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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Digital Divide and Families: a group effort

The Digital Divide and Families:  a Group Effort

In households that don't have a culture of computer use, it is often children who teach their parents how to accomplish various tasks on the internet.   Given this reality, it is important to realize that integrating technology into schools end up extending far beyond the classroom.  One focus should be to encourage parents to become more computer literate.

Of course, encouraging computer literacy is one thing, but providing realistic opportunities is another. Some schools, for example, have offered technology learning nights for their parents.  Daycare and snacks are often provided, and the central focus is teaching parents about technology use (like how to check a student's attendance and academic progress on a computer) as well as teaching parents any relevant mobile phone apps that connect to the school.  Additionally, these evening courses at school focus on digital citizenship issues and some parenting norms around technology that parents might not have thought about as they didn't experience them when they grew up.

Given the fact that many students are teaching their parents about technology, it is of utmost importance that schools teach about digital citizenship.   Parents (especially those who haven't used a lot of technology) often assume that younger people are "just good at it" since they grew up with it.  However, this is not necessarily the case.  If schools explicitly teach digital citizenship and literacy ideas, student in turn can take these ideas back home.   If parents become more aware of some of the challenges around technology use in today's world, both parents and students can work together as a team when these challenges come up.  When it comes to bullying, meanness, privacy, digital footprints, passwords, etc., families that talk about these issues are much more able to actively deal with these issues when they come up.

In the end, schools  should consider offering opportunities for parents to learn after school hours as well as providing direct instruction on digital citizenship within classrooms.  These two strategies help when it comes to the "digital use and knowledge" divide that is found in many schools today.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Starting School and the Digital Divide in Classrooms

Starting School and the Digital Divide in Classrooms

In many classrooms, teachers don't start realizing internet home access challenges until October or November when online work for specific students is spotty or non-existent.   It is easy to assume (like I did) that students were not just academically inclined or had poor organizational skills and that was why they weren't able to complete projects/research/peer editing/blogging/presentations at home.

An "Aha" Moment

Alex was a typical 9th grade World History student.  He was full of energy and excited about starting high school.   He wasn't a perfect student, but he participated in class and worked hard.  Alex was a relatively quiet student, but he enjoyed opportunities to engage with his peers.   In mid October, I had assigned a group project (which had many different options) on early civilizations.  Students were randomly assigned into groups and students developed a work plan for their overall project.  Much of the project was accomplished in class, but groups delegated tasks to be done at home as well.
After several class periods, Alex's group members came to me privately and complained that he wasn't coming to class prepared with his part of the project.  I checked in with Alex and he initially said that he would get it done.  He worked hard in class, but unfortunately he did not accomplish any of his electronic work outside of the class.  (Note:  we are a 1 to 1 school so Alex at had chromebook to take home).   After another class and another disappointment, Alex finally mentioned that he did not have access at home.   As an educator, I felt somewhat ashamed that I had not picked up on this earlier as I could have worked on strategies with Alex (and a few of the other unconnected/underconnected students in my class).   I had attributed a lack of digital homework to other issues like disorganization or developing academic abilities.

New Start of Year Routines

For many 9th graders around the country, admitting that you don't have home internet access can be difficult.   Additionally, many students might say that they do have internet access (perhaps a parent's phone, their own phone, or a local store/library with wifi access) but don't have broadband at home.  Interestingly, school information systems have a wide variety of in depth information on families but don't have a field that details connectivity.    The best time to find out the status of your students, of course, is at the very first week during ice breaker and classroom culture activities.   A few simple questions can provide a lot of insight into how a teacher can approach lesson planning and providing opportunities for students to succeed.  A simple survey (click here) can accomplish this efficiently.  A survey that addresses both hardware and levels of connectivity is best and can be given alone or integrated into a larger class survey.   Whether your school is affluent, mixed, or high poverty, knowing the connectivity levels of students is critical to their success.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Access is not equal: number of internet providers matters

Access is not equal:  number of internet providers matters

There is a variety of reasons that families don't have broadband internet connections.  Many assume that family income is the main determining factor and that provider prices across the area are pretty similar.  However, this isn't necessarily the case.  As providers look to maximize profits, it makes financial sense for them to focus on middle class neighborhoods and to set their prices based on high volume.  In a recent study out of USC, it is clear that competition and opportunity affect prices and access.  In the map of LA County below, there are some areas with no broadband access and a majority with just a single option.  Even after accounting for income and other variables, the lack of internet access in LA County impacts primarily minority residents.   The lack of internet providers drives up prices and leads most families to choose a "phone only" approach to the internet.  The study notes that a phone only approach is not adequate for educational purposes.   In La County and in many locales across the country, the poor and disenfranchised often have to pay more for internet due to market forces.  In the end, this only exacerbates inequality and deepens the digital divide.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

School Scaffolding and the Digital Divide

School Scaffolding and the Digital Divide

As it turns out, buying devices for students is the easy part.  Educators enjoy spreading the news that their school is providing access to students and teaching digital skills that will be critical to their futures.  Delivering the devices, opening them up, and watching pleased faces is a feel good moment for most people in a district (granted, the people who are imaging and managing the machines might take issue, but I suspect that device rollout days are exciting as well as exhausting).

Districts, after hearing horror stories from around the world, are more aware of network wifi loads and speed issues, and many are able to avoid the challenges that faced early adopters.  And although 75% of districts do not have a plan for internet access outside of the school, at least the issue is starting to percolate through the diligent work of many educators throughout the United States.

