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Neutrality, "New" Digital Divide, and Openness Paradox: Equity in Learning Environments Mediated by Educational Technology



In recent years, a critical turn in the Learning Sciences has begun to consider issues of equity, power, and ideology in the design of educational interventions. While this scholarship has made important contributions to our understanding of learning in relation to these issues, less work has addressed the limitations of design approaches in the context of educational technology. Surveying emerging literature in this area, this paper outlines three key considerations for learning scientists seeking to address issues of equity when studying, designing, and implementing technology-rich environments. These issues, taking new forms across technologies and digital media, we identify as: the Neutrality Facade, the "New" Digital Divide, and the Openness Paradox. Finally, the paper offers three directions for addressing power issues in learning environments mediated by educational technology and digital media: critical design methods, critical digital pedagogy, and critical design literacies.
Neutrality, “New” Digital Divide, and Openness Paradox: Equity in
Learning Environments Mediated by Educational Technology
Areej Mawasi, Arizona State University,
Earl Aguilera, Frenso State University,
Ruth Wylie, Arizona State University,
Elisabeth Gee, Arizona State University,
Abstract: In recent years, a critical turn in the Learning Sciences has begun to consider issues
of equity, power, and ideology in the design of educational interventions. While this scholarship
has made important contributions to our understanding of learning in relation to these issues,
less work has addressed the limitations of design approaches in the context of educational
technology. Surveying emerging literature in this area, this paper outlines three key
considerations for learning scientists seeking to address issues of equity when studying,
designing, and implementing technology-rich environments. These issues, taking new forms
across technologies and digital media, we identify as: the Neutrality Facade, the “New” Digital
Divide, and the Openness Paradox. Finally, the paper offers three directions for addressing
power issues in learning environments mediated by educational technology and digital media:
critical design methods, critical digital pedagogy, and critical design literacies.
In the Learning Sciences, there has been increasing interest in addressing issues of power in learning
environments. Scholars in the field are taking steps towards addressing socio-political dimensions in the study
and design of equitable learning environments (e.g., Booker, Vossoughi, & Hooper, 2014; Esmonde & Booker,
2016; Uttamchandani, 2018). Researchers offer multiple directions towards equity in research and practice (e.g.,
Uttamachandani, 2018), such as: (1) pedagogies that support diverse meaning-making and help learners position
themselves in diverse ways (e.g., The New London Group, 1996; Nasir & Vakil, 2017); (2) methodologies that
advance knowledge construction, decolonization, and participatory design (e.g., Bang & Vossoughi, 2016; Patel,
2016); (3) examining participation structure to challenge power dynamics in interactions among learners and
teachers (e.g, Vakil & de Royston, 2019); and (4) engaging students in complex socio-political topics through
curricular interventions to catalyze conversations about issues of inequity (e.g., Vakil & de Royston, 2019). While
these issues have been addressed through multiple pathways around pedagogy, methodology, and interaction
dynamics in the learning setting (Uttamachandani, 2018), less has been done with respect to issues of equity and
power in the design of learning environments mediated by educational technology and digital media (e.g., Barab
and colleagues, 2007). It is promising that these discussions have started to emerge in LS communities (e.g., Wise
& Schwarz, 2017; Pinkard et al., 2017) as they consider the future of educational technology and technology-rich
environments, stressing the need to think about agency and diverse epistemologies (e.g., Tchounikine, 2019; Wise
& Schwarz, 2017).
In this conceptual paper, we draw upon interdisciplinary work on learning, digital media studies, and
critical digital literacies to suggest a framework that examines educational technologies as sociotechnical systems
that are in dialogue with content and critical pedagogy, with the contexts in which those technologies are
implemented, and the procedurality of algorithms that structure user activity (Aguilera et al., 2020). We argue that
technologies are not simply technical objects; rather, they are systems that exist in dynamic interaction with
learners, tools, norms, histories, methodological procedures, and cultures (Srinivasan, 2018; Dobson, 2019). If we
hope to design and reimagine equitable learning environments that disrupt power imbalances across place and
space, we should pay more attention to all aspects of learning as an ecological system (Gutiérrez, 2016; Srinivasan,
2018), including a critical ethical lens on the consequences and unintended consequences of the designed
innovations and dignity of communities we work and design innovations with (e.g., Toyama, 2015; Srinivasan,
2018; Vakil, 2018).
