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Edtech Experts on Closing the Skills Gap: ‘It All Comes Back to Access’

When it comes to finding common ground in education, we have to think about more than just technology. According to Margaret Angell, director of CityBridge’s Education Innovation Portfolio, innovators also have to think about the human beings in schools.

“As much as technology is an enabler, students need adults in their lives that are positive role models,” she said. “Consistent relationships … get them to a place where they can actually learn.”

Angell spoke yesterday as part of a three-person panel of education experts who discussed the present challenges and the progress being made in educational technology. The event, “Access Unlocked: EdTech’s Opportunity to Foster Equality,” which 1776 produced in partnership with the Bertelsmann Foundation, brought together nonprofits, startups and policymakers to tease out solutions to the access and skills gaps.

“We have to go classroom by classroom, student by student and teacher by teacher,” Angell said, “and we need them to have the right solution for the problems they’re trying to solve in their school.”

According to Angell, edtech startups should put themselves in situations in which they can connect with teachers. Educators want to learn about new technology and act as guinea pigs for those new tools, she said.

Teachers aren’t to blame for many of the problems in the school system, because teacher-training programs aren’t focusing on using technology efficiently, Angell said. For instance, research shows that in low-income communities, smartphone penetration is much higher than laptops and desktops in the home. Most kids have smartphones—so teachers miss a huge opportunity when they don’t allow students to use that technology to cultivate their education.

Similarly, panelists agreed that multiple challenges exist outside school systems as well—issues where involvement from external sources could improve the classroom environment.

Martha Ross, a Metropolitan Policy Program fellow at The Brookings Institution, talked about a study on two different neighborhood libraries in Philadelphia, Penn. Kids in the poorer neighborhood didn’t have the support of parents guiding them through educational programs—and that made a drastic difference in their progress, Ross said. Many times, in order to help students, educators must first help their parents.

“This educational tool that had so much to offer them just didn’t work for them,” Ross said. “Educational technology can improve social mobility—or (it can) reproduce it and harden it.”

When students are living in poverty, they have limited access to higher education and are often surrounded by high-stress communities. These elements reduce the students’ ability to function in school.

Ross compared the K-12 system to a “people mover” platform in an airport. When students are done, it drops them off and then they have to find their own way through the labor market.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with this current model,” she said. “We can do a better job of that, and technology can certainly enable that.”

It all comes back to access, said Jason Green, cofounder and vice president for business development at SkillSmart. Students need access to information, technology and learning models that are successful.

Green says he has seen lots of passive participation on the private side, but not much active. He wants educators to be more transparent about what is required of students, and he wants policymakers to create the framework for innovation and competition.

In the adult education space, a blended, collaborative model, such as the Columbus Collaboratory’s model, works well, Green says. There, private sector companies invest money in skill sets needed to meet specific needs that employers are looking for.

Even though the demands of the industry change quickly, educators should be able to teach fundamental skills that are transferrable to different industries, Green says.

Angell applies that same mentality at the K-12 level, too.

“It’s not about content knowledge acquisition; it’s about the skills you need,” she said.

But when programs are actually working, it often looks like chaos, Angell said. CityBridge helps teachers redesign their classrooms into workstations for small groups. The students rotate groups, and they are able to access the right content—in the form of skills—tailored to their needs and skill levels. When students have the freedom to make their own decisions, they learn to incorporate that independence into the rest of their lives as well, Angell said.

“They’ve internalized what their learning is, they’re not waiting for the teacher to come in the next day and tell them what to do,” she said.

But that isn’t the educational experience that all children receive, and Tony Silberfeld, director of transatlantic relations at the Bertelsmann Foundation, said it’s important to recognize that there isn’t yet one solution to the problem.

“The big takeaway from this conversation is that the challenges are even more immense than we expected,” he said. “But it’s encouraging to know that there are people out there focusing on the solutions.”

Danica Smithwick

As a member of 1776’s editorial team, Danica Smithwick spends her time telling stories and communicating with others. She is a Union University and Washington Journalism Center student who loves…