Is technology a force for equity in society? Not if we leave some behind.

The key word in this debate is equity. The Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario defines equity as “fairness achieved through proactive measures that result in equality for all.” Therefore, the question for this debate is not whether technology is beneficial to some, or even to most; the question is whether it is beneficial to all. This is a crucial distinction for this debate.

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It is impossible to convincingly argue that technology does not benefit people in society. We have seen that technology has increased access to education for some people. The agree team provided examples of how Stanford university has been able to increase class sizes and reduce tuition fees by offering courses online. There are also examples of organisations such as the Vodafone Foundation providing laptops and internet access to children in refugee camps. However, we must acknowledge that while technology is increasing access to education for these individuals, there are still many people who are unable to access the technology and hence cannot benefit from it. 15% of Canadians living in rural areas and almost half of First Nations households within Canada do not have access to the internet. And even when the technology is provided to the individuals, such as with the Vodafone foundation’s work in refugee camps, having access to the technology does not mean that they are in an environment where they can benefit from that tool. A child at a refugee camp, like all other children faced with societal issues, is not necessarily mentally prepared to learn – they are worrying about what they will eat, where they will sleep, and if they are safe. So while technology has increased access to education for some people, it has not done so for all people.

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We have also seen that technology has helped some people with disabilities. Assistive technology such as text to speech software and amplification systems have made classrooms more inclusive for some students with disabilities. While assistive technology is benefiting some, there are still many barriers that prevent this technology from being accessible to many others. The costs with these types of technologies are often prohibitive for some school boards. If the technology is dependent on language, it is unlikely to be available in all languages, especially considering how even the internet is still not available in most languages. We also need to consider that the effectiveness of assistive technology is dependent on the ability that teachers have to use it. School boards with low funding or high staff turnover may be at a disadvantage in knowing how to effectively use the technology available. For these reasons, technology has not made the classroom inclusive for all students with disabilities.

For the students who have had access to technology, been in an environment where they are able to take advantage of that access, speak a language and have abilities that are supported by that technology, they have been able to benefit from it. For everyone else, technology has only contributed to widening the achievement gap. A digital Matthew Effect is taking place where those who tend to already be privileged are the ones who are receiving the most benefits from technology.

I realize that it is next to impossible to ensure that technology reaches every person and provides them with the proactive measures that will level the playing field for them. However, if we are claiming that technology is a force for equity in society, then by the definition of equity, we must be able to show that the benefits are applied to everyone. Until such time, we can claim that technology is beneficial, but we cannot claim that it is a force for equity.

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I found myself to be very passionate about this debate and that passion really stemmed from the equity component in this debate. I have been immersed in a society that is faced with the challenges of social issues and inequity and I have witnessed many efforts to use technology to improve access to education. These efforts continue to fall short of expectations because they fail to directly address the inequities that exist in this society. One example is the PASS program that I am involved in. This is an online program that enables mature students to obtain their high school diploma. Students are provided with a laptop and internet connection at no cost and they are also given a course on how to use the technology, as well as continued technical support throughout the program. A common complaint from students is that they cannot complete their work because the data usage provided to them for their coursework has been used up by another family member as this is often the only source of internet in a household which could have 10-15 people living there. So while the PASS program uses technology to increase the access to education for Nunavummiut, social issues such as overcrowding and poverty limit the effectiveness of this technology. Thinking that technology can solve the inequities in society is a form of technosolutionism. This type of thinking can actually perpetuate the inequities, as the people who face these inequities are often the ones most likely to not have access to technology.

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7 thoughts on “Is technology a force for equity in society? Not if we leave some behind.

  1. I agree that technology is beneficial but we can’t state that it’s a force for equity. It is unfortunate that most students complaint about the PASS program is that their data is being used by others in their family. Can we blame the others for using their data that is intended for them to complete the program? Of course not. The internet is almost a need in our modern day society. Certainly we can live without it, but it does makes us feel like we are detached from everything else or missing out on something. So of course their family members are using their data. It would be like providing them with clothes, food or water and not expecting their family members to use it. Great post Ainsley!

  2. Good post. Your statement that the internet is not even available in most languages blew me away. As an English speaking internet user this is not even something I had considered. Thanks for including the link to the article supporting this statement. Very interesting!

  3. As always, Ainsley, I really appreciate your different point of view on these topics! I tend to always forget about the communities in which I don’t live or teach, and these are the areas that are really lacking the technology that you reference here in your post. I didn’t even know about the PASS system, either, until you referenced it. Thanks for sharing all your insight and experience!

  4. I love reading your blogs because you bring so many new ideas to the table. I agree with Dean, that I didn’t even think about the internet being available in a variety of languages, once again pointing out my own privilege as it is available in my own first language and I have never been challenged in this way personally. Thanks Ainsley!

  5. Fantastic post, Ainsley. I love that you drew the argument back to more fundamental inequalities, such as lack of proper food, consistent internet access, and socio-economic need. I was especially interested that half of aboriginal families are without internet access. I knew that the number was disproportionately high, but I had no idea that it was that bad. The PASS program that you brought up is really interesting to me. So there is a data cap imposed on this usage? That seems somewhat arbitrary. It seems to send the message “You can use tech to enrich your life, but only in the ways that the government deems fit.” Definitely some echoes of colonialism still ringing.

  6. Thanks for the question Steve. With the PASS program the data cap is not applied directly by the government. Qiniq is one of three internet suppliers in Nunavut and their largest plan (which is similar to the other internet providers) is 30GB of data with a download speed of 2.5 Mbps for $369/month. There are no internet packages available in Nunavut with unlimited data. As you can see access to bandwidth is a huge issue in the north! I rarely watch anything on YouTube because it uses up so much of my internet and takes forever to download! I’m afraid to look at the extra charges I will have on my internet bill for the extra data used up by Zoom for this course!

  7. Great post Ainsley! It is important to realize the gaps are very much still an issue for technology to come close to becoming more equitable. The program for helping students graduate in Nunavut sounds so hopeful and yet it is failing due to lack of internet access and costs to have it. Such a disappointment:(

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