Getting Past the ‘Digital Divide’

Educators who can work around obstacles and recognize the promise of new technologies are making a difference.
Illustration by Ben Newman

Two years ago, Aaron Fowles found the digital divide waiting in his Memphis, Tenn., ESL classroom: four old desktop computers, two of which worked. The accepted course of action would have been to load the corpses onto a cart and roll them to wherever dead computers go. And he would have let his at-risk students make whatever use they could of the fossilized software on the survivors, for however long they lasted.

Fowles has no training as a computer tech. But he has enough of the digital native in him, as well as a dose of Dr. Frankenstein, that he refused to call the hearse. Instead, he researched and did what he calls a lot of “judicious Googling” and got out his screwdrivers. From the two defunct hunks of hardware he cobbled together a working unit. He then trashed the ancient Windows software on the three machines and replaced it with the Linux operating system, available free online. His tinkering resulted in a significant upgrade over the tech he had inherited.

Then a fellow teacher revealed the school’s computer graveyard to Fowles. Working on his own time, he had eight working computers in his classroom by year’s end. He rebuilt and upgraded an additional 16 that found new life in other classrooms.

As most educators know by now, there is a lot more to addressing the so-called “digital divide” than having enough working machines in classrooms. Effective information technology (IT) in schools requires useful software, reliable and speedy Internet access, effective teacher training and well-considered goals with transformative outcomes. But perhaps empowering tech-savvy, can-do administrators and teachers, like Fowles, needs to be added to that list. These are the tinkerers—pedagogical as well as technical—who won’t wait to upgrade their own performance in order to help their underserved students get the most from IT.

Illustration of students lined up behind a computer


Redefining the Digital Divide

In the last decade, “digital divide” has become a catchphrase for the stubborn disparity in IT resources between communities, especially in regard to education. Low-income, rural and minority populations have received special scrutiny as the technological “have-nots.”

“In too many communities, you don’t have access to technology,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Frontline. “You don’t have access to the teachers who understand the technology. You don’t have access to the out-of-school learning opportunities.” That, Duncan went on to say, leads to student achievement gaps, which can ultimately leave those without basic computer and IT skills at a distinct disadvantage—not only in the workplace, but as contributors to society.

Government at every level has invested billions of dollars to address this gap in IT. And as far as overall numbers are concerned, they have reached something like respectability. For 2009, The National Center for Education Statistics reported: 97 percent of public school teachers had one or more computers in their classroom every day; 93 percent of classroom computers had Internet access; and the ratio of students to computers in the classroom every day was roughly 5 to 1. The Obama administration has continued this national commitment to tech access by setting aside $7.2 billion in stimulus monies to expand the reach of broadband Internet into rural and low-income areas.

These statistics, of course, do not take into account the high percentage of low-income homes without computers or Internet service, or the resulting educational impact on kids who must sign up for limited chunks of computer time in their school’s computer lab or local public library. These constraints can stunt a user’s self-directed learning and play, key elements in exploring anything as multifaceted and fascinating as the online universe.

Here’s where the narrative gets messier, though. Low-income students and children of color, those often cited as the underserved side of the digital divide, are wiring other pathways into the digital world. “Ten years ago it was thought [disadvantaged kids] were digitally unengaged,” says S. Craig Watkins, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Young and the Digital. “Now we know the opposite is true: They’re even more engaged than their advantaged peers.”

Watkins points to studies that indicate African-American youth are accessing the Internet for gaming, watching videos and social networking at more than twice the rate of young whites. Many do this by means of mobile technologies like cell phones and smart phones. They are also using these devices to conduct online research and complete school assignments. Meanwhile, young black and Latino Internet users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as white Internet users, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. 

But that does not mean these young users are getting anywhere near the best the digital world has to offer, Watkins cautions. “What are the skills and forms of knowledge that allow young people to be full-fledged digital citizens?” he asks. “Some kids are getting access to those skills and some kids are not.”

Nevertheless, growing numbers of Latino, African-American and low-income youth are joining in the great collaborative experiment that is the Internet. Advocates for IT in underserved communities believe that is a scaffold to build on as educators address what Watkins and others now refer to as the “participation gap.”


Mobile Devices in the Classroom

In most U.S. schools, cell phones and other mobile digital devices in the quick fingers of students are often a source of conflict. A handful of school districts, though, are adapting their use to serve the curriculum. The exponential growth in computing power and the availability of mobile applications has turned these communication gadgets into mini-computers that fit in a pocket or palm. And the price—less than $300 plus telecom fees and software licenses—has made them attractive alternatives to laptops.

