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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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