At a time when many resources and homework assignments are increasingly only available online, families and students without access to computers or Internet face a large disadvantage.

Patricia Burch, previously an associate professor in UW’s School of Education and current associate professor at the University of Southern California, and Annalee Good, associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, discuss the implications of digital education in their book to be released this month, “Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability in Digital Education.”

“Imagine … when you were in high school, in order to get access to any homework or any of your grades … you had to have a desktop computer and you had to have access to the Internet, which is the case these days. And maybe you have the means to do that,” Burch said. “Imagine you have other students, who didn’t have that computer and didn’t have that access, and they’re penalized because they don’t have access to that computer. That’s a problem, don’t you think?”

While digital education shows promise in a nation where technology is becoming increasingly important, potential drawbacks exist in its current implementation across the country, the co-authors said.

Data trends tracked by the federal government through digital educational programs show that students in high-income communities sometimes have an advantage over low-income students, Burch said.

“When … something like education becomes so closely knitted to commercial interests of large national and increasingly multinational companies, and we have a situation in which there is limited or no regulation of these companies’ activities, then you have a situation in which companies’ financial interests trump kids’ interests,” Burch said.

There are three main products and services being marketed to districts in terms of digital education: digital courses, digital schools and digital tutoring. Burch said she would also include digital assessment because of the increase in online testing in schools.

Good said high-income districts are also more likely to apply more innovative uses of digital education, such as students becoming more interactive and not just using “skill and drill” practices.

“[The innovative approach] wasn’t reaching kids from lower-income communities,” Good said. “A lot of [it] is that it is expensive to have highly trained instructors working in the online environment … It involves resources.”

In communities with high degrees of poverty, these products are not being used to their full potential, mostly due to a lack of resources, Burch said. Technology in lower-income school districts was used for basic things like email and the computer-to-student ratio was much lower in lower-income communities, she said.

Heather LaRoi, UW System spokesperson, said in an email programs with online courses allow students to take courses at times that are most convenient for them and to take classes they might not otherwise be able to attend.

Good said technology can be a more cost efficient approach and can improve access to certain coursework for students that otherwise would not be offered.

“When done right, it can leverage amazing technology to get kids thinking in really complex, connected and global ways,” Good said. “[I want digital education] to increase access to innovative instruction for students across all demographics, but without adequate transparency and accountability, we just don’t see that happening in the current market model of educational contracting.”

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