Category Archives: Digital Divide

Studying Digital Inequity and Studying Digital Inequity IN SCHOOL

I’ve written on the subject of digital inequity in schools before, but for a few reasons, I find myself compelled to revisit the topic once again. Partly because of the recent events surrounding Ahmed Mohamed’s now famous arrest, but also because there seems to be a growing trend in education technology to focus on learning, equity, and digital media in non-formal, or afterschool settings. I’m a big fan of much of the awesome work coming out of this trend (the Cities of Learning project, and the Hive Learning Network are especially inspiring), but I sometimes find myself concerned that while we shift our focus on improving digital equity, we take our eyes off of the ball just enough to allow new innovations in learning and technology to overlook critical questions and issues related to diversity and social inequalities as they happen in school.

First off, what do we mean when we say “digital inequity”? Generally, the idea refers to differences in individuals’ access to digital technology and digital technology-based activities, or differences in the quality of individuals’ uses of digital technology and participation in digital technology-based activities. That covers a pretty wide spectrum of things, from simply having access to computers and the Internet, to being centrally involved in the production of digital tools, to making use of those tools for any number of civic or economic purposes. There is wide agreement that access to these tools and opportunities are unevenly distributed among America’s youth, but to date, most of the “solutions” being considered in education and the edtech industry relate to assimilating disadvantaged youth into certain areas of techno-/digital culture deemed most valuable for academic or economic growth.

Indeed, there’s a general level of agreement in our society that creative production skills, engineering or programming skills, and data analysis skills are the most important technology skills to acquire in this day and age – not just for individuals’ ability to contribute to our global economy, but to live as informed, critically-thinking participants in a politically evolving world. Schools, being an obvious target for interventions aimed at providing youth with opportunities to develop these skills, are notoriously glacial, however, when it comes to enacting or adopting large-scale changes such as the implementation of technology into curriculum and instruction. Why is that?

First, technology is expensive to acquire and maintain. This not only means that schools have to rely on outside donors or meet government-imposed standards to receive funding, but often times, must find ways to sustainably support existing technology infrastructures, in addition to building capacity, as the size and amount of data being transferred through wireless broadband continues to increase, and new technologies require ever-more equipment updates. Second, teaching staff and administration need, themselves, to have an adequate facility with, and support for using technology. This means time (and money) for ongoing professional development and lesson planning, in addition to supports that can motivate teachers to learn about and use technology for instruction. Third, schools already face the challenge of meeting a number of accountability measures, including standardized testing and teacher evaluation, to which funding and accreditation are often tied. The process of implementing technology initiatives on top of these challenges often only adds to the stress involved around test preparation and coordination. Not only does all of this make it difficult for schools to keep up with constantly changing technologies and the new skills that are required to use these technologies, it makes researching – by which I mean, in-depth, holistically, and with a sensitivity to myriad contextual factors – how youth develop technology skills in school a slow, and challenging process, as well.

Not surprisingly, funding institutions (and researchers along with them) are moving to more flexible and less-restrictive sites to examine how youth learn about and make valuable use of digital technologies. Promisingly, these efforts have paid huge dividends, not only in improving disadvantaged youths’ access to digital technologies, mentors, and authentic opportunities to engage in digitally-mediated cultural activities in their local communities, but in providing researchers with access to learning processes that aren’t addled with problems often found in schooling environments.

But although such programs may provide youth more autonomy over their learning and use of digital technologies than they would find in the classroom, the majority of these programs are voluntary. This means that despite their recent proliferation, many of these programs remain unused or un-accessed by large populations of children and teens – typically the very populations of youth that efforts to “narrow the divide” target. And it is precisely for this reason that schools are perhaps the most important sites in which to integrate the practices of making, media production, programming, gaming, etc. Given that in general, schooling is not voluntary, but mandatory, means that youth are, for better or worse, essentially captive there. And for this reason, as well, it makes sense for funding institutions and scholars to dive deeply into schools head-on, and focus on democratizing schooling, or studying the effects of institutionalized practices, such as testing and accountability, on students’ digital technology skills, rather than shifting focus (and money) to spaces in which the truly disenfranchised and marginalized are still largely underrepresented.

This is not to say that after-school and summer programs directed at improving disadvantaged youths’ access to digital media technologies and learning should in any way be diminished or funded less – if anything, recent work has shown that these programs are critical, necessary, and essential, and are currently picking up much of the slack that our schools leave behind when it comes to providing disadvantaged youth with access to digital technology and learning digital technology skills. Yet if anything, the recent OECD report (which suggest the implementation of technology into schools actually harms students’ academic performance – a troubling and perhaps misleading finding) is reason enough for researchers and large funding institutions to double their efforts to examine how social and cultural practices around schooling and digital technology create equitable, and inequitable, opportunities for all students to use modern technology for personal, community, and social improvement.

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Teasing Apart the Recent Pew Study on Teachers and Tech Integration

Several EdTech blog posts over the past week on the recent Pew research study “How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms” (Purcell, Heaps, Buchanan, and Friedrich, 2013) and the reported impact access to internet and digital technologies is having on students who come from various socioeconomic environments.  Access and teacher training are commonsense barriers to narrowing the technology literacy gap that have been well documented over the past 13 years, but almost two decades after the concept “Digital Divide” was first introduced into the vernacular of education, we still seem to struggle to come to a consensus on how to talk about the it, why it continues to persist, and how we can begin to narrow it.  The Digital Divide is a complex issue, and I fear that if we don’t first acknowledge that complexity, all of us in education are doomed to reproduce its causes and effects.  With that in mind, I want take a look at some of the data from the Pew report and tease out some potential issues to explore.

