THE BLOG
03/06/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

Let's Tailor Technology in Classrooms to Serve Marginalized Students

Several news outlets have recently wrote of "Silicon Valley's Race Problem," addressing the lack of entrepreneurs of color in a booming technology industry. No field deserves more consideration on this issue than the rapidly growing education technology sector, where the racial composition of students, the ultimate beneficiaries of EdTech products, is radically diverse.

The field of EdTech has tremendous potential to empower students of color and accelerate their academic and personal growth. To fully capture the liberating power of technology to lift students socioeconomically, schools not only need access to technology, an issue referred to as the digital divide, but tools themselves must meaningfully motivate students and integrate technology into their learning. Investors, entrepreneurs, and the broader EdTech community can do much more to consider the cultural diversity among their end users.

Every educator fighting for educational equity knows of an inextricable tie between educational outcomes and race. This performance disparity manifests itself in many ways: African-American and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to receive lower grades, score lower on standardized tests, drop out of high school, and are less likely to enter and complete college.

For us, providing an educational experience that incorporates a student's cultural background is vital. Not only is this socially conscious, it may also be viewed as an untapped market for product investment and growth.

Investors at the vanguard of demographic trends should consider the racial makeup of our students. In 2011, 48 percent of the K-12 student population belonged to a racial minority, with Western states closer to 60 percent, and growing. Latino students now outnumber African American students, Asian enrollment is steadily increasing, and the proportion of white students attending public schools continues to decline.

Qlovi, an EdTech literacy company located in Spanish Harlem, was founded in 2012 by three men of color who grew up with challenges in language acquisition.

"I moved to the U.S. in 1991 from Colombia, and I'll never forget how hard acquiring the English language was for me, or how overwhelmed my educators in Dallas were in their attempt to communicate with me or my family," co-founder Harlyn Pacheco said, "It's our personal stories and the ones we see around us every day here in Spanish Harlem that motivate our team to continue to discuss culturally relevant content and provide these literacy services."

Qlovi initially provided literacy support services based on mainstream, culturally neutral texts, but grew from a user base grew of 10,000 to 70,000 students just two weeks after releasing culturally relevant content from publishers such as Arte Publico Press and Cinco Puntos Press.

"It's unbelievable the number of culture specific requests we get from our educators," Pacheco said. "There are hundreds of schools across the country that don't even have libraries, so in some ways, web-based services are all they have."

Similar stories surface at companies like The Hispanic Math Project, the African-American Distributed Multiple Learning Styles System, and Say, Say Oh Playmate, a clapping and rhythm-based game used to develop literacy competencies among African American girls.

Socio-cultural theorists refer to this type of pedagogy as culturally responsive, culturally relevant, and multicultural teaching. This method recognizes education must account for the life experiences and cultural reference points of students. Culturally responsive teachers craft the education their particular students deserve--one that acknowledges their voice, validates their identity, and connects to their communities. The National Research Institute of Medicine found student engagement grounded in life experiences is critical to academic achievement for students of color. Joyce E. King, president-elect of the American Educational Research Association, has spearheaded research on integrating the role of culture into American classrooms.

The prevalence of this movement spans beyond academia and into classrooms nationwide. The Obama administration's Race to the Top grant program encourages innovations in serving our increasingly diverse learners and has funded several districts in culturally responsive professional development for teachers. State governments have shelled out millions of dollars in grant funding to promulgate this approach. The Oregon Department of Education will grant between $70,000 and $90,000 to up to nine districts beginning this March to address opportunity gaps through culturally responsive pedagogy.

Specifically in EdTech, culturally responsive teaching has been supported by academic discourse since as early as 1997, with Robert Branch's work on Educational Technology Frameworks that Facilitate Culturally Pluralistic Instruction. Unfortunately, the industry has remained predominantly culturally neutral to the needs and aspirations of culturally diverse learners.

Industry leaders don't need to promote and recruit people of color in the EdTech sector to simply increase our representation, but to acknowledge the need for reflecting end consumers in the makeup of any company. Entrepreneurs inspire innovations based on a conglomeration of deeply internalized experiences, beliefs and values that define their behavior. It follows then that innovators in EdTech, with few African Americans and Latino leaders, create products and services grounded in their own understanding and interpretation of the world.

In addressing this disparity, a great deal of attention focuses on strengthening the human capital pipeline, as few African American and Latino students take the AP STEM exams. Although this is one entry point, the most enduring change will follow only when investors and entrepreneurs build critical consciousness around this issue, acknowledge their privilege, and intentionally "use power to share power, or use privilege to dismantle privilege systems," as said by Peggy McIntosh.

EdTech companies should engage people of color and critically conscious white allies by casting a wider net when staffing their teams and collaborating with educators. For example, BrainPOP, a curricular tool that uses animation to engage students, began creating content in Spanish as a response to demands from their localized educator communities. Some investors are unaware how race itself may be a barrier for entrepreneurs at the earliest stages of a company. Kapor Capital, a V.C. firm based out of Oakland, and Echoing Green's Black Male Achievement Fellowship, both investors in Qlovi, make deliberate efforts to hear pitches from entrepreneurs of color.

In an era where Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls for textbooks to become obsolete, schools' demand for internet bandwidth is at an unprecedented high, and more school districts adopt 1:1 technological devices, we're headed to a world where technology will be ubiquitous in schools. The EdTech industry must join the social movement toward closing the opportunity gap by addressing all of its complexities.