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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The First and Second Digital Divides: Challenges in Classroom Tech Use

For the past several years, a lot of focus has been put on putting technology in our schools.  Most schools today have some technology available for classroom use, although the amounts of technology vary greatly across the U.S.  The recent documentary Without A Net does a great job of illustrating the challenges facing many of our schools and the great variance in technology availability.

Technology varies greatly from school to school
In addition, the strength of school networks also play a role.  When there is not enough bandwidth to accommodate access and applications don't load or crash, the frustration and waste of instructional opportunities mount.   When new devices arrive an cannot connect, they often end up gathering dust in the back of a classroom or in a storage closet.   Despite these challenges, improvements are being made and students are gaining more access to technology.

The Second Digital Divide

More devices and improving networks, though, do not guarantee meaningful interactions with technology.  Sociologist Paul Atwell observed that even as technology gaps close, a second divide often becomes increasingly apparent:  "affluent students use the same technologies to support richer forms of learning with greater adult mentorship. This first section of the report offers evidence of how inequity persists despite removing technical and economic barriers, and what we know about the social and cultural forces that determine these inequitable outcomes." (Connected Learning Alliance Report)  In the late 1990's and again in 2010, studies showed that "low-income, nonwhite children more often used technology in math class for drill and practice, while affluent, white children were more likely to use technology for graphing, problem-solving, and other higher-order exercises". (Boser, Ulrich. 2013).

The second digital divide becomes more apparent when looking beyond the "number of devices" found in schools.  The teaching that is taking place within schools with technology becomes a matter of equity and educational opportunity.  Using technology to "drill and kill" students for test prep saps the creativity and curiosity out of the classroom environment.  These types of activities contain little to no collaboration and don't allow for research and deeper inquiry skills.   Using technology in this way might appear to be easier when it comes to managing classroom behavior as it can provide a framework for specific directions (e.g. "finish this practice test in the next 30 minutes").  Paradoxically, these types of lessons can encourage boredom, dread, and misbehavior.

Classroom behavior and technology use is a nuanced problem, and schools of poverty often face extra challenges.  Addressing the second digital divide and encouraging high level learning opportunities for all of our students is key.  Providing devices and a strong networks for quick internet access is improving.  Providing dynamic and transformational learning opportunities for all of our students remains an ongoing challenge.

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