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Framing the Issue of the Digital Divide in Education

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Online Learning and the Digital Divide: Benefits and Cautions

In 2003, the U.S. Dept. of Education reported that 317,000 students took online courses.  In 2015 that number jumped to 2.7 million students and continues to grow.  Different schools use online learning for different reasons:  some for enrichment, some for variety, and some simply to meet essential skills where teachers are simply not available.  It is this third case that is most relevant to equity and digital divide issues.  In rural Mississippi, students take AP Physics classes from an instructor hundreds of miles away.  In rural Oregon, students learn Spanish from a teacher who appears digitally while a proctor facilitates the classroom.  In suburban and urban areas across the U.S., districts employ online coursework for a variety of reasons, with a big push to use digital coursework to make up academic credit.

For small schools -- particularly those in rural areas with few students and staff -- online learning can mean opportunity.  Subjects that could only be taught at large urban and suburban schools can now be accessed from afar.   This can be a game changer with respect to equity and online learning can provide opportunities that were inconceivable just a few years ago.  Additionally, online learning can offer several advantages:

A.  Convenience -- the resources are available from anywhere and at any time.

B.  Independence -- in some cases, students can set their own hours of learning.

C.  Variety -- districts can expand their course offerings to match student need and interests.

Despite these benefits, there are certainly cautions as well:

A.  Lack of human interaction -- many high school online courses rely on reading and test taking formats with no human interaction.  The lack of consistent teacher feedback can be a barrier to those students who very well might need consistent interactions the most.   Although these types of courses might meet the needs of some students, many students experience perceive them as drudgery.

B. Lack of ownership -- when districts purchase online courses, they give up lack of control and over content and instruction.  Some courses might be a "general" fit, but the static course does not allow for adaptability. 

C.  Lack of connectivity -- when districts rely on online materials and instruction without planning for home connectivity, it is the poorest students who might end up having the least access.  

D.  Lack of Data -- currently, the data doesn't always support the efficacy of online learning, and some providers have been accused creating lackluster courses motivated mainly by profit.

E.  Cost -- in many instances, online work can cost more as a supervising teacher is working with fewer students and the district still has to pay the content provider a fee for their service.

As outlined in a Hechinger Report article, online learning does have potential.  It can provide opportunities for advanced coursework where opportunities never existed, and this is especially true for students in rural areas.  However, districts must exercise due diligence in vetting coursework.  When there is a live teacher involved in the online learning process, the potential for student engagement and deeper learning is much greater.   With respect to the digital divide, districts must also consider connectivity issues for all students.   Otherwise, implementing coursework that requires home study for students who don't have internet access will magnify inequities and set students up for failure.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The First and Second Digital Divides: Challenges in Classroom Tech Use

For the past several years, a lot of focus has been put on putting technology in our schools.  Most schools today have some technology available for classroom use, although the amounts of technology vary greatly across the U.S.  The recent documentary Without A Net does a great job of illustrating the challenges facing many of our schools and the great variance in technology availability.

Technology varies greatly from school to school
In addition, the strength of school networks also play a role.  When there is not enough bandwidth to accommodate access and applications don't load or crash, the frustration and waste of instructional opportunities mount.   When new devices arrive an cannot connect, they often end up gathering dust in the back of a classroom or in a storage closet.   Despite these challenges, improvements are being made and students are gaining more access to technology.

The Second Digital Divide

More devices and improving networks, though, do not guarantee meaningful interactions with technology.  Sociologist Paul Atwell observed that even as technology gaps close, a second divide often becomes increasingly apparent:  "affluent students use the same technologies to support richer forms of learning with greater adult mentorship. This first section of the report offers evidence of how inequity persists despite removing technical and economic barriers, and what we know about the social and cultural forces that determine these inequitable outcomes." (Connected Learning Alliance Report)  In the late 1990's and again in 2010, studies showed that "low-income, nonwhite children more often used technology in math class for drill and practice, while affluent, white children were more likely to use technology for graphing, problem-solving, and other higher-order exercises". (Boser, Ulrich. 2013).

The second digital divide becomes more apparent when looking beyond the "number of devices" found in schools.  The teaching that is taking place within schools with technology becomes a matter of equity and educational opportunity.  Using technology to "drill and kill" students for test prep saps the creativity and curiosity out of the classroom environment.  These types of activities contain little to no collaboration and don't allow for research and deeper inquiry skills.   Using technology in this way might appear to be easier when it comes to managing classroom behavior as it can provide a framework for specific directions (e.g. "finish this practice test in the next 30 minutes").  Paradoxically, these types of lessons can encourage boredom, dread, and misbehavior.

Classroom behavior and technology use is a nuanced problem, and schools of poverty often face extra challenges.  Addressing the second digital divide and encouraging high level learning opportunities for all of our students is key.  Providing devices and a strong networks for quick internet access is improving.  Providing dynamic and transformational learning opportunities for all of our students remains an ongoing challenge.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Homework Misconceptions and the Digital Divide

At a recent conference session where participants were discussing the digital divide, one thoughtful educator wondered if we were asking the right question.  From his perspective, the crux of the problem wasn't necessarily connectivity but rather if homework should be issued at all.  If no homework was issued, then perhaps students wouldn't need connectivity in the first place!  We then had a thoughtful discussion about some the soul crushing types of homework assignments that are common in most schools: 

  • 30 problems that are testing the same skill, even if the student already has mastered the skill after the 4th problem
  • Worksheets related to a reading with basic questions, just to prove that the reading was "read".
  • Any work that never gets any feedback from either the teacher or fellow students.
  • Irrelevant tasks that students (and staff) characterize as "busy work".
  • Excessive homework demands (sometimes 8 hours or more in high school).
Indeed, there are many poor homework practices found in our schools today which need to be reformed.  However, does this mean that all homework is worthless?  The research is fairly clear that homework timing/spacing as well as the type of homework given play a pivotal role.  A recent Psychology Today article points out that there needs to be a balance between home life and school, and other research advocates for 1.5 and 2 hours of homework a night for high school students instead of the 3-6 hours that is often assigned.   Note that this is 1.5-2 hours total, not per class!