Power issues in technology and digital media
Digital media and technologies have changed how people communicate (Baym, 2015; Srinivasan, 2018), created
new opportunities for learning both in and out of school settings (Gee, 2012, 2017; Ito et al., 2018), and provided
tools for collaboratively constructing knowledge (Nielsen, 2011). In a digitally connected, world such
opportunities include interacting with peers, people, and technology systems (Ito et al., 2018); taking part in varied
communities of practice and affinity spaces (Gee, 2017); helping people to network, exchange, and share
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resources in online communities (Baym, 2015; Srinivasan, 2018), harnessing collective intelligence and
knowledge construction to solve problems (Nielsen, 2011; Toyama, 2015); engaging in distributed learning
settings (e.g., Mawasi et al., 2020; Pinkard et al., 2017); experiencing multiple identities (Gee, 2017), and enabling
digital storytelling for historically oppressed populations (e.g., Srinivasan, 2018; Pinkard et al., 2017). Despite
these affordances, the implementation of digital media and technologies for real-world use has been associated
with new problems, including pedagogical challenges, equity and power issues, inequality issues related to
accessibility and digital divides, social reproduction of injustice across different contexts and systems, and bias
toward certain groups of users (e.g., Dobson, 2019; Noble, 2018; Reich & Ito, 2017; Srinivasan, 2018; Watkins
& Cho, 2018). Building on a synthesis of existing literature, including equity-oriented approaches, we address
these issues through three connected dimensions: (1) the Neutrality Facade; (2) the “New” Digital Divide; (3) the
Openness Paradox.
The neutrality facade
Put simply, the neutrality facade describes the ways in which technology in general, and digital technologies in
particular, are positioned as ideologically “neutral” tools that can be used for good or ill. However, as educational
historians, scholars of science, technology and society (STS), and digital humanists have identified, digital
technologies are always created by someone, and thus are inevitably imbued with the perspectives, biases, and
subjectivities of their creators, whether explicitly recognized or not (Montfort et al. 2012; Kranzberg 1986;
Watters 2014). In her book Algorithms of Oppression, Noble (2018) describes how search engine algorithms,
particularly those employed by Google, return particularly racialized and sexualized results for sometimes
seemingly innocuous search terms. Her research found that images of women and racially minoritized individuals
were a particular target of these misrepresentative search results, though Google has since updated its image search
algorithms in light of public scrutiny that originated with Noble’s study. In another example, Kopty (2018)
describes that while online platforms such as Twitter afford a space for activists to communicate, the power
hierarchies of offline spaces are reproduced among users based on factors such as gender, geography, and social
capital. In short, digital technologies as systems are far from neutral (Dobson, 2019; Noble, 2018; Srinivasan,
2018), as their development and implementation are influenced by existing social norms (Kopty, 2018; Noble,
2018), political injustice (Kopty, 2018; Noble, 2018), powerful institutions and corporations that carry their own
economic and political agenda when designing and developing such systems, and individuals (e.g., researchers
and engineers) whose labor and creativity shape these systems and methods to study them (Baym, 2015; Dobson,
2019; Noble, 2018; Srinivasan, 2018).
The “New” Digital Divide
When we discuss the “New” Digital Divide, we draw on a concept that describes unequal access to information
and communication technologies, particularly the internet and internet connected devices. However, recent
research into internet accessibility has demonstrated that inequities in this area, particularly along economic lines,
have been shrinking over time (Pew Research Center, 2019). What we see as a “new” digital divide, however, are
the disparities between the increasing use of technologies to automate, control, and surveil students of historically
marginalized communities, in contrast to more creative, humanizing, and interest-based applications of digital
technologies in more affluent communities (Siyahhan & Gee, 2018 ; Pinkard et al., 2017; Srinivasan, 2018;
Watkins & Cho, 2018).
Many scholars contest approaches to the digital divide that use a deficit model, treating the divide as
merely a lack of access to connectivity, infrastructure, and technical knowledge, soft skills, and trainings (Baym,
2015; Noble, 2018; Srinivasan, 2018; Toyama, 2015). The deficit model ignores people's behavior, practices, and
occludes the ways in which non-dominant users can contribute to the design and development of these
technologies (Srinivasan, 2018). Similarly, according to a report by Reich & Ito (2017) in the United States
context, the integration of the same technology in all schools does not mean these technologies are leveraged in a
progressive way pedagogically, suggesting that simply providing access to technological resources is not enough
to bridge inequalities (Watkins & Cho, 2018).
The Openness Paradox
Finally, when we discuss the Openness Paradox, we offer a critique of the discourses of “openness,” “agency,”
and “creative freedom” often celebrated by proponents of educational technologies. Open source platforms, free
resources and apps, and public spaces that are rich with technology (e.g., Makerspaces, Code Clubs) does
necessarily equate to increasingly democratized and agentic education. Of course, we recognize the potential of
these ideals within democratizing pedagogical contexts in technology-rich environments, such as online platforms
and makerspaces. At the same time, however, recent efforts by journalists, digital sociologists, and education
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scholars have identified the ways that so-called open platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other
affinity spaces, have in many cases become bastions for hate groups, science deniers, and spreaders of
disinformation to gather, organize, and yes, educate one another (Gee, 2017; Noble, 2018; Vossoughi et al., 2016).
