E is for… Equality

Equality is a big issue in education, especially in connection with technology. For example, we are used to hearing phrases like “the digital divide”. But what does “equality” mean in this context – or, more pertinent perhaps, what should it mean?

I think an important point for me is that “equality” doesn’t have to mean “the same”. For example, some systems aim to give everyone the same user experience by presenting them with the same interface, regardless of the device they are using. But it strikes me that if you have reading difficulties or are visually impaired, what you need is not the same user interface as everyone else, but the same access to resources etc as everyone else. That could mean allowing people to change the interface according to their needs.

Digital Flow, by Enkhtuvshin, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lum1neuz/Another example. A school I once worked with had what I regarded as quite an enlightened attitude. The top brass wanted everyone to contribute to the school’s virtual learning environment, but didn’t insist on some sort of boring, one-design-fits-all, corporate look. The result was that all departments (it was a secondary school) had equal facilities and control over them, but each one’s appearance and even content were completely different from all of the others’.

One of the issues that comes up when discussing Bring Your Own Technology is whether it is fair that some pupils will have a device whereas others won’t, or that some pupils will have better devices than others.

To take the first point, one could equally (that word again!) argue that if someone has all the apps they like and find useful on their own device, but is not allowed to use them, they are not being treated equally with students who are perfectly happy with the applications and devices provided by the school.

In any case, loan schemes, organisations such as, in the UK, the E-Learning Foundation, or use of funds like the Pupil Premium can be used to address the haves/have-nots issue.

As for the second point, I think this is the old school uniform argument: that if you don’t have a school uniform then some kids will end up wearing more expensive and/or more fashionable clothes than others. Well, my school had a school uniform, and you could tell who the really poor kids were because their blazers were too small, too large, or threadbare (or two of those). I’m not convinced that sort of argument holds water.

The concept of “equality” is a difficult one. In one school I joined as Head of ICT, I was told that all students were doing a certificated course of some kind, so as to ensure that all had an equal chance of getting an official accreditation at the end of it. Trouble was, the ICT courses offered to the so-called lower ability students were so facile that none of the kids took them seriously. So one of the first things I did, in the interests of equality, was to scrap those courses and put everyone on a proper, respected course (a GCSE in ICT)  – but with the safety net that if it looked like someone may not pass it, they could be entered for one of the other courses’ examinations instead. The point was, my idea of “equality” was, and is, that everyone should have the opportunity of achieving as highly as they can, and not have an artificial ceiling imposed on them from the outset.

Interestingly enough, in the course of writing this article I had a conversation with Sean Corcorran, the  Managing Director of Steelcase Education. I happened to say that in my opinion, when it comes to space, the pedagogy should influence the design of your environment, not the other way round. For example, if you are asked to teach in a lecture theatre, it’s difficult to do much to encourage group discussions (the instruction “Turn around and talk to the person behind you”, which was actually given by one presenter at a conference I attended, doesn’t work too well!). Similarly, changing the dynamics in a poorly-designed computer lab affords the same sort of problem.

Sean told me I had “nailed it”, and also (to my dismay, though I was not surprised) that even now there are architects who design schools according to a template (an approach advocated quite seriously at a recent conference by someone whose name escapes me but who is considered an expert on these matters when it comes to designing shops). That, surely, is a good example of where “equality”, defined simplistically and applied to the design of different areas for learning, is the last thing you’d want.

(If you are interested in exploring the relationship between space and learning, Steelcase have some interesting-looking research documents on their website (see the link given earlier and have a rummage around) and will be at the BETT Show. Also, there are the slides from a presentation I gave on the subject of Spaces and Learning a few years ago.)

Everyone agrees that when it comes to ICT, pupils should be treated equally. It seems to me that before that admirable policy can be put into practice, teachers and leaders of ICT, and senior leaders and others, need to decide exactly what that means!

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