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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Digital Divide Within: Creating a Level Playing Field for All Students

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger

This is a follow-up post to "1-2-3 -- Red Light!: Let's Give the Use of Technology in Classrooms the Green Light Instead." There's still a lot of talk about the digital divide in this country. I've seen it firsthand as I've worked with schools and school districts around the country on technology-leadership issues; some student populations do lots of online and computer work at home, but other schools serve students who don't have computers and Internet access at home, so the choices for after-school technology work are limited.

As stated in CNN's Virtual Villages initiative, "Technology has become the driving force of change in the modern world. It has altered our economic structures and the ways we communicate. Technology -- even in small amounts -- is helping communities overcome convention and tradition to take leaps forward."

Clearly, leveling the playing field outside school is a huge task. When it comes to technology, many districts and schools are working hard to address this issue through after-school programs, laptop initiatives, even youth-oriented computer-loan programs. Bonnie Bracey Sutton's post, "Digital Equity: Working Together For a Solution," points out some great resources as well.

But one thing I've noticed that still strikes me as just as critical is the digital divide within school buildings. Here's a topic on which I'd love to get readers' feedback: I believe most schools and classrooms are inching closer to adequate ratios of computers to students. I visit schools all over the country, and in the last few years, I have seen more and more computers in schools. I've also seen increases in other technologies -- projectors, interactive whiteboards, personal-response systems, and so on. We're not where we want to be, of course, but the stuff is becoming more prevalent.

The disturbing thing I see, though, is that even in many technology-rich schools, there are still strands of students who barely access the technology in meaningful ways. Here's an example: I've observed a few classrooms very closely the last few years, and I have watched certain students at the computer a lot more than others: The students who finish their "real work" early, or the really well-behaved students, get to the computers much more often.

Some teachers still see time at the computer as an add-on to use when what they see as legitimate classwork is done, while other teachers in the same building integrate it daily. I can see the students in those classrooms becoming very media and tech savvy, engaging in learning that extends far beyond the traditional standardized set of content.

So, hypothetically, two similar students in the same school could progress through several grade levels together, yet each could receive drastically different exposure to technology use during their school careers -- in some cases, just by random teacher placement: One student happens to get teachers who aren't big technology users several years in a row, while others get someone who integrates it seamlessly.

I feel lucky because my daughter has been in technology-savvy classrooms, and (through my wife's good genes, not mine) behaves well, finishes her work early, and uses technology frequently. But I've seen other students in schools who don't fit that description and aren't involved nearly as much. I wonder, as these students progress, how uneven the playing field will be for them.

Now that the school year is winding down, I believe I've seen some students make it through one more year without a lot of exposure to technology. As my daughter and her peers prepare to enter middle school, I wonder whether, because of their technology skill and savviness, they're starting on level playing fields.

Some kids are getting a double whammy -- no technology at home and little at school. How do we address this version of the digital divide, inequity of access within a school -- either because some teachers still aren't using technology much, or because some still use it in a way that might prevent certain students from having much direct exposure?

Please respond with your ideas and comments.

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
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Bea Cantor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe professional development is a good place to start, if it is done correctly. I do not believe in mass delivery of information at faculty meetings and large scale workshops. I guess I should explain that I do believe such settings are great for making people aware of what is out there, but they do nothing towards encouraging a teacher to integrate if the teacher isn't already doing so.

Teachers should be required, or encouraged, to have a professional development plan in which technology integration figures as a major component. Then an ITRT should meet with the teacher and review the uses of technology periodically. The meetings should not be a random occurrence for whenever the teacher is having issues with email. The meetings should be scheduled at regular intervals during the year.

I know that many school administrators are reluctant to make technology integration a part of the "formal" teacher evaluation process. However, as you said, teachers who continue to avoid technology are doing a disservice to their students. Technology is not an ancillary tool for boosting fun activities. Technology is a real tool that students need to be able to use. When it comes to jobs and college applications, technology skills are getting to be as important as reading and math. Teacher evaluations do need to take this into consideration.

Dr. David C. Baker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just as in the "traditional classrooms" student progress at different rates due to a variety of internal and external factors. This also seems to be the case within technology-rich classroom environments. Just as you can lead a student to knowledge but you can't make them think, you can lead them to technology but you can't force them to "compute!"

Students (and teachers for that matter) that have more access may not use technology for much more than recreational or peripheral "add-on" purposes. Instructional technology still has not reached the level of ubiquity of a light switch nor has it become standardized enough to not be a hurdle to most classroom teachers. Constant changes in software versions, lock-ups, slow network response times, computer viruses, power issues, etc., etc. all throw roadblocks in front of teachers that have little or no time to be well versed in dealing with these issues on top of instruction, classroom behavior management, standardized testing, and the daily administrivia that is part of their daily routine.