What’s evident from the Pew study is that teachers feel too strapped for time to learn new digital tools and simultaneously stay on top of their subject content, nonetheless develop meaningful technology integration strategies for their instruction. This is particularly evidenced in urban schools, where teachers report less use of tablet computers, e-readers, and cell phones for instruction than their counterparts in more affluent schools, report more frequently that cell phones are a “major distraction” in class, and finally, report greater pressure to teach to state- and standardized assessments.  Looking beyond the surface causes of these findings begins to reveal a picture of urban education that shouldn’t surprise anyone, yet highlights a persistent, systemic problem: namely, institutionalized constraints on students’ social practices.

Managing student cell phone use

The topic of student cell phone use in schools seems to be a particularly pervasive controversy, but as the study shows, many schools are beginning to see the value in using smart phones and other personal devices as important educational resources.  Yet as these same schools are loosening the constraints on in-class cell phone use, urban and low-socioeconomic schools are slow to adopt similar measures.

In terms of students’ socioeconomic status, teachers of upper and upper middle class students are the most likely to say their students use cell phones in class to find information.  About half (52%) of these teachers report their students using cell phones this way, compared with just 35% of teachers of the lowest income students.

But why the difference?  Again, we can speculate that teacher training and time constraints might factor largely in how and when teachers decide to utilize personalized devices for learning and instruction, but teachers’ perceptions of personalized devices appear to have a larger impact on student cell phone use in class.

Teachers whose students come mainly from low income homes are also slightly more likely than other teachers to describe managing student cell phone use as a “major issue” (31% say this vs. 24% of those whose students are mainly from upper income households).

Notice that what isn’t provided in the study is what teachers mean by “major issue,” or what constitutes a “distraction”.  Slews or studies and theories that have been developed over the past 50 years have deconstructed similar data and terminology to reflect socio-cultural bias and the privileging of dominant discourses in educational settings, so to take these results at face value seems to miss some of the point.  Are students in poor and urban schools just more distracted by technology than their affluent peers?  Or do these results suggest something about the way “distraction” is perceived and disciplined in low-income schools?  Notice also the word “slightly” used to qualify the difference reported between lower- and upper-income families here.  Is this to suggest that the results are statistically insignificant, or just not alarmingly divergent?

Pressure to teach to assessments

The results from the study also suggest that pressure to teach to assessments has a large impact on how teachers integrate technology into instruction.  Not surprisingly, low-socioeconomic and urban students seem to feel this impact the most:

Teachers of the lowest income students are most likely to say that pressure to teach to assessments, a lack of resources among students, and a lack of technical support are “major challenges” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching.

Teachers in urban and poor communities are historically more reliant on federal and local funding for resources, and thus must demonstrate adequate yearly progress on assessments to receive the funding they need to staff their schools with qualified teachers, and to procure up-to-date technology and classroom materials.  As well, urban and poor schools are notorious hotbeds for debates on teacher accountability and its connection to teacher compensation.  What’s further, schools that feel such pressure from state and federal governments tend to pass down that pressure onto their teachers and students, who often must adhere to strict curriculum frameworks designed by committees of non-teaching politicians.  Under such circumstances, teachers feel they have little flexibility to experiment with new technologies or instructional methods.  Should it then be any surprise that cell phones and other personal devices – new technologies that have not been well-established as hard and fast learning tools are less commonly utilized in poor and urban schools?  Is it also possible that the same teachers who feel a heightened sense of pressure to teach to assessments are more likely to see personalized technology as a “distraction” from traditional classroom learning?

Technology Policies

Finally, it appears from the Pew study that institutional policies regarding internet filtering, cell phone use on school grounds, and acceptable use are only compounding the issues noted above.

AP and NWP teachers working in urban areas and those teaching the lowest income students are feeling the impact of these restrictions more so than those living in other community types and those teaching students from mainly upper and upper middle income households.  In particular, teachers of the lowest income students are at least twice as likely as those teaching the most affluent students to report each of these policies having a “major” impact on their teaching.

While it is safe to assume that not all schools share the same filtering, cell phone, and acceptable use policies, it remains largely unclear just what is being filtered or restricted, and why such constraints are impeding instruction.  Is it possible that poor schools place higher restrictions on accessing social media and political/local/non-academic organizations than wealthier schools? Is it also possible that teachers in poor schools have a greater desire to utilize such sites to make learning more relevant and engaging for their students, and are thus more likely to report filtering as a more impactful barrier to technology integration?  Research on sociocultural learning over the past twenty years has demonstrated that resources such as social media, and culturally-relevant artifacts such as web sites, can be important tools for expanding the action possibilities for marginalized students.  So, why are these tools being restricted in environments that benefit from accessing them the most?

Connected, not isolated problems

My fear is that the way the Pew study treats these issues seems to belie them as isolated, and separate from each other in their impact on student learning.  Understandably, it complicates the picture greatly to try and tease out their connections.  But without doing so, we are merely treating the symptoms of the problem, and not addressing its causes.

Empowerment is about equipping students with the skills they need to improve their lives.  Hence it means being able to create one’s own learning opportunities, to develop relevant job skills, to know how to build a tool for a specific purpose when no other tool is available.  One of the most exciting things about technology today is that student have access to an unprecedented number of tools, and the quality of these tools is incredible.  Just take the common smart phone, which students can use to access the internet, build peer networks, participate in cultural events (e.g., crowdsourcing data, political and civic engagement, etc.).  Are we empowering our students if we ignore these tools, or actively foreclose opportunities for students to engage with them?