Furthermore, learners benefiting from these technologies are often “affluent and highly educated” (Reich & Ito,
2017, p.3), therefore, they amplify existing norms and practices within a setting online or offline (Toyama, 2015).
Existing norms and practices can include behavior of users and content presented within these technologies as
artifacts and also power dynamics between people.
Critical approaches to learning environments design
Given these challenges, how can more critically grounded perspectives help to extend the work of learning
scientists seeking to address questions of equity in educational technology? Participatory approaches for
educational technology design that aims to address power issues could be a direction for that (e.g., Barab et al.,
2007; Srinivasan, 2018). One approach, as described by Barab and colleagues, involves explicitly grounding
design-based research in social agendas designed to “question and potentially disrupt existing practices and
structures...even exposing inequitable power structures, resource allotment, divisions of labor, or
disempowerment,” in a process they refer to as critical design ethnography (2007, p. 264). They illustrate this
process by highlighting their work on Quest Atlantis (QA), a multi-user virtual environment designed to engage
students in environmental science, statistics, formal argumentation, and other educational content through an
increased sense of agency and participatory commitment. In developing and ethnographically studying this
design-based intervention, the QA research team explicitly centered a more participatory view of learning meant
to challenge existing structures of transactional education they saw as increasingly dominating formal educational
institutions (Sfard 1998). In this way, rather than framing their interventions as ideologically “neutral,” learning
scientists can develop alliances with existing movements forwarding a particular vision of social justice, be it
focused on cultural responsiveness, gender equity, economic justice, or other ethical and moral commitments.
Another way forward involves drawing on the work of critical digital pedagogy as integral to the work
of learning scientists in these educationally contracting times. While scholars in this field are clear that critical
pedagogies, digital or otherwise, necessarily resist a prescriptive framing, it may be helpful to begin with a
definition of critical pedagogy as “teaching and learning predicated on fostering agency and empowering learners
(implicitly and explicitly critiquing oppressive power structures).” (Stommel, 2014, n.p.). Applying this framing
to the area of educational technology, we can think of a critical digital pedagogy as an approach that centers the
human acts of teaching and learning, and positions digital technologies themselves as objects and tools for
critically interrogating the social realities impacting educational contexts. Practices such as “ungrading,”
(Stommel, 2018) which actively reject the dominant culture of sorting, competition, and evaluation, demonstrate
such a commitment.
A third approach, drawing on our own work over the past several years, invites researchers to involve
learners themselves in the practice of critical design literacies. This approach situates design as a kind of meaning-
making practice and recognizes the multiplicity of design perspectives that our participants can bring to a given
space (Gee & Aguilera, in review). As with the previously discussed approaches, criticality here refers to the ways
that designs and designing can be ways to interrogate social realities (as opposed to simply “solving” a problem
identified by a designer) and advocate for social change. As uncomfortable as it might seem, this approach invites
us to de-center our own roles as experts in the science of learning in order to create spaces for the agency of
participants to shape, critique, and even transform our own designed educational interventions.
The work we have reviewed here suggests that social injustice can be perpetuated in technological
systems, and that, like other education innovation designs, technologies are inextricably connected to social
practices and the contexts in which they are deployed. To better understand the ways in which digital technologies
shape our societies, we need to recognize how these tools mediate communication to support people in a wide
range of practices such as knowledge construction and disruption of existing power structures.
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... Attending explicitly to social, cultural, ethical, and political ideologies embedded in design processes and outcomes (including artifacts, systems, and knowledge) is crucial for more equitable, inclusive, and transformative STEM learning experiences and practices (Barab et al., 2007;Bang & Vossoughi, 2016;Medin & Bang, 2014). This attention challenges the presumed social and political neutrality of design thinking models and prompts learners to explore the values, interests, and standpoints instantiated in and reinforced by designed objects and the larger practices or systems in which they are used (Barab et al., 2007;Mawasi et al., 2020). Such examination can engage learners in critical design efforts that question existing designs, enhance learners' experience of agency in design (e.g. ...
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Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) environments are often designed to support collaboration within a single digital platform. However, with the growth of technology in classrooms, students often find themselves working in multiple contexts (i.e., a student might work face-to-face with a peer on one task and then move to engaging in an online discussion for homework). We have created a CSCL environment that aims to support student help-giving across a variety of digital platforms. This paper describes three cycles of a design-based research study that aims to design a system to support help-giving and improve interaction quantity and quality across different contexts as well as to better understand whether students benefit by the addition of multiple contexts. The paper shares major refinements across the three cycles that worked to balance research, pedagogical, and technological goals to improve students' help-giving behavior in a middle-school mathematics classroom.
