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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Homework Misconceptions and the Digital Divide

At a recent conference session where participants were discussing the digital divide, one thoughtful educator wondered if we were asking the right question.  From his perspective, the crux of the problem wasn't necessarily connectivity but rather if homework should be issued at all.  If no homework was issued, then perhaps students wouldn't need connectivity in the first place!  We then had a thoughtful discussion about some the soul crushing types of homework assignments that are common in most schools: 

  • 30 problems that are testing the same skill, even if the student already has mastered the skill after the 4th problem
  • Worksheets related to a reading with basic questions, just to prove that the reading was "read".
  • Any work that never gets any feedback from either the teacher or fellow students.
  • Irrelevant tasks that students (and staff) characterize as "busy work".
  • Excessive homework demands (sometimes 8 hours or more in high school).
Indeed, there are many poor homework practices found in our schools today which need to be reformed.  However, does this mean that all homework is worthless?  The research is fairly clear that homework timing/spacing as well as the type of homework given play a pivotal role.  A recent Psychology Today article points out that there needs to be a balance between home life and school, and other research advocates for 1.5 and 2 hours of homework a night for high school students instead of the 3-6 hours that is often assigned.   Note that this is 1.5-2 hours total, not per class!

Here are some key tips for educators when considering homework -- especially at the secondary level:

  • "Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory."

How homework relates to the digital divide

Some homework is poorly conceived and poorly executed.  Mind numbing exercises that aren't meaningful and that are perceived as busy work really don't serve a legitimate educational purpose.  However, homework and extra opportunities to practice and learn new skills are important and can certainly benefit students.  Additionally, collaborative assignments, class online discussions, peer reviews, adaptive practice, immediate feedback opportunities (an adaptive google form, a quizlet, a goformative etc.) and engaging assignments that provide  choice all can play a role in fostering deeper learning and mastery.  

The argument that we can solve the digital divide by simply not assigning homework seems good at first, but in the end it deprives students of extra opportunities.  Additionally, completing online practice and work and acquiring digital citizenship and tech skills are vital.  If we don't provide students of poverty with these opportunities, we limit their chances for future success in our increasingly digital world.  Middle and upper class students will find these opportunities regardless of what teachers do.  In addressing the digital divide, then, educators must reflect on the types of homework that they give and continue to advocate for students who don't have consistent access at home.  Not assigning any homework as a way to solve the digital divide is not a long term systemic solution.   Rather, it is an easy response to a complex and nuanced challenge.

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