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.