Educational technologies are having an unprecedented impact across society in multiple sectors by opening new market areas, helping learners acquire new knowledge and skills, and providing educational materials and resources, literally at the push of a button. Today’s innovative thinkers and developers behind these technologies routinely produce learning, educational, and assessment tools able to take advantage of data and resources that that would have been inconceivable less than a decade ago. Nevertheless, accessibility and availability do not directly translate into equity, and significant challenges remain when it comes to meeting the needs of the underserved learners across the chasm of the digital divide.

While it is true that strides have been made in closing that divide and the availability of online resources has touched nearly all segments of society, the quality of those resources is difficult to evaluate. Teachers and students are overwhelmed by the deluge of offerings and since there is no systematic formal review of the products available on the educational technology market, the stakeholders are skeptical and remain cautious when it comes to using them. Further difficulties affecting access can be attributed to students’ unique needs: some are hearing or visually impaired, still others are not sufficiently fluent in English to properly take advantage of the richness of resources.

And yet, even as online resources are more widely available, for many people quality access to the Internet itself has proven to be a substantial barrier, according to Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning in Lower Income Families. A wide array of issues affect access quality and include among others, the type of connection (desktop/mobile), number of users in the household, and the high cost of data plans and data limits. The issue of cost and data limits is particularly troubling, according to a recent assessment. The report also notes,

 “Most families who do not have home computers or Internet access cannot afford it. But, discounted Internet programs are reaching very few. Only 6% of parents with incomes below 185% of poverty (a common eligibility level for discounted service) have ever signed up for low-cost Internet access.”

Despite these challenges, efforts are being made in many of these areas; OpenEd’s work toward curating educational content; on outreach to people worldwide to help them learn the language they need for career success using a mobile application (Duolingo); and on providing tools for students with hearing impairment or learning ESL (Lovoco) that work in real-time, providing subtitles and translation right when students need them most.

Addressing the obstacles to equity in education will most certainly require technological innovation, but that will only be one piece of a very complicated puzzle. It will necessitate reimagining the ways in which we invest in our infrastructure and communities, develop social and education policy, conduct and analyze research, and ensure that equity is a central pillar undergirding the very innovations we hope to employ to meet these challenges.

To address these topics and bring awareness to the difficult issues facing underserved learners, ACTNext and ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning are coming together to host a symposium on Equity and Innovation in Education. This half day symposium will convene Oct. 25th in Washington, D.C. and feature three panels of experts, chaired by Jim Larimore (ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning) and Alina von Davier (ACTNext). Panels will discuss topics central to equity and innovation in education. Panelists include Jordana Barton (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas), Maria Vasquez (Center for Equity in Learning), Greg Ratliff (Center for Equity in Learning), Esther Care (Brookings Institution), Heather Hiles (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), James Pellegrino (University of Illinois at Chicago), Burr Settles (Duolingo), and Calvin Shum (Lovoco).

For more information or to attend the symposium, please contact Nina Bassole.