ensuring equity for all.”

“You can have a passionate leader or a great vision, but if the culture doesn’t support that innovation, it will not succeed,” Krueger said, reflecting on Shelton’s talk.

Shelton and Krueger believe providing universal Internet connectivity and virtual learning tools remains a crucial starting point when it comes to achieving equity in a broader sense. Krueger said today’s era of remote learning has magnified digital inequity, particularly for marginalized populations.

According to the Pew Research Center, digital inequity remains one of the biggest learning barriers for millions of students of color, rural students and low-income students. A 2019 Center survey also noted that nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults now believe the federal government has a responsibility to provide access to high-speed Internet to all Americans.

“Remote learning has clarified the chasm that some students have at home versus others, particularly those children from low-income families who are disproportionately of color or live in rural/remote [areas] where broadband access is simply not available,” Krueger said. “As a country, we must get serious about broadband to every home. This is comparable to what we did around rural electrification 70 years ago or did for highways 50 years ago. The market will not solve this. It will take investment as a public good.”

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.