How to Improve Digital Equity? Focus on Strengthening ‘Human Capacity’ to Use Tech

Staff Writer


The pandemic brought a rush of new technology tools into classrooms, but now school districts across the country face a significant challenge: ensuring that those tools are being used equitably for all students.

There are many reasons that districts purchase ed tech and then fail to implement it widely and fairly. But some challenges, such as giving teachers the skills they need to better weave products into lessons, have been more difficult to overcome.

This was the focus of a panel discussion at the 2023 ISTE conference, a gathering held in Philadelphia this week that draws thousands of educators, as well as crowds of vendors hoping to introduce teachers and administrators to ed-tech products.

One of the key takeaways from the discussion is that professional development, and ensuring that educators are well-trained and comfortable with using tech tools, has an important role to play in ensuring digital equity in schools.

“Professional learning has to happen,” Julia Fallon, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said during the event. “You can’t just buy [a digital tool] and hope for that magic to happen. The magic is the human capacity of learning as an instructor and how it works in our in instruction and how we design our learning experiences for our kids.”

The Los Angeles Unified Schools, the second-largest school district in the country, faces a major challenge in trying to deliver consistently high-quality PD focused on strengthening teachers’ tech capacity to 1,300 schools spread across 720 square miles.

It’s simply not possible for Sophia Mendoza, the district’s director of its instructional technology initiative, to be in all the buildings to observe that training, she said during the panel.

This district has changed its approach to PD as part of effort to continue to explain to teachers why it’s important they continue to leverage the district’s digital tools, especially to help with numeracy, literacy, and SEL, Mendoza said during the panel.

In the last two years, the district has started bundling its trainings, ensuring that the PD is delivered to a group of educators multiple times both in-person and online. Rather than offering only one, 90-minute session and moving on, the bundle may start with an online training, for example, then be followed by an in-person session a few weeks later, Mendoza said. The bundles also bring together educators from across schools, grade levels, and disciplines.

A New Look for PD in L.A.

As part of the bundle, teachers will also pick up any devices they need so they can start implementing what they’ve learned right away, Mendoza said.

“That application piece is key, because everyone is coming from a different perspective,” she said. “We may have a kindergarten teacher in that session. We may have a middle grade and a senior high school educator in that course. But everyone’s bringing what is relevant to them within that context. That has really been one of our greatest strategies that we’ve been able to implement in our large system.”

The district also offers open, districtwide professional development in instructional technology, digital citizenship, and computer science. Any interested educator can join a training on these topics “at any point in the school year,” Mendoza said.

And they’ve been taking advantage of the fact that they can connect with educators digitally. While the system still hosts a “signature” professional development four times a year, bringing together around 500 educators in person over a weekend, they also now offer video conferences or Facetime calls, she said.

“It’s not just, ‘Come in for two hours and then you’re gone,” she said.

How a training session is structured can also have a big impact on whether or not educators feel inspired to be innovative with a tool, said Chris Lehman, CEO and founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy schools in Philadelphia, who was also on the panel.

He recalled that he once interrupted a training with a vendor to ask if, rather than walking teachers through how the features of the product work, they could just unlock the tool and let everyone spend an hour “playing” with it.

They ended up making more progress than they would have accomplished under a more traditional approach, he said.

“All of that allows us to think about time differently,” Lehman said. “Now you can move at speed” which matters because “the single greatest limiter we have — more than budget, more than access, more than anything else in school — is still an always time.”

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified one of the panelists. It has been corrected to identify panelist Chris Lehman, CEO and founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy schools in Philadelphia

Image by Getty

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