Monday, September 29, 2008

The Not So Simplistic Digital Divide

By Becky Reno, Senior Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

At the Kirwan Institute we are embarking on a project regarding the digital divide and I’m afraid the topic is not proving to be as simple or straightforward as I’d hoped it would be. My initial interpretation of the digital divide rested literally on the number of computers available in school, at home, or in the community. The cause of the divide was material, and consequently the solution was simple: to provide more computers. Apparently, I’m not alone in this overly-simplistic analysis, since this was also the initial policy approach to remedy the situation.

Shortly thereafter, investors and educators realized this wasn’t having the intended effect. Computers sat gathering dust in the back of classrooms, while teachers resorted to their more familiar methods of teaching. Even with the computers in the classroom, students weren’t gaining the programmatic knowledge or skills necessary to make academic gains. Lesson learned - it’s not enough to have the equipment, we also need teachers who are trained to use them and can effectively impart this knowledge to students.

In response, technology-centric professional development courses became available and teacher education programs instituted mandatory technology training. Now theoretically all schools have computers, and all teachers are trained to use them. So NOW technology should be fully integrated into the curriculum. But what about students that don’t have computers or internet access at home? How is a teacher supposed to fully integrate technology when he/she can’t assign digital homework? What about the students that grew up having a computer in the house versus those who have never used one prior to coming to school?

The problem became increasingly complex, and as I continued mulling these solutions over in my head a picture started to emerge of students sitting in rows, behind computers, heads down, working in solitude. I had a slightly unsettled feeling about this that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and then it came to me. That scenario is in direct opposition to the one I’ve spent the last five years imagining and working toward- an integrated classroom where children are interacting with others who are different from them, learning from and sharing experiences with each other, and fully reaping the myriad of benefits that come from being educated in a diverse environment. So how do I mesh these two goals? Does closing the digital divide have to mean abandoning the dream of true integration? Certainly not, and certainly technology does not stand in direct opposition to an integrated classroom. It is a powerful reminder however to be mindful of the consequences, intended or otherwise, of our policy recommendations. We have yet to fully identify the best policy solutions to address the digital divide, but I shall continue to work with the reminder that technology should be used as a tool to bring us together, not further isolate or separate us.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that article. I have been concerned about the digital divide in our community for some time now. I was a library assistant when the internet was introduced to the Columbus Public School system. I trained both staff and students on ways to bring the new technology into the classroom. After 10 years, I did not see much progress in how technology was introduced and used in the classroom. I saw the tech labs with dusty computers, broken keyboards, untrained teachers and bored, unengaged students. I believe bridging the digital divide is key to our economic survival in the coming years. The lack of technology skills will make many workers obsolete. I'd like to do something to address that, to take this facebook-ing, text messaging generation, and help turn them into a generation of creators and producers and designers, not just techonology consumers. My current project is to train my own four teen age sons to help them own their own online businesses. Thank you for addressing that, and I look forward to your work.