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The field of CSCL is at a critical moment in its development. Internally we face issues of fragmentation and questions about what progress is being made. Externally the rise of social media and a variety of research communities that study the interactions within it raise questions about our unique identity and larger impact on the world. To illuminate the complex issues involved and the multiple perspectives that exist on them, we conducted an iterative and generative consultation with members of the CSCL community through individual interviews and public interactive presentations. The result is a series of eight provocations for the field, each presented as a dialogue between the Provocateur/Provocatrice (who seeks to shake up the status quo) and the Conciliator (who seeks to build on the achievements of our current traditions). The provocations address the debated need for six things: one conceptual framework to unite our diverse tools and theories (#1), prioritization of learner agency over collaborative scripting (#2), scrupulous scrutiny of when “collaboration” and “community” are said to exist (#3), the pursuit of computational approaches to understand collaborative learning (#5), learning analytics and adaptive support to be a top priority in the field (#6), and the expansion of our focus to seriously address social media and large-scale learning environments (#7). In addition, the provocations highlight two areas in which perhaps we should desist: the attempt to reconcile analytical and interpretative approaches to understanding collaboration (#4), and the goal of achieving tangible change in the education system (#8). There are no resolutions offered in this paper; the interchanges presented are designed to lay out the complex constellation of issues involved and can be considered a dialogue that we are still in the process of having with ourselves as individuals and together as a community. We stress the urgency and importance for the field of CSCL to take up these questions and tensions, and critically, to work towards decisions and resultant actions. Our future as a scientific community — our very existence and identity, depends on it.
This squib continues the ongoing conversation about the direction and future of CSCL, initiated by Wise and Schwarz (International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 12, 423–467, 2017) and the ijCSCL editors. It argues that CSCL should take an emancipatory perspective to learners’ agency and its technological substratum. The implication is that learners should be empowered to select, change, inter-operate and/or adapt not only the software applications they use, but more generally, the support they obtain from these technologies. This raises many exciting questions and challenges for CSCL in terms of educational, social, design and technical considerations.
Over the past decade, abroad range of policymakers, corporations, educators, and scholars in the United States have catapulted computer science (CS) education from the sidelines to the center of K-12 public education discourse. While calls for CS education are often framed in terms of national and economic competitiveness, there is a growing interest amongst equity scholars in curricular interventions that directly engage the ethical and sociopolitical issues surrounding CS and its role in society. Yet, less attention has been given to how sociocultural dynamics of classrooms play a mediating role in these spaces. Drawing on video data from an equity-oriented CS classroom, we argue aconflict that arose during design activities was rooted in alack of trust and solidarity between students. Ultimately, we make the case that in addition to curricular innovations, equity efforts in CS education must prioritize the cultivation of positive student relationships.
Video games have a bad reputation in the mainstream media. They are blamed for encouraging social isolation, promoting violence, and creating tensions between parents and children. In this book, Sinem Siyahhan and Elisabeth Gee offer another view. They show that video games can be a tool for connection, not isolation, creating opportunities for families to communicate and learn together. Like smartphones, Skype, and social media, games help families stay connected. Siyahhan and Gee offer examples: One family treats video game playing as a regular and valued activity, and bonds over Halo. A father tries to pass on his enthusiasm for Star Wars by playing Lego Star Wars with his young son. Families express their feelings and share their experiences and understanding of the world through playing video games like The Sims, Civilization, and Minecraft. Some video games are designed specifically to support family conversations around such real-world issues and sensitive topics as bullying and peer pressure. Siyahhan and Gee draw on a decade of research to look at how learning and teaching take place when families play video games together. With video games, they argue, the parents are not necessarily the teachers and experts; all family members can be both teachers and learners. They suggest video games can help families form, develop, and sustain their learning culture as well as develop skills that are valued in the twenty-first century workplace. Educators and game designers should take note. © 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.
In this essay, Sepehr Vakil argues that a more serious engagement with critical traditions in education research is necessary to achieve a justice-centered approach to equity in computer science (CS) education. With CS rapidly emerging as a distinct feature of K–12 public education in the United States, calls to expand CS education are often linked to equity and diversity concerns around expanding access to girls and historically underrepresented students of color. Yet, unlike other critical traditions in education research, equity-oriented CS research has largely failed to interrogate the sociopolitical context of CS education. To move toward a justice-centered approach to equity, Vakil argues, we must simultaneously attend to at least three features of CS education: the content of curriculum, the design of learning environments, and the politics and purposes of CS education reform. While there are many avenues of critical inquiry within and across each of these topics, the focus in this essay is on the role of ethics in the curriculum, the role of identity in CS learning environments, and the significance of a clear political vision for CS education.
While there is a large amount of literature discussing the impact of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and social network sites (SNS) on activism and social movements, less attention has been given to the implications of these technologies on the dynamics within these activism circles and social activist groups.