student access

The big 3: How access, achievement and advancement can close gaps

Giving all students equal learning opportunities is a challenge, but focusing on three key areas can help.

When it comes to learning, giving students access to a magical mix of high-quality teachers, technology, and the opportunity to develop skills such as collaboration sets them on the right path.

But educational gaps remain–gaps in technology access, in achievement, and in opportunity. The right blend of pedagogy and technology, however, can help close those gaps.

During a session at CUE’s 2017 National Conference, Toni Robinson, director of professional development for Discovery Education, explored some of the ways technology can give students equal learning opportunities.

Closing educational gaps comes down to access, achievement and advancement.


“We can’t speak about access without speaking about success,” Robinson said. “There’s no way to get success if you don’t have access.”

When it comes to ensuring students have different types of access, including access to high-quality educators and to technology, Robinson recommends looking at successful access models and replicating them.

“The end goal is not access–the end goal is success,” she said.

(Next page: Achievement and advancement)

Access to teachers: Students need and deserve access to high-quality teachers who are invested in students’ futures, who are, and who want to make a difference in students’ lives. But enrollment in teacher prep programs is declining across the country, and developing a strong teacher pipeline is very important.

Access to learning spaces: Creative, innovative and flexible learning environments that give students safe and respectful places to learn are key. Spaces should reflect the work world and the global world students will enter.

Access to technology: “We live in the digital age. There’s no going back,” Robinson said. “It’s a moral imperative that we provide students with the opportunity to interact with technology during their academic career.” Teachers have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, and with realizing students might have more technology knowledge and proficiency. Exposure to both technology and high-quality digital content helps students achieve success.

Access to relevance: “For far too long, we’ve taught topics that just aren’t relevant, where students don’t see the connection to their lives,” Robinson said. “Technology gives us the opportunity to make things relevant.” For example, lessons on proportion could be applied to finance or game design. Lessons about angles could incorporate diagrams from basketball games. “That high-interest content that is engaging and of interest to students makes all the difference,” she said.

Access to content and real-world experiences: Content should be robust and relevant. It should engage students and help them see beyond their classroom and learn in the real world. Technology can bring real-world experiences to students’ classrooms.

“Technology allows us to extend the learning beyond the barriers of the classroom,” Robinson said. “We have to think big and act small–break down the walls that divide our classrooms and step into this world that is at our fingertips. Whether you have one device or 30 … we have to stop teaching the way WE learn and teach students the way THEY learn. Teach to their future, and not to our past. Before students can see themselves as forces of change, we have to empower them to do that. That’s how we provide access.”


“We live in a time when students receive more information than we ever did at their age. The skills they need [will help them] decipher what’s true, what’s not, what’s important, what’s helpful, and they also need to be able to develop their own content as well,” Robinson said.

Educators have to know that students are preparing for jobs that are just emerging or that haven’t been created yet. The skills students learn today will help them get ready for those jobs of tomorrow, she said.

Those new skills for achievement include creative communication, social and emotional competence, sense-making, relevance, and curation.

Educators can help boost student achievement through agency, personalization, and authenticity.

Agency: How much power are we giving students to determine their own learning? is teacher or students doing most talking? Who is the primary driver of the lesson? who is initiating what’s going to be studied? teacher or student? we really have to think about making sure we’re releasing some of that control and turning it over to students, and that can be a little daunting.

Personalization: Think about who selects learning goals and how material is going to be learned. Who determines how it’s going to be assessed? It doesn’t mean just giving choice in terms of the paths students take, but also giving them a choice in how they want to be assessed and how they want to demonstrate that they’ve learned.

Authenticity: Is the work that students are doing reflective of work practitioners do? Is it reflective of what happens in the real world and is the work they’re doing contributing to a larger audience? “If we limit the audience to just the classroom or just the school, we’re really doing our students a disservice,” Robinson said. “They have an opportunity to speak to a broader world today than we did. Creating opportunities means giving students authentic work and challenges, and making sure their voices are being heard.”


“To advance, we really have to start seeing things a little differently,” Robinson said. This includes looking for the “pertinent negative”–looking for what isn’t there, along with identifying what is there, to get the full picture.

“As educators and as school districts, we have to decide how we are going to move along with change. What is it our teachers need to help them get on board? Don’t do it for the sake of using technology, but do it strategically, capably, purposefully, and in conjunction with pedagogy,” she said. “The teacher is still the most effective and important factor in the classroom that is going to affect student achievement and advancement, but we also have to be abreast of what’s coming.”

Educators also should make sure they are giving students chances to create and collaborate in order to advance.

“If we want students to advance, [make sure] we’re giving them opportunities to construct knowledge and open them up to outside learning opportunities. Think of existing problems out there today that they can actually impact.”

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Laura Ascione
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