Are Latino ‘Systems of Knowledge’ Missing From Education Technology?
At a time when school districts are spending money on edtech like never before, it’s perhaps natural that some educators would be skeptical about both the pace and enthusiasm behind it.
As we’ve reported in the past, some teachers have clearly expressed that tech tools should support and not replace their expertise.
Meanwhile, changing demographics of students in U.S. public schools raise questions about whether curricula and edtech are staying culturally relevant. Between 2010 and 2021, the share of white non-Hispanic children fell to 45 percent of public school students, while the share of Hispanic children grew to comprise 28 percent.
EdSurge recently posed a question to a panel of Latino educators and an edtech leader: Is educational technology serving the Latino community, particularly its students?
Who Is Edtech Made for?
As the mother of two bilingual children who are growing up speaking Spanish at home, Rocío Raña has spent a lot of time pondering this question. She co-founded edtech company LangInnov to address what she saw as a gap in the market for assessing Latino children’s reading abilities.
There has been some progress in the human-centered design movement, Raña says, where companies involve the end-users in a product’s design — but she argues that the edtech landscape needs to do much more when it comes to designing for Latino and Black children.
Her comments come at a time when some experts worry that, despite all the enthusiasm around them, the rush to use AI tools in education could make racial disparities worse for Black and Hispanic students.
“We are constantly here hearing that Black and Latinx kids do not do well in assessments, and I wonder whether it’s because those assessments weren’t really designed for them,” Raña says. “They’re designed for the most part for white, middle-class kids, but they are used with a different population — with our community.”
Holding the Door Open for Young Latinos
Cindy Noriega is a third-year mathematics and computer science teacher in the Los Angeles area. Before that, she became the first person in her family to attend college and graduated from University of California, Los Angeles. It was her own struggles as a math student, which overlapped with her parents’ difficult divorce, that motivated Noriega to strive to cultivate a classroom where her students feel both loved and capable of doing math.
It’s not just the product side of technology that needs more Latino representation, Noriega says, it’s also the teaching side. She makes a concerted effort to encourage Latino students at her high school to take computer science classes. But one of the first obstacles she has to help them overcome is their own self-doubt.
“I didn’t do computer science until I was 21, and I had classmates at UCLA that did computer science when they were in the seventh grade,” Noriega says, “so wherever I can provide that space and provide them with that early introduction to computer science and technology, then I will.”
Latina students especially will insist to Noriega that they aren’t smart enough to take a computer science class.
It’s not enough for a school to simply offer these students computer science classes — teachers like Noriega are working to tear down the invisible mental and cultural barriers that keep Latino students from considering the field altogether. Figures from the Pew Research Center show that Latinos are still vastly underrepresented in the science, math and technology workforce.
“There’s that stigma that we have in ourselves sometimes as Latinos, that fear of, ‘I won’t be able to do it,’” she says. “That’s why I’m also their cheerleader.”
Equal Access Doesn’t Mean Equally Helpful
Edward Gonzalez oversees open educational resources for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools in California. He’s also an adjunct faculty member in the department of teacher education at California State University, Bakersfield.
In Gonzalez’s view, just getting a piece of technology into a child’s hand won’t help them improve where they’re lagging academically or even be effective at teaching them anything. That’s true whether you’re looking at Latino students in urban areas or rural communities, he says.
“You see students taken away from more meaningful learning experiences and kind of plugged into computer screens where it’s basically a flashcard,” Gonzalez says of disappointing uses for edtech.
He imagines that a century from now, education researchers are going to look back at the edtech explosion of our era and wonder, “What were marginalized and Latino students doing?”
“And we’re gonna see, unfortunately, a lot of spreadsheets that have numbers and yellow and red cells,” Gonzalez says. “And then when you go into more affluent communities or communities where there’s stronger advocacy, you’re gonna see projects and you’re gonna see stories and you’re gonna see kids sharing their own voices. And the unfortunate part is that our kids could be doing that now.”
Gonzalez isn’t alone in his lament over shoddy implementation of technology that is supposed to be helping students learn. A recent report on edtech efficacy found that out of the 100 most-used edtech products in K-12 classrooms, only 26 have released research backing up their claims in a way that satisfies the U.S. Department of Education’s evidence standards. It’s disheartening news at a time when students need more help than perhaps ever, as they recover academically from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact.
Latino students could be having better, more effective experiences with edtech right now, Gonzalez says.
“It’s not some future that we have to wait for, because all the tools are here, and the advocates are here,” he says. “So it’s about making the movement now and making that concrete.”
Whose Technology Gets Celebrated?
Antonio Vigil is director of innovative classroom technology at Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. He’s spent his 25-year career working for social change and transformation within public education, in part through what he calls “humanizing mental models and systems.”
For Vigil, to get to the root of how technology falls short for Latino students, you have to go way back in time.
The remains of sprawling Latin American cities like Machu Picchu in Peru or Tulum in Mexico represent feats of engineering that are a part of Latino students’ heritage — one he says they have been cut off from learning about or taking pride in.
“When we talk about how technology is not serving us, we can’t just think about devices, we just can’t think about software and hardware,” Vigil says. “We have to think about how the ecosystem itself, through colonization, has kept us distanced from that knowledge and from that intellectual curiosity to be the problem-solvers that we are.”
There’s a missing human connection when it comes to teaching students about technology, he says. Conversations about stalwarts of cutting-edge technology in the Americas shouldn’t start with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or MIT, Vigil posits, but with the universities that were established by indigenous people before the arrival of Europeans.
After all, Latino students come from a tradition of indigenous people who used technology to build sprawling cities in the jungle and measure time more accurately than our modern-day calendar.
“Whether you’re Quechua, whether you come from a Maya background, whether you come from any indigenous background, there are cultural and systems of knowledge that we have neglected that we need to be reminded of and bring into full presence within the current time period,” Vigil says. “Only then are we gonna see the revolutionary needs of people and communities being met so that we can develop and iterate to the world and society that we desire and need. That is just and humanizing. You feel me?”
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The MEN was founded by John Huber in the fall of 2020. It was founded to provide a platform for expert opinion and commentary on current issues that directly or indirectly affect education. All opinions are valued and accepted providing they are expressed in a professional manner. The Maryland Education Network consists of Blogs, Videos, and other interaction among the K-12 community.