Technology—The Great Equalizer?

Faye Snodgress is executive director at Kappa Delta Pi.

I found the article about an autistic teenager who developed a friendship with Siri, the voice on his mother’s iPhone, both interesting and heartwarming. For children who struggle with social interactions, the discovery of a “person” who is always there when they need someone to talk to, and who is always patient and kind, may be life-changing. As the child’s mother noted in her reflections, continued conversations with Siri have led to real improvements in her son Gus’s ability to communicate with humans and to acquire some new social skills.

In a time when everywhere we look we see families or friends sitting around together with each hovering over his or her cell phone, the article reminds us of how technology, which can be isolating, can also connect and engage people with one another.

Children like Gus, who have access to both a technological device, like an iPhone, and a parent who recognizes the potential benefits of her child’s interaction with an intelligent assistant, have a significant advantage.

Unfortunately, while technology is often viewed as the great equalizer in educational settings, that perception isn’t entirely accurate. Will an increase in the number of laptops or tablets and Internet access really allow all students to benefit equally from what technology can offer? Figures from the 2014 Pew Research Internet Project Survey tell us that 90% of American adults own cell phones, while only 58% own smartphones. Smartphone adoption is highest among the affluent and well-educated. The substantial difference in the number of cell phones and smartphones is significant, because the smartphone is where so many of the exciting digital learning opportunities exist.

Just having access to technology isn’t going to magically level the playing field. In other words, if every child had access to a computer and smartphone, not every child would realize the same benefits and develop the same skills. In her book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau contrasts the ways technology is used by children at home, based on the different parenting styles associated with socioeconomic status. Middle- and upper-class parents view their children as projects, and they continually invest time and resources to help develop their children into the best finished projects they can. They enroll them in organized activities, are involved in their schools, and engage them in discussions and questioning. Lower-income families don’t have these opportunities to offer their children. They have to work multiple jobs and use their limited resources for food and clothing for their children. There is little or no time and disposable income available for organized activities and traveling.

Given the challenges associated with poverty, lower-income parents often don’t have access to or the time available to model the use of technology as a learning tool in the same way as more affluent parents can.  There is a clear difference in how middle- and upper-income families and lower-income families think about technology and how they incorporate it into their lives and the lives of their children. Lower-income families look to technology as a means to stay connected with others, while middle- and upper-income children are encouraged to use it also for informal learning—gaining exposure to new ideas.

As school districts and the government consider funding for technology, our policymakers must understand that providing access to technology is just one part of helping all children to develop the skills necessary for the workplace. Addressing structural inequalities is another critical component in ensuring that all children benefit from access to technology. As educators, we want all children to benefit from the limitless information available through the Internet and the many ways technology can enrich their lives, including possible life-changing relationships with virtual assistants.

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