Bridging the Digital Divide in Education

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

In this lesson, we will look at the issues posed by the digital divide that many teachers face in their classrooms, including strategies for finding technology to use in the classroom, and how to thoughtfully incorporate technology into lessons.

What is the Digital Divide?

A teacher stands at the blackboard, chalk in hand, while students sit at their desks, shuffling papers and taking notes with their yellow #2 pencils. You might imagine this scene in a classroom fifty years ago, but this is what a typical classroom still looks like in many schools in America today. In other classrooms, however, students sit with laptops, tablets, or myriad other devices, completing interactive tasks online. Their blackboard has been replaced with an interactive whiteboard that serves as a blackboard, projector, and computer all in one. It is the differences between the traditional classroom and the high-tech, modern classroom that represent the digital divide in America.

As teachers, we know that great inequalities exist between school districts, within school districts, and sometimes even within schools themselves. Rarely is there technological equality across an entire population. Typically, there are students who are digitally adept, who have devices and Internet access at home. These students, known as digital natives, have grown up surrounded by technology and have already acquired a basic level of technological proficiency. In other cases, you may have students whose only exposure to technology is at school, and many students probably fall somewhere in between.

The digital divide refers to the inequality in access to technology that exists between communities due to regional and demographic differences, particularly socio-economic groups. One of our goals as teachers is to help bridge the digital divide so that students can acquire the technological skills they will need to be successful as adults. While some students are considered digital natives, having grown up immersed in technology, other students, for a variety of reasons, have not reached this level of technological skill.

Getting the Technology Into Your Classroom

The first step in bridging the digital divide in our class is to get technology into the hands of students. Start by assessing what technology you have at your disposal. The chart below provides an outline to help you assess the technology that might be available.

Inventory of Technology Available

Inventory the Technology Available

Quite possibly, there are items that you may not have considered because you don't always use them in your classroom (or perhaps, they are items that have been around forever). Before you try to bridge the digital divide, you will need to thoroughly assess what technology your school has to offer, even if you share it with your colleagues.

BYOD - Bring Your Own Device

If you lack technology at your school, you may want to consider using BYOD - Bring Your Own Device. In this model, students bring in a device from home (a laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.) to use during classroom instruction. One benefit of BYOD is that students will have devices in class that they should already know how to use. However, there are also definite drawbacks. Depending on the socio-economic breakdown of your class, you may have students who don't have a device to bring. Another issue you will encounter is that the variety of devices will make it more challenging to ensure that the websites or applications you are using work correctly on all devices.

Before you decide to use BYOD, there are a few other things you will need to consider, especially in cases where your school district does not already have a policy in place regarding BYOD. First, you want to make sure that your school will even allow students to bring their own devices to class. Next, you will also need to consider whether or not students will be able to connect to the Internet on your school campus. If so, you should make sure you have mastered the connection procedures since it is unlikely there will be just an 'open' network available.

Finally, if you do have Internet access on your campus, another issue you will need to consider is what safety precautions exist to protect students while they are online at school. You will want to make sure that a filtering device is in place to prevent students from wandering too far afield on the Internet superhighway.

Evaluating Students Technology Skills

Once you get devices into the hands of your students, you will need to evaluate how adept your students are at navigating the technology you want to use in the lesson. Anytime you are designing a lesson for your students that incorporates technology, you will need to evaluate the learning outcomes against the skills the students will need to be successful.

The Technology Balancing Act

The Technological Balancing Act

In evaluating your lesson, you may discover that you will have to teach students new skills in order for them to successfully use the technology and master the content. However, you need to strike a balance - especially if you are a core content teacher. Sometimes you may be too ambitious, and the necessary technological skills will outweigh the content you are trying teach.

Before you design your lesson, consider your population and inventory the skills they have, and what skills they will need for the lesson. If there are several skills to master that are unrelated to the content, that should be a red flag. Try to redesign the lesson and strike a balance between content and technology.

Providing Students With a Framework to Use Technology

At this point you have made progress; you have technology in the students' hands, and you have evaluated whether or not it is appropriate for your lessons.

Now, how will you share your technology-based lessons with your students? Don't assume that this will be the easiest part - in fact, it can be the most challenging. Your impulse may be just to email it to your students. As easy as email seems it can be unreliable, and it may be confusing to students, especially if they are not digital natives.

A simple strategy to share technology-based lessons with students is through a website. There are numerous free, or nearly free, tools that allow you to design websites for your students. This method allows you to organize those tools so that students can easily return to them time and time again. If you feel like your students have a reasonable level of technological skill, you might choose to use a free virtual classroom such as Edmodo. Virtual classrooms provide you with a variety of tools to share technology-based assignments, as well as a method to assess students online.

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