Does Our Social Contract for Education Need a Reboot?

Weekly Article
June 9, 2016

In the United States, the right to free and equal public education has become a central expectation of citizens from their government—a critical component of our social contract. This contract takes effect in the earliest years of our lives, starting with those tiny desks in kindergarten classrooms—in many states, pre-kindergarten classrooms—and extending into the halls of higher education and beyond.

But the technologies making their way into classrooms are evolving quickly, and our decentralized system of education has been hard pressed to keep up with the pace of change. While these technologies could help better implement our social contract, their adoption has been piecemeal and often lacked clear vision or purpose. Today, we are passively letting technology happen to our schools and institutions rather than proactively considering and purposefully choosing the ways in which we harness technologies to further our objectives for public education.

As a result, our educational system is no longer fully meeting the needs of its citizens. New technologies can reinforce, or chip away, the central tenets of our educational system: a free and equal public education that provides a strong foundation for our civic and economic participation. To meet these goals in a digital age, our social contract for education needs rebooted.

At New America’s annual conference in May, Vikki Katz, associate professor at Rutgers University, noted that the very infrastructure of our educational institutions is unequal. Universities, especially those where the Internet was first incubated, were connected online decades ago, while many community colleges throughout the nation are still struggling to connect at all. High schools and elementary schools are even more variable in their connections, and early learning informal learning environments—from Head Start classrooms to community centers—are often left out of the conversation altogether. While access to the Internet is increasingly seen as a necessity, there are students across all levels of learning who cannot connect.

Further, for those who do go online, Katz noted, the kind of access available to them is often unequal. Not only are there disparities in the tools through which people access the Internet, but filtered Internet access substantively modifies what some people are able to access online. Filtering shrinks the world of the web. “We either make the Internet as broadly accessible to all learners as possible,” Katz said, “or we will inevitably create a two-tiered system where the poor get a narrower set of resources and opportunities than the wealthy.”

Our current system has already set up two-tiered access to educational resources and opportunities, but David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning, discussed how the Internet could level the playing field. While new technologies have fundamentally reshaped the way we can access information, outdated laws have maintained barriers for how we can use the Internet to share information. “There’s a very profound tension between what copyright enables legally,” Wiley said, “and what the Internet enables technically.” This has real, negative consequences for students. As the price of textbooks and educational resources continues to skyrocket, students are often forced to go without.

Teresa Hardee, chief operating officer at Delaware State University, noted that the data gathered about its students by her institution has shown unaffordable course materials are one barrier to student success. “When we started looking at data, 40 percent of our freshmen were making C’s at midterms,” Hardee said. DSU sent out a student survey, and through it made a startling discovery. Hardee said, “90 percent of students hadn’t bought books.”

While access to student data helped DSU address one barrier to its students success, there’s the larger question of how we manage the proliferation of information that these new technologies enable us to gather about students. Hardee painted an optimistic portrait of one university’s intentional use of student data to improve service. Through the collection and tracking of student data, Hardee described how DSU delivers personalized advising and learning plans to improve student outcomes. “It is our job to make sure if we agree to admit students that they do, indeed, graduate,” she said. Nevertheless, there are real concerns that how we track student data will hold kids responsible for missteps in their early years for the rest of their lives.

Inequity in access, outdated laws, and use and misuse of data are three conversations we need to have around the role of technology in education, but they are hardly the only three. Should these new technologies inform the curricula used throughout our educational system, and if so, how should they be integrated? Should we start teaching kids to code in kindergarten, middle school, or simply as an elective in high school?

The list goes on, and the questions continue. How are new technologies shaping the constant push for new kinds of learning? Today we see the myriad messages about game-based learning, project-based learning, personalized learning, and deeper learning that all have taken on digital dimensions—are these faddish trends and buzzwords, or are they intentionally driving us toward better educational outcomes? And what about formative and summative online assessment?

With the alarming amount of student data produced from all of these online tools and assessments, how should we be making sure this information is protected and secure? Should we be looking to new technologies like blockchain to manage educational data and credentials? Or should we even be collecting and storing this information at all? Is there any value in purposefully deleting and forgetting?

Right now, we have more questions than answers about the role of technology in education.

These questions are complex and do not have a one-size-fits-all solution. By raising them, we hope to start a conversation that will arrive at a more proactive, purposeful agenda for leveraging these new technologies. Above all, we need to be careful not to miss the forest for the trees by forgetting to put the primary objectives of our educational system first: preparing our citizens for civic and economic life by looking at the problem in front of us, be it written on a blackboard in chalk or presented on a tablet, and creating a social contract that’s sufficiently durable for our digital age.

Throughout the summer, New America’s Education Policy program will continue to raise questions and discuss new directions for the next social contract, as well as ask experts throughout the field to weigh in. Join the conversation online by following the hashtag #EdTechContract on Twitter.