USC launches edtech research center focused on underrepresented youth

The center aims to fill diversity gaps in edtech research and be a platform for educators to discuss the implementation of digital learning tools.

Education technology is a hot subject in academia, but despite all the attention, the current research is insufficient when it comes to considering minority students, says Brendesha Tynes, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California.

She will have an opportunity to do more about it in her new position as founding director of the Center for Empowered Learning and Development in Technology (CELDTech), which USC’s Rossier School of Education launched Monday.

“There are plenty of researchers getting funding to do this work, but what we’re finding in a number instances is that the teams are just not as diverse as they could be,” Tynes told EdScoop. “They also don’t have the training that you need to be able to study technology integration in classrooms that serve primarily black and brown students.”

CELDTech will form research teams with more diverse backgrounds in an effort to fill gaps in edtech research, she said.


“We’re trying to bring together teams of people who have extensive experience in these areas so that we can help teachers to better make these curricula that they’re implementing more culturally relevant, and to take advantage of learning opportunities where race or culture might be called into question,” Tynes said.

In a software market estimated to be worth more than $8 billion, K-12 schools should be getting more for their money, Tynes said.

“In our research, we’re finding that teachers who teach black and brown students will often just hand them the lesson for the day and have them figure it out for themselves,” she said. “There’s a lack of rigor in the training and that’s why we can spend, across decades, millions of dollars and see very little change.”

CELDTech staff will explore how teachers can be more effective in using edtech, particularly with underrepresented youth. The center plans to publish its research in peer-reviewed journals, but also wants it to be accessible to the general public. Tynes said it plans to release public reports, publish a blog and run an online forum to discuss how edtech research can be applied in individual cases.

“We want to be one of the first to engage — by school, by teacher — with what their specific kinds of interests and needs are,” Tynes said. “And hopefully we get the funding to be able to have conversations with people across the country about these issues.”


But Tynes plans for CELDTech to do more than just churn out more research. She also wants to develop digital tools designed to help empower students. An upcoming app called CRITmetic will teach users to critique race-related material.

“For example, a lot of time kids are called animals,” Tynes explained. “They’re represented as animals online. We want to help them to be able to think about that message historically and how there’s a long history of stereotyping and trying to dehumanize black folks.”

“We’re hoping, with the curriculum aspect of CRITmetic, to provide students with this historical and critical lense to view the race-related material and the material that they’re broadly inundated with in online spaces,” she added. The app is expected to be available for grades 8-10 later this fall.

Nichole Pinkard, an associate professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, applauds the opening of CELDTech. She warned, however, that research should not focus too much on individual demographics.

“In reality, how people use technology, how they’re going to engage it, their access to it, is influenced and mediated by multiple different factors, like socioeconomic status, region, parents, income, the context and environment that they’re in,” Pinkard said in an interview with EdScoop.


Pinkard compared edtech platforms with how Netflix tailors users’ streaming experiences.

“You don’t go on Netflix and say, ‘I’m African American, female and 46 years old.’ It’s how you use the system that creates an understanding of you,” Pinkard said. “We need to not just say, ‘This is what we should do for our black kids, our white kids, our girls.’ We need to begin to understand who these kids are individually.”

Pinkard, whose research focuses on creating supportive digital learning tools for urban youth, is encouraged by CELDTech’s goal to shed more light on how edtech can be useful to underrepresented communities.

“The work that they’re doing is highly necessary,” she said. “It’s not coming from people who build these [tools] … It’s coming out of people who focus and study how people use technologies. That can change the conversation.”

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