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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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kooikjam619's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris, you raise an important issue for educators to address. As an instructional paraprofessional, I have the privilege in working with many different classrooms with some teachers who are tech-savvy and enjoy integrating computer technology and others who are not as familiar or comfortable with it. Student placement can be a random process, and does significantly impact their preparedness for the future. We do need to continue working to level the playing field. Along with purchasing sufficient hardware and software, school districts need to require teachers to attend technology training with release time in order to do so. I think most teachers with whom I work want to integrate technology into their classrooms, but the daily demands of teaching and life itself, make it seem overwhelming. I'm experiencing a huge learning curve, personally, with a course on curricular integration of technology. I finally decided I had to do it and enter the web age. There is an investment of time, energy and finances required in order to become technology literate. Even at that, it is difficult to keep up as fast as things change. Many young people are growing up with constant flux as the status quo. They don't realize the magnitude of what is happening in the web world and other fields of technology. By default, many students are more tech-savvy than their teachers. However, for those students who do not have digital equity, for whatever reason, the road ahead will be fraught with frustration.

Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great thoughts, friends. I do agree it's a timely process, and one that involves a commitment and willingness to move outside one's comfort zone. I do think, however, that it's a responsibility we all have, as professionals, to keep updating ourselves, just as doctors must learn new technological techniques, so do we.

In addition, I think as we've all learned more about technology in the last 10 or so years, making sure the technology experiences we provide for students are higher-order in nature, as opposed to lab drill and kill, is a requirement of a classroom in 2007. Gone are the days of using computers as low-level babysitters, when they are so much more powerful than that.

As Bea pointed out, professional development and as much one-on-one consultation as possible, is a huge help. As a teacher, knowing that a colleague can pair up and address a trying task is a huge relief.

A post I'll make soon will take one of these issues into account - relying on the students for the technical side of things, thus freeing us up to focus more on the integration.

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In reading this post and the replies I felt not only inspired but also compelled to respond. I am just getting into blogging (http://randrmlt.blogspot.com/) and hope to glean some feedback on endeavors I am undertaking as a humble technology instructor and leader. After teaching for 7 years and in the field of technology for the past 6 years I agree with what is said here. I work with middle school students in a subject area that is scene on the same level as other important subject areas like art, pe, music, shop. I see student pulled out of my class for one of two reasons one to go into music (band/choir) or for remediation in math or reading. To a certain extent I agree that my class is an elective and if students need more help in a area they must give up an elective but I also feel that there should be equity in that students should be pulled from music as and PE as well as my class. However when this issue is brought up I am told that "Students are coming to us with technology skills already". Hearing this infuriates me to no end.

I see "tech savvy" students who don't know what a file path is, how to find things on the net other than pictures, who don't know how to ask for help using either the help feature or on a discussion board (are those not for talking with your friends?). Students more than ever need to know technology basics as well as how to download music and surf myspace. I think we as teachers too often feel that because students are comfortable with technology (in what ever form) they have mastered it. I agree that some have but I feel that the majority know just enough to be dangerous.

I also agree whole heartedly with the idea that if we are to over come the digital divide in the classroom teachers need training. I hear that battle cry on a daily basis from my staff. They would use technology more if only they were trained on how to use it. However the catch 22 is that they want training when it is convenient for them, such as during the day but don't take their planning or time away from students. I agree with the individual who mentioned that training in technology should be mandated for teachers but not at a staff meeting. It needs to be small group with a targeted focus or common project. In my building we developed a mentoring style training for our new SharePoint portal. Each department head went through a half day of training and then went back to their individual departments and lead their colleagues through the same training. After wards discussion was held to talk about future topics, modifications to the SharePoint site, and feedback on the training model. Feedback on the portal side was mixed but anecdotally the training model was a hit.

This year we are continuing the mentoring model as we get set to deploy MS Office 07 in our district. I am proposing we train our district building technology leaders on how to use an online training site and then have them facilitate it's use at a building level. They would then act as mentors in their building when staff had questions. I talk a little more about this in my blog (http://randrmlt.blogspot.com/) and would appreciate comments and feedback from those of you in the trenches of designing and implementing professional development.

