No Cost. No Catch. How One Company Hopes to Close the Achievement Gap

Lucy Kosturko

Tucked along the northern coast of Spain lies the Cave of Altamira. For those who haven’t brushed up on your Upper Paleolithic history in a while, the Cave of Altamira is a big deal for historians, anthropologists, and the like. Vibrantly displayed along the walls of the 300m-long cave are rock paintings of bison and other mammals dating back to 14,000 BC. The use of rich colors and skilled depictions threw experts for a loop: these paintings completely changed our understanding of the intellectual aptitude of prehistoric humans. Visiting the cave to view the beautiful paintings would be an unforgettable experience.

But don’t book your plane ticket quite yet. Unlike other World Heritage Sites like the Giza Necropolis or Easter Island, access to the Cave of Altamira is highly restricted. For years, the cave was closed to visitors as part of an effort to preserve and protect the site. Although the cave was recently reopened to select visitors, getting on the list is no easy task. Five lucky Altamira Museum visitors are chosen at random one day per week to go on the strict 37-minute guided tour. The rest of us have to make do with second-hand experience like photographs and videos.

When Discovery Hurts

Just as the Cave of Altamira altered our view of what prehistoric humans could achieve, so technology has altered our perception of how students learn and what they can achieve. Consider the way technology expands the scale of high-quality content. From disseminating work to collaborating with other great minds, access is no longer confined by geographic location. For example, students all over the globe can now take the How to Reason and Argue MOOC from the best philosophy professors at Duke University…for free. No parking sticker required. For classroom teachers, this expanded reach offers the freedom to crowdsource lesson plans by weaving together the latest and greatest from around the world instead of starting from scratch.

Classroom technologies proliferate rapidly, but economic constraints and daunting price-tags often limit impact. How promising are technologies only some students can use? Do we want education to follow an Altamira model, rewarding the lucky few while the rest of us stand grumbling outside the cave, making do with drawings and descriptions?   

America’s Gaps

Educational agencies talk a lot about achievement gaps. At the most basic level, such gaps are defined by a statistically significant difference in test scores between two groups: male/female, rich/poor, Black/White, etc. Many very smart people analyze various gaps by, say, geographic location or demographics to determine why they exist and how they change over time. One emerging factor–technology–has shown both positive and negative effects, which begs the question: Do EdTech solutions run the risk of widening the achievement gap by widening the opportunity gap?

We believe this risk is a product of accessibility, which we define as access to resources and opportunities and the degree to which students of all abilities can take advantage of a particular resource.

To the first part of that definition, the Office of Educational Technology states, “All students have the right to an equitable education. This right should not be affected by geographic location, family income, or any other demographic factor.” Again, technology can be seen as the great equalizer, bringing high-quality content to all; however, developing and deploying such content takes resources and, thus, often comes at a premium. In fact, the non-hardware K-12 EdTech market was valued at $8.38 billion in 2015. Purchasing devices often depletes the school’s budget; nothing remains to buy software. The result is akin to owning a car without the gasoline to use it.

To the second part of the definition (i.e., accessibility to all learners), let’s shift the focus to students with physical and mental disabilities. Again, technology has proven a remarkable solution (take a look; you’ll be amazed). But any educational software that is not accessible to, for example, a student with a visual impairment widens the opportunity gap and, therefore, widens the achievement gap. As with price, accessibility reveals that not all EdTech is created equal. Issues such as an incompatibility with screen readers or color combinations that do not adhere to best practices make certain programs obsolete to public schools, which must ensure that disabled students have opportunities equal to those of their peers.

In short, if a school cannot afford software for their students or if a student cannot physically use a certain program, the promise of “the great equalizer” becomes the Altamira of the EdTech world–wonderful for some, inaccessible for many.

Finding the Giza Necropolis

So is there hope for the promise of EdTech? Does the Giza Necropolis or Easter Island of EdTech exist?


Organizations such as the Word Wide Web Consortium and developers of Open Educational Resources (OERs) understand issues of access, outline best practices for accessible software development, and ensure equal access to high-quality content by providing resources at no cost.

Mobile-Learning-SAS-coverLike OERs, at SAS Curriculum Pathways, we believe eliminating fees removes one barrier and increases accessibility to a free, high-quality education, and we are in a unique position to make that belief a reality. Through the philanthropy of SAS in education, we offer our suite of 1,500+ interactive resources to teachers and students at no cost. Furthermore, we recognize the breadth of technology being deployed in schools and the need for cross-platform, device-agnostic resources. Our hope is that any student, regardless of geographic location or socio-economic status, in any school, regardless of technology implementation, can take advantage of our resources. We even wrote a book about this!

Among our suite of resources, we are proud to offer a full-length, cross-platform algebra 1 course. This 10-unit, 53-lesson series uses real-world problems to contextualize instruction and offers interactive practice through manipulatives, animations, videos and images. The series also provides targeted feedback for a fully proctored experience. As a result, students explore the entire breadth of a traditional algebra 1 experience and learn to solve equations and inequalities, identify sequences, graph functions, display and analyze data, simplify radical and polynomial expressions, and factor polynomial expressions.

Best of all, accessing this rich content is free to all students and flexible enough for any BYOD implementation. Indeed, we wrote the course with device diversity in mind, meaning students with a tablet, Chromebook, or laptop can take full advantage of every feature embedded in the course.


What about access to all learners? Since our resources span K-12 and are available at no cost, Curriculum Pathways is a wonderful tool for differentiating instruction, accommodating English language learners, or facilitating tutoring sessions. Moreover, making our resources accessible to individuals with visual or hearing impairments is a concerted effort in our development process–a priority detailed in our latest book. For example, SAS Flashcards, an educational app released alongside the launch of the iPad in 2010, is optimized to be compatible with screen readers as seen in the video below.

Similarly, as part of a collaboration with the Space Telescope and Science Institute and the accessibility team at SAS, we published Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn, a free, multitouch iBook for the iPad that was supported, in part, by a Hubble education and public outreach grant. We pioneer techniques that engage visually impaired students (ever listen to a graph?) in immersive learning experiences; sonification, 3D printing, Braille overlays, and other features supplement the rich audio and comply with accessibility standards. The response has been overwhelming and honored by the National Braille Press, which has led to other projects in this space.

So next time you’re searching for educational software, avoid the restricted Altamiras of the EdTech world. You’ve found your Giza Necropolis: SAS Curriculum Pathways, educational resources made for all learners. No sticker shock, no catch. We promise.

P.S. Speaking of the Giza Necropolis, here’s our list of free Ancient Egypt resources!

This blog is part of a series brought to you by SAS Curriculum Pathways (Sign up for your free account at  For more, stay tuned in November for the final published project, Getting Smart on Tomorrow’s Classroom: Free Innovative Tools, Resources, and Apps and check out additional related posts:

Lucy Kosturko is a Research Scientist at SAS Curriculum Pathways. Follow SAS Curriculum Pathways on Twitter, @SASeducator.

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1 Comment

Ed Garrett

A ton of education available free! This opens new paths of opportunity for students (kids and the rest of us)!

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