The Digital Matthew Effect: How EdTech Can Increase the Divide

For those of you who don’t know what the Matthew Effect is let me break it down for you.

This is Matthew Fiorante a pro-gamer from Regina, SK. He is the only Canadian to win a Major League Gaming Halo Championship. He has been ranked ranked as one of the top 25 pro-gamers and has made significant amounts of money winning professional gaming competitions around the world. I have known him since he was 8 and he is an example of the Digital Matthew Effect. Ok- maybe its a bit of a stretch but it was right there… how could I not at least try and make the connection.

I first came across the Matthew Effect in an article published by Malcolm Gladwell. In his book “Outliers” Gladwell uses this idea to look at what makes great hockey players. You can check out his book or find a copy of the first chapter and read in more detail. This general idea however is going to drive my argument for whether technology does or does not create a more equitable society.

In case you didn’t dig into it… the Matthew Effect according to was first coined in 1968 by Robert K. Merton and refers to the concept of accumulated advantage in society. This suggests that those that start with an advantage will accrue more of that advantage. The Matthew Effect is named for a verse in the Gospel book of Matthew in the Bible. Matthew 25:29 reads, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” The Matthew Effect in science argues that well-known scientists will receive more recognition for research than lesser-known scientists. This holds true even if the research results are comparable for both sets of scientists. So how does that relate to technology and an equitable society? Let’s see how my theory holds up in the research.

The Digital Divide

So how does Matthew Fiorante relate to the concept of the digital divide? Well, as the Financial Post/Leader Post article states he makes a living playing video games and has been able to do so through the support of his parents. This means that at a young age he was given the technology and access to the internet to start playing Halo online. So much like the hockey players in Gladwell’s chapter Fiorante was able to access the things he needed early in life in order to become better at the sport (in this case e-sports). The better he got the more he was able to access in turn making him better and starting the cycle of access and improvement. In the end this lead to sponsorships for better gear and even faster internet. So here in lies the argument of the digital divide. Both this article from Slate and this article from “Economic Inquiry” point to the fact that the digital Matthew Effect already exists. The Slate article in particular brings up an interesting point that it is not just access to technology that increases the opportunity gap but how it is used. The article states “This is not a story of the familiar “digital divide”—a lack of access to technology for poor and minority children. This has to do, rather, with a phenomenon Neuman and Celano observed again and again in the two libraries: Granted access to technology, affluent kids and poor kids use tech differently. They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience.” So the Matthew Effect is magnified not only by availability of access but also by the affluence of the children using technology. Justin Reich has addressed this as well in his book Failure to Disrupt. You can also watch him talk through this idea on YouTube. As Reich mentions in the YouTube video, which was filmed in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, this divide is going to become more prevalent as we shift to online learning and now on the other side of the lockdowns and online learning I think it is fair to say that most educators would agree with him. So in short technology will not bridge the divide in the ways that we think it might. When we think about the simple definition of the digital divide as being simply those with and without access it seems plausible but when we recognize that the digital divide, much like many other divides that separate students, goes beyond access and actually has more to do with social inequities and racial injustice we can see that technology alone will not solve the problem and in fact exacerbates it.

Accessible Tech

Some of this week’s argument in our in class debate shifted toward this idea about how tech is making things more equitable in how it can help students with disabilities gain access to learning opportunities they weren’t able to before. I think that we would be remiss if we were not to acknowledge that on some level this is in fact technology making things more equitable. So, what we really have is two different arguments- one that focuses on the digital divide and one that focuses on inclusive education in terms of ability. This second argument I think is valuable. Ed Tech has been a game changer when we look at how tech, when used properly, can allow us to integrate and assess students in our classroom for understanding in ways that were not possible not so long ago. Tools like Google Read & Write is available for free and in some ways has replaced tech like Dragon Naturally Speaking which was introduced in 1997 and was quite expensive. This is just one example of how many tech companies have recognized the importance of designing technology in a way that is accessible for all. This idea lends itself nicely to the concept of UDL or universal design for learning. However as great as tech has been at making education more inclusive for those learners with a disability it still struggles to address the inequity at the heart of education. So as I said in the paragraph above technology will not solve the inequities of education on its own. I think the reason we see Ed Tech solve some of the inequities in terms of ability in education is because as a society we have been more willing to address the discuss the inequities of ability in education and we are only just beginning to address and attempt to change the systemic racism and inequities that exist in how our education system is structured and until we as a society get away from the myth of meritocracy in education and start to address the social injustices in education we won’t see a lot of major tech companies design in a way that makes tech the source of equitable education despite its best efforts.

Final Thoughts

In the end I think I still land on the side of the debate that says technology is not creating a more equitable society. I think that we would be naïve to say it is. However I think that at some level there is a hope maybe that at some point it will. I think we have seen the start of the possibility of technology to have a positive impact on society in terms of equality and equity. We can’t deny the impact it has had on changing inclusive education. However I think that we need to make strides on a societal level in terms of how we view the nature of equity and the reality of equality before we can think that technology will be the magic cure to all of our woes. So yes at some point technology may be a driving force for equity and yes there are moments where we see it now but as much of the research points out until we limit the divide between the haves and the have nots we will continue to see those that have get more and those that have not lose ground. So I will finish this blog with one of my favourite photos I took of the Del Mar Inn in Vancouver in 2011- I think its story and its message sum things up nicely.

Del Mar Inn, Vancouver BC- Will Whitten (2011)

3 thoughts on “The Digital Matthew Effect: How EdTech Can Increase the Divide

  1. As soon as you mentioned “The Matthew Effect” in class, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s a perfect example of the cumulative effect of learning, or really, the cumulative effect of any activity. However, I don’t know that there are a lot of really effective ways to mitigate the effect of this, to mitigate the divide that comes from this unearned advantage. Also, in what ways can we look at this divide from a strength based approach — also something I struggle with in terms of divided learning.


  2. Awesome post Will. What a cool connection made between the “Digital” Matthew Effect and (my cousin!!) Mathew Fiorante and how his experience in becoming a pro gamer is so closely tied to the idea that certain privileges are afforded to affluent users of technology. (I love a good pun so truly appreciate what you did there with that comparison!) I agree with what you included in your post regarding the tech tools that can help make learning more equitable for some students; however, the study presented in the Slate article regarding how tech users from different backgrounds engage with the same tools is such a compelling argument for the disagree side of this week’s debate. Thanks so much for sharing this.


  3. Thanks for your insightful post, Will! Since I’m not right across the hall from you, I thought I should send a quick reply.
    I agree that technology is not leading to a more equitable society. To be honest, I was not aware of the Matthew effect. I am sure glad you shared that information as I feel a million times smarter. That was a great comparison in helping us understand how technology could, in fact, increase the digital divide!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s