Achieving education equity and innovation for students are two of the most pressing issues in education right now. These two forces were center stage at the Symposium on Equity and Innovation in Education, organized by ACTNext and ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning.

The distinguished panel members’ comments coalesced around the idea that innovation, which holds so much promise, can either expand or exasperate the current equity gaps in education.

Importantly, there were many positive cases of how the two are working together.

One example is the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank leading Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley with many partners, including the Center, telecommunications companies, and the Small Business Administration.

The initiative’s goal is to design and implement an effective model to close the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which is one of the poorest areas in the country. Project objectives are to improve educational opportunity and results for pre-K–12 students and their families across the region and to increase access to training and job opportunities.

The area has historically suffered from poor internet service. “If you are trying to develop a brain trust you need high-speed internet. Unfortunately, we see a correlation between poverty and a lack of connectivity,” said Maria Vasquez, program director for strategic partnerships with ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning.

Calvin Shum, CEO, Lovoco, offered another example of innovation helping equity gaps with his company’s automated polylingual stenographer. The stenographer enables visual aid for caption readers, translations for global communicators and higher learning outcomes for students. “This is the type of innovation that is perfect for students learning English as a second language. We also know that all students retain better when they can both hear and read what a professor is saying during a lecture.” Additionally, Burr Settles, Staff Scientist, Duolingo, added to the discussion noting that Duolingo has reached over 200 million users and is making an impact globally by reaching and teaching undeserved populations via its mobile, language-learning platform.

ACTNext Vice President Alina von Davier explained its holistic learning mobile app, which integrates multiple data streams and frameworks. It guides learners to improve their skills more efficiently with a fully personalized learning plan. The app also integrates information from the ACT Holistic Framework to help students understand how to take advantage of (and improve) their non-cognitive skills — providing test prep for the whole self.

The symposium also included warnings for everyone trying to tackle both innovation and equity. Heather Hiles, deputy director, solutions for post-secondary success, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said, “We need to have intended users of products actually design them and need to stop building solutions for people we don’t know.”

This thought was echoed by Jim Larimore, Chief Officer for the Center. “My elders told me that most of what we needed to know about the world we could learn through the careful observation of nature. It took me a while to figure out that what they were describing was science, which made that subject more relevant to me. One of the things we learn from observing nature is that trees only grow in one direction — from the ground up, starting at the roots. As we try to advance schooling, we should be sure to always observe that students also grow from the roots on up.” This thought marked both the end of the discussion and a jumping off point for future activity.