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello all,
I am a "new blogger". I was quite intrigued with this topic. The digital equity gap is becoming quite a concern. I have also seen first hand the inequalities not only within our country, but within my own school system. The majority of the student population I currently work with does not have the technology access at home. Therefore, it is up to the teachers to provide that experience within the school day. Although our school is equipped with a few computers in the classroom and a computer lab, there are still many teachers that refuse to venture into the "unknown". It is frustrating to know that it is our jobs as teachers to prepare the children for a professional world. I believe in this technology rampant society that teaching the basic computer skills and applying those skills to the curriculum is a necessary foundation. Teachers who are not willing to put forth the effort to do so are clearly, in my opinion, not doing their jobs. It obviously will have to become part of the state curriculum before many teachers will take it seriously. I am also aware that many teachers are intimidated at the thought of implementing technology when they themselves are not tech savvy. This being said, professional development and training are necessary to provide these teachers with the continuing education and confidence they need. We, as a society, are very behind in education. NCLB has held many teachers accountable, yet it is still "leaving children behind" (I won't get started here), but as I stated before, many teachers will need the extra incentive of computer education becoming a part of the state curriculum before they will implement it into their classroom.
In addition, our school system is growing rapidly. Basically new schools are being built every couple of years. Where I see the inequality is when these new schools are built, the amount of money spent on new technology for that school is incredible. An old school may have a ratio of 5 computers to 25 students (which half the time do not work) while the new school is equipped with a laptop for each student. Another new school was built that came equipped with flat screen televisions, computer projectors, and wireless computers in the classroom and computer lab. I am aware that it is important to update the equipment and build new schools, but I think it is more important that the technology resources are provided within a school system equally. Quite frankly, I feel discriminated against because our school is older and our clientele is not economically advanced.

KY teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Tammy. As a teacher who has been in different school systems, seeing the inequallity in the schools itself. Giving the student the access in school is one way to meet the equality issues, but outside of school the students come from all differing areas of technology knowledge. Having some students who always have the newest gadget, to those who have never seen in person any form of technology outside the classroom.
How do we fix the gap between the ends of the spectrum in technology experiences? Especially when you work in a small rural school district that gets limited funding, and the community doesnt have the support to provide additional technology itself?
I have a hard time with technology implementation in my classroom due to these issues. I would love any feedback on ways to incorporate more technology.Thank you!

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are a few things I did. 1. I purchased my own computer projector. I went online and found the cheapest, yet effective, deal at the time. I ended up being able to deduct some of the cost on my taxes. This way I can hook up my computer and the students can experience more than just a few hours in the computer lab. We hook it up nearly every day. I will say that because I purchased it myself, I do not share it with other teachers. I just couldn't afford to replace it. The other thing I do is write grants every year. Sometimes they get awarded, sometimes they don't. I have ventured out to searching the web for grants outside our school system. Good Luck and go for it. The worst they can say is no.

KY teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tammy-

Thank you for the ideas. I will look into writing grants. I am unsure of myself in writing grants, but with some collaberation with fellow teachers who do. I may be lucky!
I appreciate the ideas.

Tom Powers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris,
This is a very important topic. There has always been a gap between students learning due to many external factors that is out of our control. But the digital divide even at the building level can widen the gap of student learning. I agree with you about the Double Whammy! The sad thing is we have the ability (in most cases) to change it. We are very fortunate in my district to have the funds for technology. We have laptop carts, 3 computer labs, 4 mobile teacher laptops with infocus machines, and 4 computers per room in the Middle School. But our biggest challenge is getting the students and teachers to use it in the right way. Thanks for the posting.

Amy's picture

I think that years after this article was posted, we are still seeing many of the same issues coming up again and again. What makes this even more alarming is there is more and more technology becoming available in schools. Some of the lowest socio-economic schools are actually being filled with high-technology (thanks to grants, etc.) but the students and teachers are still very limited in using them to fullest potential.