Compounding this situation is another aspect of the digital divide - that of being a critical thinker when using technology. Students and teachers alike may use technology on a daily and ongoing basis but never think about where they go, what they post, or the information that is offered up as valid and reliable. This places them at once on the side of what I would call the "high-tech have-nots" versus the "high-tech haves" in terms of the safety and intelligence of their use.

Yes, the change is incremental and frustrating at best even in technology rich environments. We must keep in mind that we are dealing with the human animal here. Our natural resistance to change is as fundamental to who we are as much as is Maslow's hierarchy. However we are changing and in the process changing the face of education and how we are taught and learn. It may be at a slow, frustrating pace, but in the end slow-and-steady wins the race.

Rhonda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The issue of the digital divide in terms of home access may have to be addressed in the same way as free lunches, through a program that provides for students unable to provide for themselves. The $100 laptop program being used in underdeveloped countries may be an answer, but the computers would also have to be compatible with assistive technology such as touch windows, scanning and Intellikeys so that ALL students have access. This is probably not an issue in the the underdeveloped countries but special education parents are not going to tolerate their children not having access if the others do. A GPS type system must also be installed in the computers so they can be found if lost, sold, or stolen.

The issue of the digital divide in classrooms will require, first, a change in perception of the role of technology. Many teachers regard computer time as an add-on secondary to a pencil and a worksheet. When kids go to the computer lab, the teacher gets a planning period. Technology time is like art, music and PE, a supplement or enrichment. Just before Katrina I worked in a school that had a lab full of brand new computers that students had attended regularly the previous year. However, the school had low test scores and lost a position so the computer teacher was put in the 4th grade, the grade for high stakes testing and announced that that only way that the students would be able to get computer time was if the teacher brought them and taught them. (My students were not affected by the change. They could not get up the stairs to the lab, or the library or cafeteria for that matter, but the teacher still did not want to give up a couple of her new computers even though it was obvious they were not going to be used.) Then Katrina came and no one ever used them again.

Something related that would help would be if students were taught touch typing when they first got computer access. Keyboarding should be a course like handwriting and small keyboards for little hands provided just like wide lined paper and primary pencils are used for writing. By the third grade children should be able to write in cursive and type functionally using appropriate fingering and without looking at their hands.

The other issue is teacher training. There is a problem with role reversal here. Teachers are territorial and very sensitive about issues of respect. Older, experienced, teachers teach younger teachers, not the reverse. However, when it comes to technology, it is the young rookies who cut their teeth on Writing To Read and who have the skills the mature teachers need. It has been shown that the best staff development is done in an individualized, mentoring situation. This is how I learned to do a PowerPoint. I emailed the Assistive Technology Tech and said, "Help!" She came, spent an hour or so with me and I was then able to do a PowerPoint. Now I have refined my skills on my own and can do a much better PowerPoint. But it took, for me, getting one of OUR people, a special education person who had attended some of the same workshops I had, for me to ask for help. I cannot be rushed when I am trying to learn something new. It has to be broken down like only special education knows how. I would never have considered asking anyone from regular education, especially not a young teacher, and our school tech, who also taught chemistry, stayed so busy maintaining nearly 800 computers that she came to work at 5:30 AM and would "disappear" a CPU that did not work right without even leaving a note and "reappear" it the next day, working perfectly. However, she was great when I messed something up,like the time I accidentally recorded 23 hours of Fox News on my hard drive and filled it up!

Perhaps the issue of training could be approached as a trade off or mutual learning experience with the rookies getting class management, teaching strategies and burnout prevention from the veterans and the the veterans learning technology from rookies they mentor.

Patty Liston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris:
I have been reading your articles and felt impressed to try to contact you. I am program director for an NGO that has developed a web-site for children. The site teaches internet safety, development of talents/hobbies and educational experience, and finally the importance of service. Our mantra is that the internet should not be a child's life, but should enhance their life. To this end we educate on-line with off-line activities built in--all for points and prizes. We are beta-testing with a national launch planned in D.C. in the fall. Response has been outstanding from children, parents and educators. Our feeling is that if a child is going to be on-line, they can learn and have fun at the same time.

Our site is : www.wiggiworld.com

Not everything is open but you can get an idea of where we are heading. Would love to speak with you for some feed-back.

I know how busy you must be so thank you for your attention.

Regards,
Patty Liston
Program Director
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