Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Digital Divide

Undoubtedly, we are living in a digital age. The internet has enabled those of who own internet accessible computers and related technology to have the ability to access limitless information right at our fingertips. Email, text, and video chat are just a few of the capabilities of many of the current computers or handheld devices. Technology is becoming more and more common and, as a society, we are becoming more and more dependent on our digital devices. After all, almost all businesses, schools, and/or government agencies are now requiring anyone seeking information to access their website.

Yet, even though society is becoming more and more reliant on computers and their related technologies, there are many inequities that exist with ownership and use of these technologies. This inequity, dubbed the "digital divide" is most commonly defined as the gap between those individuals and communities that have, and do not have, access to the information technologies that are transforming our lives" (http://www.edutopia.org/digital-divide-where-we-are-today).

Although the digital divide often refers to the actual ownership of or access to current technologies, there is also another important component to the digital divide. That is, the nation not only divided in the ownership and access to current technologies, it is also divided in the ability of people to effectively use the technology. Sometimes, users have limited proficiency and are able to get some minimal benefits through the use of the technologies. Other time, users have non existent skill and are unable to use and benefit from the technology.

Many factors contribute to the digital divide in education. The most obvious one probably relates to the cost of technology. In public schools, districts that have committed to the importance of infusing technology into the curriculum and ensured adequate funding generally have more hardware, more software, and better internet access than schools that lack the funding to purchase adequate technologies for their students.

Another reason for the digital divide is students who have "technophobic" or disinterested teachers. These students do not have the opportunity to utilize the technologies at school. As a result, some are often more hesitant to utilize technologies that will benefit their learning on their own. Others do not understand the disconnect between their technology use outside of school with their technology use inside the school. One Pew Internet Research study actually said that "Students report that there is a substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction. For the most part, students’ educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers" (http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2002/The-Digital-Disconnect-The-widening-gap-between-Internetsavvy-students-and-their-schools/Summary-of-Findings.aspx?view=all)

When the students who reported the disconnect between home internet usage and school internet access were questioned on suggested ways to improve the usage, they suggested "that professional development and technical assistance for teachers are crucial for effective integration of the Internet into curricula" (http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2002/The-Digital-Disconnect-The-widening-gap-between-Internetsavvy-students-and-their-schools/Summary-of-Findings.aspx?view=all) However, a 2008 report by the National Education Association (NEA) reported that only nineteen states had technology requirements as part of the requirements for teacher certification (http://www.ehow.com/about_6588824_role-information-technology-teacher-education.html).

Many critics dismiss the idea of a digital divide. Specifically, these critics believe that technology is equally accessible to all United States households. However, the Pew Research Center recently published a report summarizing the results of technology ownership and usage in United States households. The report, which was published on November 24, 2010 reports that higher income households use the internet more frequently and own more desktop computers, laptops, ipods and related technologies, e-book readers, tablet computers, and gaming systems than lower income households. Additionally, the report states that the "well off" are more likely to use the internet at home and are also more likely to have home access to a broadband internet connection. (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Better-off-households/Overview.aspx)

The graph below, taken from the previously mentioned Pew Research Center's report, shows the differences between the income levels. It also clearly shows the large discrepancies between the top income earning households and the lowest income earning households.


"At present, most of society’s attempts to decrease the widened inequalities that new
educational technologies could create are centered on access and literacy. In schools that serve
disadvantaged and at-risk populations, extra efforts are made to increase the amount of
computers and communications available. Similarly, educators and learners in have-not situations are given special training to ensure that they are literate in information tools, such as web browsers. To compensate for more home-based technology in affluent areas, many feel that our best strategy is providing teachers and students in low socioeconomic status areas with additional technology to “level the playing field” (Coley, Cradler, & Engel, 1997)." http://www.virtual.gmu.edu/pdf/ASCD.pdf

The noticeable differences in access and usage create some ethical questions. For instance, since the differences have been repeatedly documented, shouldn't we act to correct these disparities? Don't we owe it to our students to ensure equity of access and acquisition of critical skill that are undoubtedly necessary in today's technological lifestyle and business environment? Why isn't more being done?

In a lecture for Northeastern University, Professor Christopher Unger said that "Ethical decisions are multi-layered." In relation to ethical issues associated with the "digital divide," it is true that the associated decisions are multi-layered. For example, state and government officials need to mandate technology proficiency for teachers and technology integration into existing lesson plans. Government officials and taxpayers need to advocate for adequate budgets to support the purchase of the actual technologies, along with the money needed to adequately prepare the teachers. Parents and students need to advocate for the existence of, and usage of technology, in all schools. Teachers need to commit to mastering use of current technologies and also commit to using technology in their lessons as often as possible. Parents also need to do their best to provide their children with appropriate technologies and also encourage their use. Working together, all stakeholders can implement change for the better!

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this point and believe that this issue can be brought into so many different directions. First, in connecting the reliance on technology amongst our youth can not only lead to bullying, sexting, and cheating, but also low self-esteem and the lack of access to 21st century education.

    All students cannot access technology in the same way. Since all schools are not funded equally, students in these schools do not have the same access to the type of education that will be required to compete nationally and internationally.

    It is not just students that feel discrimination, but teachers also can feel uneasy about new changes and demands by technology-based education. Teachers in my district were just mandated by the administration to complete a "technology test" that created much upheaval. Many teachers felt incompetent and believed that their skills and abilities would be tied into their overall evaluations.

    Without concern and respect, these issues will not bee resolved easily. I often feel on a personal level, that many teachers-including myself-assume every student has a computer at home to access assignments. This actually just happened this year to me, and the students nicely came up to inform me she does not have a cell phone or a computer and would need an alternate assignment.

    Thanks. I enjoyed thinking deeply about this topic!

    ReplyDelete