As a teacher, I believe that it's important to incorporate technology as much as possible into our lessons and projects. Not only that, but we also need to incorporate lessons about appropriate use of the technology. So many times, I've watched colleagues let the children "roam free" on the Internet to do research and then later convey disappointment that the results are less than wonderful. It's time for us, myself included, to step up to the plate and provide them with modeling for the process and give them plenty of practice before we advise them to "research" with wild abandon.

With that said, it's also time for districts to realize that much of the money put up to have the technology is not being used. More PD teaching us what is available (much of it on the Internet is actually free for our taking,) and show us specific ways to incorporate it into lessons. Perhaps even collaborating in PD's to create district-wide (which can go on social networking educational sites and become world-wide,) lessons we can all use is a great place to start. Together, we can make the possiblities of education endless!

Thanks for your great article!
Amy - CT

Katherine Judd's picture
Katherine Judd
College writing and communications teacher

I won't repeat what is clearly stated in all the blogs I've read here. All of you hit the nail on the head quite squarely! Allow me to address a couple of points with regard to teacher training.

While we all agree teachers at all levels need the training and need to intergrate technology in the classroom, I find the frustration begins when teachers are given a 1-2 hour "training course" and are then required to use what they "learned." Don't get me wrong here! I fully believe in the hands-on workshop approach, but 1-2 hours is NOT sufficient to become proficient!

Teachers need classes as much as the students do, and here is where we run into a very solid brick wall named time and attitude! Most teachers use their planning periods for planning, which is ok as most implement those plans with great success. But really now! Veteran teachers KNOW how to plan. Do they really need a period just for this? I fear I may upset some of you here, but I must say this. Do your planning at home, away from bells, whistles, students, admins, and politics! Veteran teachers finish this planning in less time than it takes to cook dinner and clean up afterwards! Beginning teachers would benefit from the quiet to develop a secure and successful classroom learning environment. Now, use that planning period for learning/practicing the new technology or add a new element to the technology you already use.

The second point involves attitude on two levels. 1) Older teachers know they need to do this, but they fear looking foolish in front of their students. I say, don't fear this, USE IT! The students need to learn as well, and they will understand and appreciate the teacher who works through technology with them. It helps destroy the myth that teachers are wise mentors sitting on top of the educational mountain! We are people with the same needs as the students! If a student happens to be the one who shows how some aspect of technology works, thank him/her for the contribution to the class! 2) Attitude is directly proportionate to frustration levels! The integration of technology should be seamless, but tell that to rural teachers who teach 1-3 different subjects a day, each subject carrying its own brand of technology! Let's face it...there is no ONE area of technology that works for every single subject! Couple technology with all the regs, rules, theories, -isms, -ologies, and pedagogies inherent in education, and even the very best of teachers are overwhelmed. Therefore, multi-subject teachers, especially older teachers, will balk at adding ONE MORE thing to the classroom. I agree it seems the easy way out and detrimental to the students, but we, as educators, cannot afford to alienate our peers. If I may, do what I do. I ask every teacher I meet what technology they use. Some are proficient and informative, so I learn new ideas from them. Others feel frustrated and helpless. These I TEACH! I make time to visit them and work on whatever they want/need to learn.

AND, btw, ADMINS, STOP LOCKING THE TECHNOLOGY UP! Granted, hackers are out there, but they are fewer than the teachers! Plus, we can all learn how to sidestep and stop the hackers. Nothing aggravates me more than knowing I can fix a problem but cannot because the system is passworded or locked by admins and IT people. You guys are NOT gods; you are educators like the rest of us! Let us in! Ok, ok, I know! Teachers who aren't techno-savvy COULD do a lot of damage through ignorance, but a BUNCH of us could help make YOUR jobs easier! Find out which ones of us have the skills to fix software and/or virus problems, and LET US IN!

We all need to work together on this! A healthy dose of rational and common sense will go a long way toward eliminating ignorance, frustration, and stress.

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