Last fall, while studying digital equity at The School at Columbia University as part of practicum for the Klingenstein Center, Teachers College, we had an “aha” moment that’s shifting our teaching and leadership style — and propelling it forward. We’re seeing educational technology more holistically. We realize we have to use ed tech as a tool to help our students understand systemic issues, solve real-world problems, and create more inclusive learning experiences — in and beyond the classroom. It’s what we call “techquity,” a composite of social-emotional learning, technology, and equity and inclusion work happening in schools.

This epiphany comes as we work to help our students become thoughtful creators rather than mere consumers of technology. Academic research informs some of our thinking. In “From Good Intentions to Real Outcomes: Equity by Design in Learning Technologies”, Justin Reich and his coauthors surmise that having equal access to technology does not ensure that all learners are given equal opportunities. We agree with Reich that ubiquitous digital devices and online networks have radically reduced costs for accessing online and digital learning but have mostly failed to democratize education.

With that in mind, we focused our leadership practicum on the challenges for schools in being, and becoming, techquitable. Our observations and interviews with school leaders crystallized our understanding. Through academic and field study, our cohort identified four practices that help bring digital equity into the classroom: encouraging risk-taking, aligning projects with core content areas, incorporating student identity, and encouraging divergent thinking.

In the Field

We saw how all four practices can play out in school. When we interviewed Jaymes Dec, chair of innovation at Marymount School of New York in Manhattan, he was frustrated by the gaps exposed in a lesson. In this case, students were working together to design and construct 3D, printed, ancient Roman aqueducts. “The project has merit, but they all end up with the same product,” he said as he toyed with samples from last year’s class. He explained that when the final products from each student are the same, students miss out on expressing their individual ideas and talents.

In Marymount’s fab lab program, students can use any available materials and space to pursue their own passion projects during a “Lunch and Play” period. We watched Dec work with two sixth-grade girls on an original invention, “The Tipper Stopper,” a device to alert students if they were tipping a classroom chair back. The girls actually started the project the previous year as a result of (in their words) “a crackdown” on students who leaned back in their chairs. They didn’t know if their ideas would work, but risked failure to try their invention. “Not everything worked,” they revealed, “but we keep trying different ways of doing it.”

Another fundamental element of digital equity: understanding the role identity plays in each student’s desire and efficacy in makerspaces. When students enter the classroom, they may hesitate to see themselves as creators and makers. “The more students feel they belong to a community of technology problem solvers, innovators, and creators, the more successful they will be at using it, and the more they will see its usefulness in learning,” said Jeremy Sambuca, director of technology at The Hewitt School in Manhattan. To gain this sense of belonging, students must see themselves in the processes and products they create.

At The Island School (PS/MS 188), Makerspace Coordinator Lou Lahana emphasizes identity in two ways: the social issues students select and the tools and materials they use to raise awareness and help solve these issues. We watched as he listened to his eighth-graders’ experiences, goals, and frustrations on important social issues, including food insecurity, public safety, and immigration. “Listen, 47% of my students are homeless. It is unrealistic to think they have access to MacBooks and 3D printers, so I focus on using materials that they may have access to at home,” he said as students embroidered slogans they created. In what Lahana refers to as “craftivism,” students learn embroidery skills while developing their voices on topics they care deeply about. Some of their finished products read: “Don’t laugh at the homeless,” “40% of food is wasted,” and “I’m an Upstander.”

We also learned how technology is not being, and should not be, left to technology departments and makerspaces. Rather, it must be a key tool for core subject teachers to advance their students’ content knowledge. As such, schools must align technology use with core content areas. We observed Lahana lead sixth- and eighth-graders in design challenges based on novels they were reading in English Language Arts class. Students read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Home; researched conflict minerals, such as blood diamonds; and integrated maker materials into their presentations/art pieces on major book themes.

“You see these amazing projects that kids create in makerspaces all the time. ‘Look! a popsicle stick roller coaster!’ or ‘Wow! a banana-controlled Makey Makey Instrument,’ but what did the students learn? It’s STEAM-related engagement primarily for the sake of engagement. It can seem like eating candy. It tastes good but it isn’t good for you,” Lahana lamented.

Tying a few of the practices together is Sabrina Goldberg, a math teacher at The School at Columbia University. She uses The Great Mathematician Project, which incorporates project-based learning and student choice in school. Combining technological competencies, core content, and communication skills develops multicultural awareness. The end result humanizes mathematics and increases students’ agency in a globalized world.

Taking Next Steps

As the two of us head back into leadership roles at our schools, we know the stakes are high for delivering on the promises of the digital revolution — and for education to create innovative, inclusive, and techquitable learning environments.

We’re buoyed by the fact that we’re not the only ones thinking about this. Kenny Graves and Liz Fernández at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx suggest an unlikely partnership — namely synchronizing the efforts of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (D.E.I.) and Technology departments to address issues in techquity. They also recommend a structural change to academic committees by involving D.E.I. and Technology departments, hoping to enhance faculty awareness of student identity and encourage divergent thinking at the same time. Another critical lever is the way schools assess (or don’t) risk-taking, identity, and divergent thinking. Creating techquitable pedagogies and spaces in our schools will be one of the biggest efforts for independent schools to undertake in the near term. We plan to play a vital role here; we hope you do, too.

The authors give thanks to the leadership team at The School at Columbia University for sponsoring their practicum.