Jul 22 2020

Q&A: Nicol Turner Lee on How to Create an Equitable Digital Culture in K–12

Remote learning provides an opportunity to determine how technology can complement the learning process rather than replacing parts of it, says the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.

Dynamics of digital instruction, learning outcomes and equitable access can be complex, with no one-size-fits-all approach. As researchers learn more about best practices, educators are tasked with putting their findings into practice — a job harder than it sounds. Now, districts are confronting new challenges around equity and screen time as they seek to deliver remote instruction.

We asked Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to share her views on screen time.

This interview is part of a roundtable on how researchers and educators view screen time, digital equity and learning outcomes.

EDTECH: Research about the effects of screen time varies widely. How would you characterize this issue and the effort to balance technology in schools?

TURNER LEE: I’ve had this debate with higher-income parents trying to take tablets away from their kids and make the case that screen time overall is not helpful. I believe that often the conversation around screen time is done from a middle-class perspective. As a result, we forget that not all children have access to internet-enabled hardware.

What COVID-19 has revealed is that, in our important conversations around this topic, we may be missing a few factors, including what access looks like for lower-income students and how many types of devices they have available at home, such as a smartphone, tablet, PC or laptop. Research has found that these kids have less access to multiple devices within the home. Our ability to determine whether the kids in Silicon Valley have too much screen time versus the kids in certain parts of Anacostia in Washington, D.C., is really the question that this pandemic is surfacing for school districts struggling to engage in distance learning.

EDTECH: If intentionality is key to the effective use of educational technology, how can educators apply this in practice?

TURNER LEE: This is a moment for the educational community to figure out how technology can be complementary to the learning process — not replace parts of it. We’re learning that we still have much more research to do when it comes to students’ access to screens and students’ achievement when it comes to technology engagement in the classroom.

When I was in school, the textbook was our major resource. For these youth, it’s now the internet and a device. We’ve got to figure out ways to get one laptop or tablet to each child. This resource must be in their backpacks.

DISCOVER: Learn how to improve remote learning experiences. 

EDTECH: Some educators have concerns about potential negative effects of screen time. Are these concerns legitimate?

TURNER LEE: Yes. Educators and parents still have to address the potentially dependent behaviors that young people acquire from constant use of technology. Without appropriate guardrails and guidelines, an imbalance between how much time they engage with technology and with one-on-one instruction will occur.

Any teacher will be challenged, as technology has certainly added to the distractions that we have in the world. I like the no-cellphone policies, which enforce the restriction of personal devices during school time. That allows the teacher to define how they want to use the devices, which I think is more productive.

Nicol Turner Lee, Director of Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation

EDTECH: How do you frame the relationship between technology and equity?

TURNER LEE: The educational community must continue to evaluate the effectiveness of technology in improving student achievement, but I also think that there is room to understand the correlation between technology and increased student engagement. How does equity apply to this? In my travels to low-performing schools with technology access, there was a certain enthusiasm among the students, teachers and parents. It was almost like they felt less abandoned because they had digital resources.

We have to be more progressive and radical in connecting rural communities and creating better alternatives for home and community access. There are too many stories of students sitting at McDonald’s to do their homework in low-income communities or parents parking their cars in the school lots to tap into their Wi-Fi.

READ MORE: Here's what educators learned about the digital divide during COVID-19.

EDTECH: What about students with special needs? How are we also engaging them with the appropriate digital resources?

TURNER LEE: When it comes to ensuring connectivity for students, we must start with their communities, which are often without the needed resources for students to continue their learned digital experiences. Libraries play an important role, but sometimes they are overextended. Based on one’s income and geography, there is a likelihood that they will also lack a home broadband connection. When students do not have internet access, they are starting behind the starting line in an economy that has become increasingly digital.

Learn how to make digital content more accessible for all students. 

EDTECH: Given that our understanding of access and equity issues will continue to evolve, how can schools best approach this complex issue?

TURNER LEE: Education is not immune to the systemic inequalities that led to the Brown v. Board of Education case, which questioned the availability of resources for students. Today, there are remnants of these disparities that honestly show up when less-resourced schools cannot be flexible and agile enough to transition to remote learning. Why? The resources available are dictated by their district, which is often correlated with the income of the residents.

The beauty of a burgeoning information economy is that certain parts of this ecology can allow for greater opportunity because there are no walls that keep one out of thriving online. Given this, educational institutions should evaluate how they fit into the broader conversations around digital equity. We look to schools for the development of the educational, personal and civic skills of our students. But what about the school’s role in presenting the appropriate digital norms and preparing students for the new digital economy?

School districts need to create a digital culture that embodies their values around technology in the classroom, accounts for what students will need to be successful in the new economy, and ensures that access is available to everyone, whether that be in a device or some level of home or community connectivity. Many schools have CIOs, but what about a chief digital inclusion leader who can make sure that all students are connected, teachers are training in online learning and that the surrounding community has ample resources for students to continue their learning?

Having access to high-speed broadband is a need, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. What schools do with the lessons learned at this time will either ensure or weaken their resiliency if this ever happens again.

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