Using Technology to Support At-Risk Youth

November 06, 2014
By Educator Innovator

The nation’s 23.8 million non-dominant students comprise nearly half of the school population, and many of them are underserved by their school systems, particularly when it comes to technology use. Walk into one of the under-resourced schools in which many of these young people spend their days and you’re liable to notice that although SMART Boards may have replaced blackboards and some computers may be visible around the room, in many cases there are few differences between today and the previous century in the ways classroom tools are leveraged for learning.

After the school day and school year ends, disparities in access to technology are further compounded. Only three percent of teachers in high-poverty schools agree that “students have the digital tools they need to effectively complete assignments while at home,” compared to 52 percent of teachers in more affluent schools. As students get older and afterschool participation decreases, opportunities to engage in high-quality digital learning are few and far between for high-school aged students who need it most.

UntitledNow, try driving across town to see the opportunities afforded to wealthier students. Likely, you’ll find them huddled in groups and learning from their peers with the assistance of tablets and laptops loaded with the latest educational programs and apps. Studies show that on nearly every indicator of educational access—school funding, qualified teachers, high-quality curriculum, books, materials and computers—white, affluent students have more access than low-income students and students of color.

While technology and digital learning are certainly not the silver bullets for closing the achievement gap, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) finds that technology—when implemented properly—produces significant gains in student achievement and boosts engagement, particularly among students most at risk. The report is based on a review of more than seventy recent research studies and identifies three important components to successfully using technology with at-risk students: (1) interactive learning; (2) use of technology to explore and create rather than to “drill and kill;” and (3) the right blend of teachers and technology.

Of particular relevance to the afterschool community is the finding that the learning context plays an important role in digital learning outcomes. According to the report, the learning context is comprised of the setting where the learning takes place, the goals of that environment and the nature of the learning activities. Ultimately, these variables interact with the characteristics of the learner to shape the learner’s experience and associated outcomes.

In other words, it matters where the learning takes place and what the objectives of the learning activities are. Some of the differences in learning contexts that are cited in the report include the extent to which technology is used to enable students to explore interests, interact with peers, promote technological literacies, and create content. These findings support the notion that out-of-school programs can be critical partners in the effort to reduce the digital divide. Not only do they help increase access to technology for at-risk youth after the school day ends, research now shows that differences in the out-of-school learning context contribute to different outcomes for at-risk youth.

It’s important, however, to remember that technology can be deceiving. Giving underserved schools a “technology makeover” provides a great photo opportunity, but unless the underlying learning context—both during and after school—is addressed, we’ll be doing our nation’s most at-risk and underserved students a huge disservice.

The full report, Using Technology to Support At-Risk Students’ Learning, and accompanying webinar, featuring Stanford University Professor and SCOPE Faculty Director Linda Darling-Hammond, are available on the Alliance for Excellent Education website.

by Kamila Thigpen, Alliance for Excellent Education