Digital divide is a pain in my classroom

I’m hitting a point where the digital divide is becoming painfully awkward for me in my teaching. In this case, I’m talking about students who have or don’t have reliable internet access at home, and I’m also talking about the difference between what we can do with technology in school vs. out of school because of Department of Education blocks on networking sites and electronic equipment.

This year, for the first time, I teach a CTT class and get to collaborate with a wonderful special education teacher so that my students with IEP’s get the extra help they need. For a few years, in March I’ve had students read The Ear, the Eye and the Arm as a whole class as part of an in depth study of the journey motif in literature. (I blog about this here.)  It is a 300 page adventure story set in the future, but is much heavier on detail, description and back-story, and slightly less formulaic than other fantasy books some of my students have read, such as Harry Potter.  I expected it to be a challenge for my students, and at this point in the year, most of them are hungry for it. Nonetheless, my CTT and I were worried about a few of our struggling students and wanted to come up with way to support them without removing them from the whole experience.  It’s easy for us to help students read in groups during class time, but the book is simply too long to read only in class–we’d be reading it until June.

We wanted to create a way for certain students to listen to the story as they read at home.  We found an audio recording on cassette available for order, but we realized our students today hardly even know what a cassette is–much less own tape players at home! When it comes to listening to music, our students are pretty much fluent in the use of mp3s, Youtube and MySpace.

We decided to record ourselves reading the chapters using GarageBand, and make the tracks available to students on the internet.  My CTT partner created a networking site for our class using Multiply.com. It is similar to Myspace, but with much less traffic and inappropriate content; also the age limit is 12 years old.  We figured for the students without internet access, we could burn the tracks onto cds.

We signed out the LCD projector and a laptop at school ready to demonstrate the site, only to realize, duh, the site is not accessible through school internet!  For the next day, we took still shots of the site at home and showed them to students the next day and passed out detailed instructions for them to sign up and access the site.

The kids were very excited about this, but only some of them have been able to access the site at home. Some have internet access, but needed help going through the steps of signing up, which of course, I can’t help them with at school.  I have helped some students by phone.  For those that have entered the site, it has been great.  They are creating their own profiles and commenting on each others and on the reading!  Every comment is visible to me, so I can keep tabs on these interactions.  It creates another level of interaction for the class, and it is based on academic work.  For some reason, it feels like a relief to me, and the kids are looking at us teachers differently–with some kind of added interest or respect!

The problem is that so many students can’t participate. That part of it seems unfair.  As it turns out, many students don’t even own CD players, just mp3 players.  The craziest catch 22 yet is that…drumroll…students are not allowed to bring mp3 players into school!  They get taken from them by school safety officers when they go through scanning.  I do appreciate that students can’t have their cellphones buzzing or headphones on during my class, and I also appreciate that students cannot go on Myspace when using school computers.  But it seems like we are cutting off too many valuable learning resources in order to keep kids

And when will we get to the point where all students have internet at home?  Lately I’ve spoken to parents about this particular reading assignment.  When I mention the audio option online, they sound like they’ve already heard about it from their kids… They sigh, “No we don’t have internet right now,” almost ashamed.

So right now, all this means is that children in my class with no internet at home need to do their reading homework the old-fashioned way.  No big deal for most.  But as we move forward, this divide is going to become more and more painful.  I’d like to see the government step in and make internet free for parents who send their children to public schools, and provide a laptop–or an easy, affordable pathway to getting one–for all public school students.  Once this is the case, schools need to get with the times and create safe and attractive networking programs for teachers and classes to use.

[image credit: http://eppsnet.com/2004/10/into-the-digital-abyss]