E-Learning is Closing the Achievement Gap. Right?

Technology is changing just about everything, including the way we learn. From free online classes to high-quality Internet connections that let experts share their knowledge across vast distances, the future of education and training is certain to look very different than what we’ve been accustomed to.

But who’s this change helping, exactly? This question has stirred up a fascinating online debate recently, as people wonder whether online, high-tech learning and teaching tools will close or expand the gap between privileged learners and the less advantaged. The two sides of the debate were summed up nicely in a recent blog post by Justin Reich.

Scenario #1: Closing Gaps: In this vision, everyone benefits from new educational technologies, but low-income students disproportionately benefit. The hope here is that as the ecology of education is flooded with new free and nearly free resources, low-income students will have access to resources previously only available to students in schools in affluent places.

Scenario #2: Rising Tide: In this model, everyone still benefits, but now the wealthy disproportionately benefit. From a John Rawls framework, this is still a good thing–everyone is better off than before–but the opportunity gap between wealthy and poor has expanded.

Reich goes on to use the nonprofit online Khan Academy e-school as an example, explaining how people on both sides of the debate expect this tool to be used and to whose advantage. It’s well worth a read for those interested in a deeper dive into the subject. But the short version of his conclusion is that scenario No. 2 better synchs with observed reality — at least when it comes to the more well-established technology of wikis. Reich writes:

In the case of wikis, the second scenario is certainly true. Wikis are more likely to be created in wealthier schools, more likely to persist longer, and more likely to create opportunities for students to develop 21st century skills. . . I don’t think low-income students are harmed by the innovation of wikis, and I think there are plenty of instances where low-income students have had great opportunities with wikis to work collaboratively and create multimedia publications of their understanding. But I am also very confident that wealthy students have benefited much more from these innovations.

Not everyone thinks we should be focusing out attention on whether new learning tech will give a leg up to the already advantaged, however. Author Tom Vander Ark, another authority on the subject, instead feels our attention should be on the benefits of open education resources to disadvantaged learners. He recently listed his top 10 selling points of open education on the Huffington Post, including:

Good teachers. States that authorize multiple providers and allow part-time enrollment (like Florida, Idaho, and Utah) give every student access to great teachers in every subject. Public Impact is building on the Innosight Institute report, The Rise of Blended Learning, and identifying strategies — most using technology — that extend the reach of great teachers. The net benefit is that five years from now, more students will benefit from great teachers.

Diagnostics. Adaptive assessments and improved diagnostics are beginning to pinpoint learning levels and gaps that must be addressed.

Meanwhile, journalist Audrey Watters stresses that even if what Reich says is true — that these technologies may simply widen the achievement gap — it “isn’t an argument for more walls, for more proprietary, less open content.” Instead, she says, it’s “a call to do something about that,” by, for example, “ensuring that we expose all students, not just the high-performing ones, to these resources, that we develop ed-tech initiatives to address the neediest students.”

Of course, the debate is occurring mostly within the context of public education, not corporate training. But the idea that already-savvy and plugged-in learners might benefit more from new tech tools than the people who are most in need of assistance should be of interest to anyone responsible for learning.

Can the call to think about how these technologies can best be applied to shrink rather than widen gaps be applied to your organization?

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Minchioletta.

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.