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Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K12 Education

reviewed by Grace Cole & Cassidy Puckett - June 07, 2021

coverTitle: Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K12 Education
Author(s): Carolyn J. Heinrich, Jennifer Darling-Aduana, and Annalee G. Good
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 168253510X, Pages: 208, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

With schools deemed unsafe to open due to the global pandemic, students all over the country are logging onto devices and going to school online. This shift in K–12 education may last longer than the pandemic, as many educators and parents realize the value of digital learning (Henderson et al., 2021; St. George et al., 2021). Equity and Quality in Digital Learning: Realizing the Promise in K-12 Education offers a guide in this process. Using the cases of Dallas Independent School District (DISD) and Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), authors Heinrich, Darling-Aduana, and Good discuss potential successes and failures in implementing digital learning in low-resourced schools. Drawing from over a decade's work in a research–practice partnership with the districts, the authors present lessons learned. Overall, they argue that digital learning can be an asset to schools, but only with intentional and evidence-based planning and implementation. 


The book is divided into six chapters that contain recommendations for implementing digital learning. The authors begin with the recent uptick in digital learning in the K–12 space, describing the national-level drivers (pre-pandemic) which ultimately shape ed-tech implementation. They attribute the increase in digital learning to three main drivers: policy, privatization, and the goal of personalized learning.


Chapters 1 and 2 discuss how policies have changed public education by placing greater emphasis on blended classrooms that supposedly provide more personalized learning opportunities using digital educational products from private vendors. Chapter 2 outlines the factors that influence the rollout of digital learning initiatives at the district and state level, including technological infrastructure and district and school organizational processes. The authors posit that any successful K–12 technology initiative requires strategic and thoughtful planning and implementation. Specifically, they recommend paying attention to creating contracts with vendors, auditing the connectivity and hardware capacity within schools, and providing sufficient professional development for teachers. This focus on planning and implementation continues as a theme throughout the book.


Chapter 3 focuses more narrowly on classrooms, especially the changing roles for classroom teachers in integrating or focusing on digital learning. Constant and flexible professional development for teachers is imperative. Rather than blaming teachers for shortcomings, the authors offer strategies to provide them with proper tools and support. This chapter also highlights the advantages of digital learning, specifically how the tools and data can help teachers personalize learning. The authors argue that greater teacher involvement is required to optimally employ digital tools; this emphasis continues throughout the book, with vignettes demonstrating that less involved teachers are unsuccessful in implementing digital learning.


Chapter 4 turns to specific challenges in ensuring access to quality digital learning for historically marginalized students. In particular the authors note factors that promote or limit student engagement, such as classroom organization and management, curricular content, and instructional strategies, that necessitates providing tools that can accommodate different students' needs (especially adequate language and translation), involving parents and youth in ongoing decision-making processes, setting clear expectations for blended learning in classrooms, and assessing the use of classroom technology for equity.


The connection between the use of digital technologies and student achievement is the focus of Chapter 5. Here, the authors rely on quantitative research findings in addition to qualitative examples. Digital learning, they find, contributes to shifting achievement trajectories for students, using reading and math scores as points of comparison. They claim that effective integration of digital tools, such as tablets to help English Language Learners, can improve student outcomes in reading but disruptions or poor integration can have the opposite effect. The authors argue that digital learning is often pushed to promote graduation rates rather than leaning. Low-quality digital learning experiences, like the online course-recovery program in Milwaukee schools with little student engagement, can drive inequities in learning. 


Finally, the sixth chapter focuses on solutions, offering ways to address the issues presented throughout the book at the state, district, and classroom levels. The authors explain how to make digital learning initiatives more successful, including advice about how to identify grants and funding, create contracts with vendors, build capacity to evaluate technology integration, and develop teachers’ capacity to support technology implementation in a student-centered way. Four appendices also contain a wealth of tools to help educators and administrators navigate digital learning drawn from the authors' own toolkit.


In their conclusion, Heinrich, Darling-Aduana, and Good argue that classroom technology can benefit students but only when planning and implementation are data-driven and consider all aspects, from long-term infrastructure to relationships and expectations with vendors to teacher training and ongoing tech support. To this end, the book provides specific guidance for student-focused, technology-based education. However, the authors caution that digital learning is not a cheap alternative to paying more teaching staff. To ensure that the use of digital tools equitably serves students, those controlling educational resources must acknowledge the importance of high-quality teachers.


The book does lack some important detail. The authors do not include specific research findings and how such findings inform their extensive recommendations. For example, in Chapter 5, the authors provide quantitative evidence of how “time lost to technology issues” can impact mathematics and reading achievement, but otherwise the book lacks detailed research findings. Because the book’s primary audience is “state education and local agencies and policymakers” and “school leaders, district staff, and educators with responsibility for integrating educational technology” (p. 9–10), researchers who are further down in the list of intended audience will not find extensive research findings.


In addition, the authors miss an opportunity to explain how low-resourced schools are uniquely challenged in implementing digital learning. They point out the need to tailor digital content and instructional style to be culturally responsive to students, but do not provide insight on how to do this or why it's important. Just as physical textbooks and classroom lesson plans may further perpetuate inequality through biased accounts of history, stereotyping, or language and cultural assumptions (Gay, 2018), digital learning may as well. The authors further recommend that teachers use monitoring devices to observe students' computers without critically examining how these tools might be used to surveil less advantaged students (Rafalow, 2020). That said, the book is reader-friendly and helpful with recommendations and tools in the appendices.


While the lessons in the book are based on research conducted prior to the pandemic, its takeaways are useful in its aftermath, as school districts reconsider how they employ digital learning. Calls for equity will only grow as digital learning becomes more central to the everyday experience of schooling. Equity and Quality in Digital Learning makes a convincing case that high-quality digital learning is only possible through data-informed systematic planning and implementation, and by a focus on equity at its core.


Rafalow, M. H. (2020). Digital divisions: How schools create inequality in the tech era. University of Chicago Press.


Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). Teachers College Press.


Henderson, M. B., Houston, D., Peterson, P. E., Shakeel, M. D., & West, M. R. (2020). Amid pandemic, support soars for online learning, parent poll shows. Education Next21(1). https://www.educationnext.org/amid-pandemic-support-soars-online-learning-parent-poll-shows-2020-education-next-survey-public-opinion/


St. George, D., Strauss, V., Meckler, L., Heim, J., & Natanson, H. (15 March, 2021). “How the pandemic is reshaping education.” The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/03/15/pandemic-school-year-changes/.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 07, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23725, Date Accessed: 6/15/2021 12:21:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Grace Cole
    Emory University
    E-mail Author
    GRACE COLE is a recent graduate of Emory University, where she earned a B.A. in Sociology. She plans to pursue her Masters in Education, Culture, and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, where she will focus her research on policy, digital learning, meritocracy, and race.
  • Cassidy Puckett
    Emory University
    E-mail Author
    CASSIDY PUCKETT, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Emory University. Her research investigates the relationship between technological change and inequality in education and healthcare. She has a forthcoming book from the University of Chicago Press (spring 2022), Define Geek, about what it means to be good with technology and why that matters for an equitable future.
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