The digital divide encompasses more than access

It has been ten years since my colleagues and I wrote TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools Now and in the Future. Among our discussions was the equitable use and access to technology.

Now we’re looking back to find out if anything has changed. The answer: Not much.

Even though “94 percent of school districts nationwide meet federal high-speed Internet access targets,” Education Superhighway reports that “6.5 million students still lack broadband for digital learning,” and 9,400 schools do not have the broadband connection necessary to support today’s digital learning. It is clear the digital divide still exists for millions of students.

But another divide exists. The U.S. Department of Education 2016 National Education Plan addressed the “digital use divide”:

While essential, closing the digital divide alone will not transform learning. We must also close the digital use divide by ensuring all students understand how to use technology as a tool to engage in creative, productive, life-long learning rather than simply consuming passive content.

As far back as 1983, in an Education Leadership article titled Equity in Computer Education, John P. Lipkin shed light on how “microcomputers are widening the gap between rich schools and poor ones.” He wrote:

One of the outstanding implications of the new information technology is that poor people are the last to receive its benefits, and those who lack the prerequisite skills of reading, writing, and computation are handicapped in attaining computer literacy. Thus, the economically and educationally disadvantaged are prime candidates to join the ranks of this new category of disadvantaged—the computer nonliterate.”

Lipkin, a former professor at McGill University, summarized a powerful observation by Daniel Watt from the 1982 book, Education for Citizenship in Computer-Based Society:

“Affluent students are thus learning to tell the computer what to do . . .while less affluent students are learning to do what the computer tells them.”

More than 20 years later, this imbalance in the empowerment / disempowerment equation had not gone away. Far from it. In fact, Harold Wenglinsky’s research findings (2005), based on a massive survey of NAEP student data, confirmed Watt’s earlier prediction: Students of color and low socioeconomic status predominately used technology for drill and practice and not for higher order thinking skills.

There are bright spots in engaging students of color and those from low socioeconomic status in telling the computer what to do rather than just doing what the computer tells them. “The totals for female, black, and Latino students [enrolled in an AP course in computer science principles] all doubled in 2017, following the national debut of the course.” (Washington Post). Further, there are a growing number of advocacy groups, such as Black Girls CODE and Digital Youth Network, committed to growing students’ technological capacity.

Yet, educators must step back and assess how technology is used as devices, apps, software, and broadband access increase. Are students responding to glorified electronic worksheets and filling in slide templates, or are they creating, collaborating, and producing using technology?

Various models, such as SMAR and Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy, assist teachers in using higher order thinking when engaging students with technology. The questions remain: Are teachers aware of these resources? Are students using digital tools in an engaging, higher-order thinking fashion?

How are teachers, principals, district administrators, and policymakers addressing closing the digital use gap? What is happening in your school and community to bridge the digital divide? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comment section below.

  • Had a lengthy discussion about this today with a teacher at our campus. She was shocked at how many of our entering college freshmen (mostly Black and Latinx) do not how to do basic web functions or use common apps (word processing, keyboarding). She wondered if it’s because these skills are no longer needed? Those skills are still very much needed here at the community college, and students who don’t have them are at a distinct disadvantage.

    I know in our local K12 schools, like the one where my husband and I do afterschool tutoring, students only have internet access sporadically; equipment is horribly outdated as is the software. Is it just the here in the Delta?

    • Renee – I think this is likely a rural issue as I recently moved to a very rural area of Colorado and suspect that internet access and quality updated equipment is also a challenge here. Heck, many rural CO schools are on a 4-day week because of a lack of funding so I seriously doubt that digital resources are a priority when they struggle to keep the doors open. I am having a hard time getting access myself and I am fortunate to already have the resources and expertise to know what and whom to ask.

      So, how might those of us no longer in schools help address this digital divide?

      • It keeps coming back to the money and whose children are the priority. I’m seeking out some other, more knowledgeable opinions on this topic–stay tuned.

        • Just re-read my post and want to clarify something. My response above was to your question about whether or not the situation you describe is only in the Delta. So my response was based my newly-acquired awareness of rural challenges. That said, I am keenly aware of the inequities that our families and children of color face as a result of the systemic racism that permeates all levels of our society. And since our children of color are seen as “other people’s children” (as Lisa Delpit so eloquently explains), there are additional levels of challenge with solving for this digital divide (and well beyond).

    • Reached out to my Twitter PLN for some more thoughts on gaps in digital access and digital use. As always, they came through with some fascinating information and perspectives.
      First, this recent study:

      Then, this great Twitter exchange with @RafranzDavis and Bill Fitzgerald (@funnymonkey) from #EduColor> Digital Access/Use Gap – Curated tweets by TeachMoore

  • Susan Cohen

    Congrats on the article!

    As I was reading this I thought about the teachers I know/used to work with. They, themselves, are part of that digital divide! Seems like teacher education programs need to jump on the digital bandwagon to provide them with those necessary skills too!

  • Caleb Graves

    Congratulations, Ms. Vickery!!