As an all-online college, Calbright firmly believes in the power of technology to improve the education system and create better outcomes for students. But we also take very seriously the warnings that technology can exacerbate existing inequalities, and actually make life harder for many students.
The most recent warning comes in an article for the Hechinger report, which points out that “Because ed tech sometimes reflects the biases of its designers and society, careless expansion of tech tools into the classroom can exacerbate the discrimination Black and Brown students face.”
Often, the article says, this is just carelessness: “When tech companies build products for schools, they either partner with schools that are in affluent, predominantly white suburban areas or lean on the educational experience of their employees” in the tech industry, which is famously homogenous.
But sometimes this discrimination is built into the design process: tech companies often don’t even collect data on race or test how a product works for students from different racial or language backgrounds.
The article quotes Nidhi Hebbar, founder of The Ed Tech Equity Project, as saying that companies which make excuses for not tracking diversity data are waving a red flag about their project. “If they’re not confident that they can track data in a sensitive and careful way,” she said, “then they probably shouldn’t be tracking student data at all.”
That’s exactly right. But the issues go deeper.
“Diversity” Is Not Easy To Measure
Diverse student populations have very different needs, but often the very categories of student diversity that colleges track conceal more than they reveal.
“When we treat extremely diverse communities of people as one monolithic group, we lose the opportunity to look for granular trends and offer individualized support,” said Ted Lai, Calbright’s vice president of student services and success. “This is especially true of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community and the Latinx/Hispanic community.”
Lai notes that in particular “The AANHPI community is often thought of as not needing support, but the disparity between the highest earners and lowest earners is the greatest in that community compared to other ethnic groups. Additionally, when you begin to disaggregate the data, you see that specific southeast Asian, south Asian, and Pacific Islander communities are among the lowest in household income and college education.”
That’s an issue that can be exacerbated by careless use of technology, but it’s fundamentally not a technological issue – nor is it something that better technology alone can fix.
Which is where Calbright has found its best practices for addressing these issues: instead of using technology to replace human connection with students, use technology to enhance it.
Technology Can Create More Opportunities For Connection
Online education can be isolating, while recent studies show that helping students feel a sense of belonging can support students completing their educational goals. Key to Calbright’s success is the use of technology to increase both flexibility and connection. Without flexibility, many students simply can’t access higher education; without connection, many students who enroll won’t reach their goals.
This is why Calbright provides every student with a personalized support team – real people who get to know them and can support them on their educational journey. That includes academic success counselors, tutors, and career counselors, all of whom are available when students need them, over whatever medium the students want. Text? Video chats? Phone calls? No problem – we connect in the way the student is most comfortable with. Faculty are more available through technology, not less.
Calbright also provides opportunities for mentoring; once again, we’re using technology to create connections and community.
Perhaps the best example is the way Calbright checks in on students who may be struggling. We use technology to understand how active students are, and we use automation to identify students who may be struggling in their studies – but rather than follow-up on them through automated messages, we have their personal support team reach out. The technology catches what humans might have missed, but we use that to create more opportunities for connection and to ask our students what they personally need. We don’t use technology to replace those moments.
Technology is at its most dangerous in education when it’s used in ways that depersonalize and replace a human connection. However, at Calbright, we recognize that when technology helps staff and faculty get to know students more personally, and when it creates more connections and touchpoints and check-ins, it can actually reduce existing inequalities.