In most American cities, poor and minority students lag behind their higher-income and white counterparts. Some in the education community have consistently cited the poor conditions in many inner-city schools – inexperienced teachers, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate resources – as a significant contributor to the “achievement gap”. While many education reformers have focused on a more tradition approach of improving the quality of urban schools, a few are looking at how new technology can improve educational outcomes for urban minority youth.
In New York City, School District Chancellor Joel Klein has established an Innovation Zone that will among other things pilot the delivery of Advanced Placement (AP) classes online. These courses, which provide college level preparation (and credits) for high school students, aren’t offered in many urban high schools, typically because a school does not have enough students to warrant the cost of hiring a new teacher. The virtual AP courses offered through the iZone are designed to fill this void, and it’s hoped that the program help increase both access and achievement in AP classes across the city.
New media can also help inner-city students outside of the classroom. iMentor, a New York based non-profit organization, has developed an online platform that supports the matching and monitoring of mentor-mentee relationships. Through weekly email discussions on important personal, college, career, and community issues, iMentor touts that even the busiest professional can help mentor an aspiring young person. As a clear sign of the growing interest in these technology based model, the organization has recently been selected to receive investment from the new federal Social Innovation Fund program.
Of course, these programs can’t work unless all students have access to the Internet, a problem that national non-profit group Computers for Youth is set on tackling. The organization provides refurbished computers and training to low-income families, and links them affordable broadband options. The program’s success caught the attention of the Department of Commerce, which recently awarded it a $23 million grant to expand the number of students it reaches.
Other technology and new media efforts underway on the education front include the emergence of open source textbooks, which can help school districts and families save money, and myriads of web applications and platforms that empower e-learning – from virtual conferencing for tutoring to online games. And while we haven’t seen any school districts host an applications contest, as more schools and districts try to improve the educational outcomes for their most challenged students, it makes sense that technology could likely play an even bigger role.