Actually, one of the greatest ongoing challenges tends to be the assumption that some districts have about digital learning.  In an MIT Study on education and social media, researchers examined districts that assumed student digital prowess and those that didn't.  As one might expect, districts that implemented a 1 to 1 program without significant professional development found that devices were improperly and under used and had a higher breakage rate.  Districts that took the more costly and longer route of training their educators on how to implement laptops found a much higher success rate.   This "longer implementation" framework often includes school wide awareness programs and proper use and a common set of expectations.  Additionally,  the professional development pushed teams of teachers to think more about redefining and broadening education through digital implementation instead of just substituting paper worksheets with electronic ones.  Proficiency in teaching with technology does not come overnight.  At best, it takes several years to master the art of tech integration and informal training "on the go" is minimally effective.

In sum, as districts move forward there is often a sequential implementation of 
1.  Buying Devices
2.  Focusing on the Network 
3.  Thinking about home access
4.  Considering Professional Development with respect to digital instruction.

Although this flow seems to make sense, successful districts more often than not consider professional development and instruction first and not last.   Putting training first, although it delays the big rollout, can pay much bigger dividends down the road.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Family Dynamics and the Digital Divide

Family Dynamics and the Digital Divide

When thinking about the digital divide, many educators start talking about devices and then move to home connectivity issues.  The main focus (as it should be) is how to provide opportunities for all of our students to learn in this increasingly connected world.  In examining the digital divide and family dynamics, though, some interesting trends have emerged.  In higher income households where parents have higher levels of tech proficiency, many parents educate their young on various uses of the internet and online applications.   In lower income households, parents still do some of the educating, but their children are now providing a significant amount of help in this ever changing landscape.  


Why is this significant?  When low income parents start learning online skills such as accessing medical records and applying for jobs, their success for a better standard of living increases.   When a school sends a laptop home, it might be the first computer that has ever been in that household.  In districts where there is no student computer checkouts (the great majority) sending students home with technology skills can still be a game changer as parents and guardians might ask for computer guidance from their children at places like public libraries.

Much has been said about how there is a significant computer use gap developing between higher income and lower income families.  Specifically,  students without parent guidance tend to use computers more for gaming and social media and far less critical research.   This digital literacy gap is an ongoing challenge.  With that said, the trend of students from low income households teaching their parents computer skills is a trend worth noting because it extends the power of tech integration into areas far outside of the initial educational mission.   When adults can learn basic technology skills from their students, everyone can benefit.  As government programs, educational opportunities, and health care increasingly go digital, whole families can benefit when technology is successfully implemented in schools.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Summer and the Digital Divide

Summer and the Digital Divide

Educators will often talk about the importance of staying engaged over the summer in order to curtail the effects of "the summer slide", and they also will mention the time needed in the fall to formatively assess students and to review skills that have deteriorated.   Students without access to both devices and broadband can suffer even more in comparison to their peers.  This does not mean that students use devices over the summer are always doing so for education purposes, but the reading and creating of digital assets can indeed help in maintaining skills.

As more districts implement a one to one program for their students and as teachers (and summer school courses) move towards digital formats, having access over the summer becomes even more important for students and learning.  But what happens to student devices at the end of a school year?  Should a school check them in for the summer in order to take inventory?  This approach does have some advantages.  Specifically it guarantees that the device will be their in the fall to check out to students who are coming back to school.  Checking devices back in acknowledges the fact that it could be difficult to recoup the device of students move.

However, checking in devices does have significant disadvantages.  First off, it takes quite a bit of human capital to check in all devices and then to store them.  More importantly, though, is the fact that school issues computers might be the only way that students can access digital content from home over the summer.   (The home broadband connection is another challenge, but districts are working on this issue as well).   Taking away a device that has recently empowered a student and perhaps their whole family is a significant opportunity cost.

Perhaps there is a middle ground.  If schools can advertise that students can check out their device for the summer once it is briefly inspected, then they could access and create content all summer long.   This summer checkout might even entail a simple contract to be signed by a parent/guardian.   With that said, though, this process would allow students to continue their digital education over the summer.  A one size fits all policy for student device use over the summer is a fairly rigid approach that does not address the problem of the summer slide.  A more flexible approach might have more risks, but in this case the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Digital Divide Inside and Outside of the Classroom

The Digital Divide Inside and Outside of the Classroom

In summer 2017 article entitled Promising Practices for Education Technology, author Molly Zielezinski provides a thoughtful overview of a digital divide with respect to classroom uses of technology.   In her research, she found that technology is often used for more "drill and kill" lower level thinking exercises for disadvantaged students while more creative and dynamic applications are found much more often in privileged classes.   Supplying devices to every student at first seemed to foster claims that "the digital divide is shrinking".   Comprehensive studies showing that technology is utilized in drastically different ways, though, illustrate why pedagogy is so important.

With that said, broadband connections outside of the home continue to be a central issue in bridging the digital divide.

A common statistic is that 1 in five families does not have broadband at home.  This is masked by students saying that they do have access to the internet at home through either their phone or a parent's phone.  This is where it gets nuanced, as connectivity through a phone is just not the same as broadband. 

First off, cell phone companies can control phone access and limit it in a way that broadband doesn't.  Additionally, speeds are often much slower and embedded applications are often just not feasible.   These types of limited connectivity relate back to some extent to the problem of what is being assigned in classrooms.    Students in wealthier classrooms often get assigned more open ended work, especially if some of it needs to be done at home.  With faster speeds and broader access to resources, wealthier students get exposed to more challenging learning digital environments and the skills that they strengthen just continue to widen the gap over time between rich and poor students.  Teaching with technology needs to be done in a manner that is authentic and interactive for all students.  Focusing on teaching is paramount, but focusing on home broadband access for all students is also needed in order to close the widening opportunity gap.