Last month I attended the BayEd Summit, a one-day, discussion-based event sponsored by Teach for America. I participated in two sessions, “Teaching for Equity” and “The Bay Area Digital Divide.” The former session stuck with me.

In it, a panel of young teachers shared their stories about teaching with an objective of education equity. Conversations topics included the role of empathy in equitable practice, meeting students’ needs versus having low expectations, and how to encourage student agency in class discussions of equity.

One kindergarten teacher shared her own story of promoting equity. She explained to her students that Johnny had difficulty learning while sitting still and occasionally needed to get up. They agreed as a class to let him have unique permission to pace. They knew that Johnny needed to walk around, and they didn’t.

I was amazed. This teacher was having conversations about equity with kindergartners! Education equity was a subject that professors in my college courses rarely mentioned.

At Education Elements (my company), equity is an occasional topic of conversation. We want it to be a frequent topic, but operations often take priority over more abstract conversations. Inadvertently, we rely on the assumption that by promoting personalized learning, we inherently promote education equity. Whether through differentiated instructional models or adaptive software, student needs are met at an individual level–allowing for a more equitable allocation of teacher attention and resources.

Our assumption doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny. Personalized learning is simply an instructional philosophy; if implemented carelessly, it can exacerbate existing inequities in class. For example, rolling out a new adaptive math software that doesn’t offer scaffolding or translation for non-native speakers could further isolate ELL students.

I like the OECD’s definition of education equity as having two dimension: fairness and inclusion. With this in mind, I think my company–along with other edtech companies–could better contribute to the dialogue on #edequity by considering three questions:

  1. Is my product/service accessible by all students?

Can ELL students use our service? Students on the autism spectrum? The deaf or blind? With small changes to interface and functionality, a software program can be made more accessible for those with a variety of disabilities, like deafness, colorblindness or dyslexia. (Click the links for some related resources.) Easy adjustments can make online content translatable for multilingual students. All of this is key for inclusion.

  1. How does my product/service identify and address student needs?

Education Elements’ product does a great job of summarizing content provider data into digestible insights for teachers. Yet it doesn’t identify student needs–it simply makes trends of students’ digital behavior understandable, leaving teachers to diagnose problems. Our consulting services help teachers act on data insights; however, without that crucial second step–of translating a data point into an actionable statement of student need–we do very little for equity. The ultimate goal must remain identifying and addressing individual student needs (fairness).

  1. Does my product/service allow for student input?

Personalized learning has the greatest potential when it comes to serving students at the margins — the highly-advanced and the highly-struggling. Nevertheless, these two groups are extremely difficult to serve if treated as homogenous groups. Advanced students excel for very different reasons, just as no two struggling students want exactly the same help. There is only one way to understand what these students need: ask them. By integrating communication channels for student feedback into software and day-to-day classroom routines, we can better understand the needs of students on either end of the bell curve (fairness and inclusion).

I acknowledge that there are innumerable accommodations required to address all student needs. More dialogue, however, is always helpful for being aware of the small shifts that support a more inclusive, fair student learning experience.

Photo Credit: Luc Galoppin