Why Digital Equality Matters With Zoe Corwin

How do you write?


When you have an important deadline, do you buckle down at your office computer? Or venture to a café with wifi, toting a laptop? Do you spell check? Share drafts with colleagues via Dropbox or Google docs?

What if you had to do it all on your smartphone? And how would your work unfold if you didn’t have access to the Internet?

Really think about it. From sketching out your outline to editing, how would the quality of your work change?

For the past six years, my Pullias Center colleagues and I have been examining the effects of games and social media on college access. The main focus of our research has centered on a series of tools we created in collaboration with USC’s Game Innovation Lab and the non-profit Get Schooled. Along the way, we have been documenting barriers to digital equity faced by low-income, minoritized students.

We spoke with students (many of them) who composed their college essays entirely on their cell phones.

We heard countless stories of students doing their school work and college applications in fast food joints or on sidewalks next to schools in order to access free wifi.

We observed schools where teachers could not use laptop carts because they were earmarked for test-taking—or just broken.

We documented districts investing large sums of money into technology without providing appropriate training for the practitioners who would be using the tools.

We also saw many instances of savvy where students and teachers found creative work-arounds to confronting digital inequity. And we observed instances where districts and schools strategically invested resources into making sure that technology was effectively incorporated into school programs—such as a school in Central California that created a technology lead position for an educator to vet new technology and train teachers and students on how to use digital tools.

Witnessing all of this is what led to Diversifying Digital Learning, a collection of timely research about technology and education I co-edited with my colleagues at the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education. The book evolved out of our desire to highlight the importance of addressing digital equity issues in tandem with research, policy, and practice related to education and learning.

We convened a fantastic group of scholars who explore ways that digital tools can facilitate learning and engagement, given the power dynamics inherent in digital and physical spaces. Chapters offer frameworks for thinking about digital opportunities and barriers as well as concrete examples of best practices and approaches.

Some chapters offer insight into individual-level experiences. Lynette Kvansy and Fay Cobb Payton’s work, for example, reveals how social media facilitates a unique community space for Black students to connect about mental health issues online if faced with limited face-to-face opportunities at their postsecondary campuses. Other chapters—like Joanna Goode, Julie Flapan and Jane Margolis’ on expanding computer science education to ensure wide access to computer science content—offer a broader perspectives on improving digital equity.

Circling back to how you/we write. My guess is that more than a few readers of this blog would applaud the opportunity to unplug and write long-form. In fact, I count myself among that group.

Yet I also recognize the ubiquity of digital tools in students’ lives and contend that unless we start paying more attention to how to implement, evaluate and support digital tools in learning environments, we are doing students a disservice—especially those who have no choice but to write essays on their smartphones. 

William G. Tierney is the Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Zoë B. Corwin is an associate research professor at the USC Pullias Center. Amanda Ochsner is an assistant professor at the University of Findlay. They are coeditors of Diversifying Digital Learning: Online Literacy and Educational Opportunity