Rethinking the ‘Race Between Education and Technology’ Thesis


December 4, 2013

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge

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This year my research team has been pouring over qualitative data that we collected over a year-and-half period from Freeway High School (previously referred to as Texas City High School in earlier posts), the site of our fieldwork in the study of ‘connected learning.’ Several themes related to young people’s adoption of digital media, the role of technology in schools, social inequality, and the future of learning have emerged from our fieldwork. For instance, we have thought a lot about the social distribution of new forms of learning in the digital age, especially the skills and forms of capital (social and cultural) associated with broader participation in the digital world. One key question that our work has forced us to grapple with can be phrased this way: “Has the adoption of digital media in diverse settings – homes, schools, communities – led to an expansion of skills, forms of knowledge, and, more importantly, opportunity?”

The Distribution of New Forms of Learning

We are witnessing a greater diversity of youth than ever before adopting and using social, mobile, and digital media technologies in the U.S. In fact, when it comes to mobile platforms, black and Latino youth are actually more active than their white counterparts (see Pew 2013, Nielsen 2011, Kaiser Family Foundation 2010). However, access to technology and access to information does not mean access to knowledge or higher-order thinking skills. Similarly, access to technology does not mean access to the same forms of capital and opportunities to leverage technology in particular kinds of ways including, for example, civic engagement and economic or educational opportunity. Let me offer an example from our fieldwork that addresses these issues.

Many of the youth we have been working with come from under-resourced schools, families, and communities. Still, many of them remain relatively active in terms of their use of technology. They use mobile devices. They are active on social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. And several of them adopted the after school space and hours at school to pursue their creative interests in digital media making. Several students were involved in the production of, among other things, music, video, graphics, and games. It is clear that many of these students have found ways to make school (especially the after school setting) a much more relevant and interesting place to be. Further, they have created noteworthy learning ecologies that are peer supported and interests driven. Part of what our work is mapping is how these students “do school,” through their own distinct expressions of ‘connected learning.’ But here is where things get interesting.

As we begin to think about pathways to future opportunities a real question has emerged: to what degree are our schools (and other educational institutions) adequately preparing our most disadvantaged students for future classrooms, workspaces, and civic spheres? Several of the students in our study are interested in pursuing careers in the creative industries. And while there is certainly robust innovation and modest growth in the knowledge economy, employment opportunities typically require the acquisition of higher levels of education and higher skills. For a variety of reasons many of the students at Freeway High School will not pursue pathways – post-secondary education or apprenticeships – that nourish the development of higher educational attainment or higher order thinking and doing skills. So, while digital media is more widely distributed than ever before, not all learning ecologies, literacies, and pathways to digital participation are equal.

Skill Biased Technological Change

Most economists believe that one of the more consistent impacts of technological innovation is the degree to which it often places an even greater demand for skilled laborers (see Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2011). This, more specifically, is called skill-biased technological change. Claudia Golding and Lawrence Katz find a turning-point in the late 19th century when, in their words, “technological changes became, on net, skill biased.” Golding and Katz maintain that the rise in economic inequality over the last three decades or so is due, in large measure, to a slowing rate of educational attainment that has not kept pace with technological change and the surging demand for more high-skilled workers. They characterize this dynamic as “The Race Between Education and Technology.” The most noticeable losers in this race are quite similar to the young students we learned more about in our fieldwork – poor, minority, and immigrant. Like many others, Golding and Katz argue that as the skill requirements in our rapidly evolving economy are rising, the mission facing our public schools grows more daunting: educating students who are poorly prepared, academically, to find opportunity in a rapidly evolving economy defined by the hollowing out of middle-skill jobs, modest growth in high skill employment, and growth in the low skill, low wage service sector.

The shifts transforming our economy are not merely related to de-skilling; they also point to a general supplanting of certain low-to-middle skill laborers. There is a belief that steady advances in computing and automation are simply rendering certain jobs obsolete. Martin Ford explores this fully in his classic peek into our economic future, The Lights in the Tunnel. Additionally, there is a belief that these same changes are creating an even higher premium for more complex skills and knowledge acquisition. These trends intensify the mounting pressure that low performing, high minority schools face in their efforts to prepare their students for future opportunities while also curbing the widening levels of educational and economic inequality seen throughout parts of the industrialized world. Tyler Cowen puts it best in his most recent book, Average is Over, when he writes: “workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The question will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you?” Later he adds, “ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.”

Our Challenge

If ‘average is over’ the challenges facing our most under-resourced schools have never been greater. Currently, public schooling in the U.S. is designed, in theory, to prepare students to pursue relatively narrow paths to college or the workforce. This framework is broken and in serious need of relevant and more expansive alternatives.

The real challenge moving forward is to design a model of education that rethinks the “race between education and technology” thesis. Indeed, any effort to create more equitable digital and learning futures must see this less as a hyper-competitive race and more as an opportunity to build more sustainable futures. Consequently, we must scaffold environments that not only support the ability of a greater diversity of young people to gain access to technology but also access to more advanced skills and forms of knowledge. Most important is the ability to apply those skills and knowledge to solve problems in innovative ways. The finish line in this contest is less about an arms race for more educational attainment. Instead, the goal is to nourish new kinds of knowledge producers, social innovators, and citizens who establish alternative paths to opportunity and social mobility.