Equity and Innovation in K–12: Horns of Real Dilemma

Just in case you were wondering: The Digital Divide is alive and well! Indeed, when 40 percent of adults in a city — e.g., Detroit — can’t get online, the "Internet Access Isn't Just A Tech Issue. It's A Civil Rights Issue." So, it is absolutely critical that public education, arguably the centerpiece to a democratic society, must keep equity front-and-center in all its policies.

Here comes the "but."

But, the goal of achieving equity, e.g., making sure that all children in a school have equal access to computing resources, can sometimes be a roadblock to innovation. In what follows, then, we will tell a story of a just such a situation, where achieving equity has in effect put the kibosh on the innovative actions of some teachers.

  • In the fall of 2015-2016, researchers from a local university gave a presentation on some new, innovative software that made 1-to-1 easier to manage for the teachers and enabled the students to effectively take more ownership for their learning. A win-win!  
  • And here comes that "but" again — but, there was no money to provide the necessary 1-to-1 classroom set of devices; the money had gone to develop the innovative software.
  • Nonetheless, two teachers in one school, who taught the same subject in two grade levels, stepped up and said: Yes, we will give this innovative software a try!
  • For the pre-pilot then, one of the IT administrators, who brought the researchers to the school in the first place, helped the teachers cobble together a 1-to-1 set of computing devices — vintage Netbooks, 2013-generation Android tablets, desktop computers in the school’s lab, etc.
  • The pre-pilot went swimmingly!
    • The teachers were energized; they were on the inside track, able to use tomorrow’s software — today, and they saw the positive impact that using the technology made on their students and their students’ learning.
    • No surprise, the students —middle schoolers who had their own smartphones that they simply called phones — loved to use the technology. Even using cranky Netbooks was better than sitting and listening, sitting and listening, sitting … and falling off the chair.
    • Oh, and the software worked as advertised (more or less). In fact, the teachers and the students made a big pile of suggestions that could improve the software — and the researchers buried their egos and soaked up that first-class advice.
  • Time to get serious about creating that 1-to-1 environment. It’s one thing to use Netbooks and old tablets for a trial, it’s another thing entirely for teachers — whose primary job isn’t to keep those cranky devices working on a daily basis — to keep those cranky devices working on a daily basis.
  • In the winter term (2015-2016), the IT administrator "found" some money (translation: the IT administration went out on a limb) and bought two carts of Chromebooks that everyone — including the school principal — agreed could be dedicated to the "pilot" project.
  • Should we stop here and you fill in the rest of the story?
  • The pilot project with modern computing devices and building on the pre-pilot experiences, went swimmingly squared!
    • The teachers felt the researchers had listened and made the software more teacher-friendly and thus the software was easier to use. (Translation: The teachers and the students could more effectively focus on teaching and learning instead of spending time compensating for poorly designed technology!)
    • The IT administrator who "found" the money was excited – and relieved that his investment — that limb he went out on — had paid off.
    • And the students loved, loved, loved those Chromebooks.
  • The school year ended on a high note! The teachers made plans to work over the summer vacation on more curriculum development that exploited the innovative software and the researchers took in more suggestions that would improve their software.
  • Over the summer there had been some discussion with the principal that the two teachers would have priority access to the two carts of Chromebooks in the 2016-2017 school year.
  • But, when the fall semester, 2016-2017, started, the two carts of Chromebooks were no longer designated for the two teachers’ classes nor were the two teachers given priority access to sign out the carts. Priorities change. In the name of equity — providing equal access — those two carts that were purchased to support a specific innovation were now in the general, school pool of computer carts and available, equally, to eight teachers in the subject area for two grade levels.
  • Oh, and during the weeks of school-wide testing in the fall and in the spring, those two carts would be used exclusively for testing; the carts could not be signed out for curricular use.

How many times in how many different schools has the above story been played out? As readers of T.H.E. Journal are tech savvy and innovative, you all can probably empathize with the above story. In fact, while the type of computing device might well be different, your name and the names of your colleagues could be substituted for "the two teachers" in the above story!

Hey, no one said addressing the digital divide and equity would be easy. No "blame" can be laid at the principal’s feet. Equity must be addressed. But innovation also needs to be supported. No one wants to quash teachers stepping up to the challenge of creating more effective classrooms. Perhaps the first step in resolving this situation is to recognize it for what it is: the horns of a true dilemma.   

How is public education to deal with those two horns: equity and innovation? The suggestion box is open.

And, back to the middle school and the two teachers in our story:

  • So, two crestfallen teachers and one crestfallen IT administrator, in the fall of 2016-2016, are searching for resources to cobble together, again, two 1-to-1 classrooms to carry on their innovative work. Since it is common knowledge that public school teachers can be some of the most resourceful people on Planet Earth — stay tuned!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at