Steve Zylius / University Communications “Often, students who speak English as a second language are embarrassed or self-conscious about their language skills,” says doctoral candidate Binbin Zheng. “This prevents them from speaking up in class and participating in classroom discussions.” She has found that digital and social media alleviate this.

Bridging the educational divide

Public Impact Fellow Binbin Zheng studies how low-cost classroom technology can help disadvantaged learners

As a master’s student in education in her native China, Binbin Zheng was acutely aware of the educational disparities between poor, rural students and their privileged counterparts in Shanghai and Beijing.

She became interested in how affordable classroom technology – like that provided through the One Laptop per Child program – could bridge this gap. Her curiosity led her to UC Irvine’s School of Education, where she’s a Ph.D. candidate in education specializing in language, literacy and technology.

Zheng considered various doctoral programs in the U.S. before choosing UC Irvine in order to study with education and informatics professor Mark Warschauer, an expert on digital media in the classroom.

Her research focuses on the effective use of low-cost netbook computers and other electronic tools in K-12 schools – specifically, how English-language learners, underrepresented minorities and students from low-income families can benefit from such technology.

“I’m interested in the way teachers use blogging and social media to improve the writing and literacy skills of English-language learners,” she says.

In 2009, Zheng collaborated with Warschauer on a study of linguistically diverse fifth-graders in Colorado. The students, mostly from immigrant families who speak English as a second language, were given laptop computers and prompted to blog about books and videos covered in the classroom while engaging in an online discussion with their teacher and peers.

“They were able to see each other’s writing as soon as it was posted, and when the live event ended, all the discussion threads were automatically saved on the class blog,” Zheng says.

The English-language learners, she notes, approached the online writing exercise with enthusiasm.

“Often, students who speak English as a second language are embarrassed or self-conscious about their language skills,” she says. “This prevents them from speaking up in class and participating in classroom discussions.”

Zheng found that the English learners who blogged the most showed the greatest improvement in their writing post-test scores.

“The results provide empirical evidence that online discussion not only enhanced English-language learners’ participation in classrooms but also improved their writing achievement,” she says.

In recognition of her work, Zheng was awarded a $10,000 Public Impact Fellowship from UC Irvine’s Graduate Division.

“Binbin’s research is enormously important for education,” says Warschauer, chair of Zheng’s dissertation committee and associate dean of the School of Education. “Given demographic and economic shifts in the U.S., there are few social problems our nation faces that are more important than improving the literacy and learning outcomes of immigrant learners.”

The development of good writing skills is crucial to success in the 21st century, Zheng says: “Studies suggest that even engineers spend 25 percent or more of their time writing. Not being able to write is keeping millions of youth from graduating high school, succeeding in college or contributing to careers of their choice.”

School districts can acquire laptops for about $250 per student and utilize free open-source software and social media to develop and design writing assignments, she says.

Zheng is encouraged by her findings, which support the idea that judicious use of technology can improve learning outcomes.

“Well-planned implementation of laptops and digital media can help diverse learners improve their literacy,” she says, “and thus help bridge education gaps.”

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