In 2009, Cimarron Elementary in Katy, Texas, piloted a “mobile learning device” initiative. Smart phones, with telephone and texting functions disabled, were distributed to all 136 fifth-graders at the school. With a small, retractable keyboard and a stylus-sensitive touch-screen, these devices have been incorporated into math, science and language arts classes. Students can upload class work, complete homework and send assignments electronically to their teachers for comments and grading.

Fifth-grade teacher Matt Cook spearheaded the use of smart phones at his school in Keller, Texas, after attending a technology conference. He sought out donations of the phones and Internet connectivity. He also received donations of software, specifically designed for hand-held devices. Cook’s students have used their smart phones to write, crunch data, record science experiments and create podcasts to share with classmates. In a lesson about astronomy, students were able to create a diagram of the solar system, then animate the planets into orbit.

“I integrated the phones into everything we did,” Cook told District Administration Magazine. “For lessons traditionally done with a paper and pencil, we now were able to do them in color, with animation, and with more depth and complexity. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about this introduction of mobile media devices in the classroom. Some critics see it as a brazen sales pitch by cell phone companies to create a new educational techno-fad. Others believe mobile devices may be fine for drill and remediation exercises, but question whether they promote digital literacy in any substantive way.

An electronic gadget may excite students, but does that translate to usable knowledge and skills? Does it primarily entertain, or does it have the potential to transform student understanding? These are questions such pilot programs have an opportunity to address.


Harnessing IT

To experience digital technology harnessed to create a transformative experience, visit the classroom of Brian Crosby. A 29-year teaching veteran, Crosby teaches class through grades 4–6 at Agnes Risley Elementary in Sparks, Nev. At least 90 percent of his students are English language learners or somehow “at risk.”

Each member of his class has an Internet-accessing Mac laptop. They each write their own blog. Together as a class, they collaborate on projects, incorporating language arts and digital design elements into almost everything they do. Collaboration and social learning are ends as well as means in Crosby’s tech-enhanced pedagogy.

Last May, Crosby’s fourth-grade class had a science unit on air pressure and atmosphere. Students conducted classroom experiments, using digital devices to record and describe their experiences. They conducted online research on the topic, including the history of hot air balloons.

They then teamed with engineering professors from the University of Nevada, Reno, to launch a high-altitude weather balloon carrying the payload the fourth-graders had prepared. It included a camera, a remote weather monitor, a global-positioning system, and “High Hopes”—a collection of good wishes they had written for themselves, their community and the world. They also sent up hopes that kids from around the world had submitted online. They counted down, the balloon was released, then they went back to their computers to track its progress up to 100,000 feet and across the landscape.

After the balloon burst and its payload had been retrieved, the class members worked together to describe the experiment on their blogs and Wiki web page. They wrote creative stories. They incorporated video, essays, photos, maps and charts. In short, they used IT and digital media to demonstrate understanding and share what they had done and learned—not just with themselves, but with the wider world via the Web.

“This is active learning,” Crosby said last summer during a presentation in Denver, describing his tech-intensive approach in the classroom. “[W]e’re empowering kids to learn on their own, to use a lot of these 21st-century tools to do that.”

Aaron Fowles, the computer-repairing ESL teacher in Memphis, is on board with Crosby’s approach. And he believes educators who are reluctant to upgrade their own IT knowledge and skills do a disservice to their students. “A lot of teachers do professional development only as a requirement, not to become a better teacher,” he says. “That is not going to jibe with successful tech integration in the classroom.

“For kids to be given a fair shake in a modern economy, they are going to have to be computer literate,” Fowles adds. “Kids who aren’t will be at a terrible disadvantage, especially America’s poor children. And for many of them, school is the only place they’ll have the chance to learn it.”

Upgrading the Tech Classroom

Want to create your own Smart Board for a fraction of the $3,000 price tag? Check out Johnny Lee’s do-it-yourself demos.

Catch Brian Crosby’s Education Blog—Learning Is Messy—and a video from his presentation at TEDx in Denver

Cool Cat Teacher is the blog of Vicki Davis, an educational innovator with dozens of ideas for incorporating technology-enhanced lessons.

The Innovative Educator Blog includes resources for using cell phones as educational tools.

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