Here are some key tips for educators when considering homework -- especially at the secondary level:

  • "Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.
  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.
  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.
  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory."

How homework relates to the digital divide

Some homework is poorly conceived and poorly executed.  Mind numbing exercises that aren't meaningful and that are perceived as busy work really don't serve a legitimate educational purpose.  However, homework and extra opportunities to practice and learn new skills are important and can certainly benefit students.  Additionally, collaborative assignments, class online discussions, peer reviews, adaptive practice, immediate feedback opportunities (an adaptive google form, a quizlet, a goformative etc.) and engaging assignments that provide  choice all can play a role in fostering deeper learning and mastery.  

The argument that we can solve the digital divide by simply not assigning homework seems good at first, but in the end it deprives students of extra opportunities.  Additionally, completing online practice and work and acquiring digital citizenship and tech skills are vital.  If we don't provide students of poverty with these opportunities, we limit their chances for future success in our increasingly digital world.  Middle and upper class students will find these opportunities regardless of what teachers do.  In addressing the digital divide, then, educators must reflect on the types of homework that they give and continue to advocate for students who don't have consistent access at home.  Not assigning any homework as a way to solve the digital divide is not a long term systemic solution.   Rather, it is an easy response to a complex and nuanced challenge.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Overuse and poor use of technology: a new aspect of the Digital Divide

As school districts across the country upgrade networks and integrate more technology, the divide in digital devices is decreasing, although is some districts serious inequities still about.  (www.digitaldivide.com)    With that said, educators are beginning to take note of a new trend:  a digital use divide.  Previously, the digital use divide seemed to revolve around access time, with wealthier students having more access at home while students of poverty had less access due to a variety of economic factors.   Now, though, the quality of digital use is coming into question.  Interestingly, recent studies have shown that lower income children often spend more time with technology as it has become a type of "digital baby sitter" for parents who have to be out of the house for extended periods of time.   A recent survey from Common Sense Media discovered that " that low-income parents sat their young children, from birth to age eight, in front of a television or a computer screen for 3 hours and 29 minutes a day, on average. That's almost double the 1 hour and 50 minutes of daily screen time that the typical high-income child has."  U.S. News Article on Digital Divide.  

This observation screen time and media usage has profound implications for educators.  Technology use is not going away in the modern world and students need to be well versed in order to be prepared for life after school.  The solution is not taking away technology.  Rather, educators need to develop and/or renew a focus on digital citizenship.   Often seen as an "add on" consideration in many districts, it really does need to be addressed intentionally.  Most of our students have not had a formal in depth instruction on digital citizenship.   Although many students get some instruction at home, many of our high poverty and immigrant families do not have the background to do this.  In fact, research has shown that it is often students who are teaching their parents about technology.  This landscape necessitates a formal and deliberate approach to teaching digital citizenship.
www.digitalequityforlearning.org This means not only teaching specific digital citizenship skills across the curriculum, but it also means communicating (and teaching) parents as well.  Most report cards and online grading platforms do not communicate any information on digital citizenship skills and the appropriate use (and overuse) of technology.  While organizations like Common Sense Media are playing an important role in educating families, schools and school districts must also participate in a systemic manner as well.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Redefining Connectivity in small town America and the masking of the digital divide

At a recent trip to a small town on the Oregon Coast, I was sitting in a restaurant and overheard a nearby conversation about connectivity.  4 locals (that was my impression anyway) were talking about their cell phone reception in certain parts of town.  Most agreed that the most expensive carrier in town (Verizon) offered the best coverage.  The discussion then moved on to the geographical challenges of every other carrier and where they received the best reception.

This discussion, remember, is simply about cell phone reception.  It is a fairly common discussion that occurs in small town America on a frequent basis.  In general, though, discussions of cell phone reception and of wireless broadband have been two distinct discussions.   People can certainly use their phones as very slow hotspots, but this type of connection has never been classified as broadband connectivity.  Indeed, some students use phone connectivity to do some research, but this type of work is often limited by speed and data costs.

In a few weeks, though, the FCC will be voting to reclassify some types of cell phone connectivity as broadband.  Although this might not seem that significant, it can/will have a potentially severe long term impact that will mask the digital divide for years to come. Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition of municipalities aimed at expanding local broadband access, observes that "it seems antithetical to all the other efforts we’re doing. “I spent a good part of my life as a teacher and a principal. If I had a classroom full of children that included a lot of failing students, I wouldn’t change my standards [to increase the number of passing grades,] I’d change the intervention.”  (The FCC's Next Stunt: Reclassifying Cell Phone Data Service as 'Broadband Internet')

Redefining connectivity in order to show that people have connectivity when they really don't is poor public policy.   The vast majority of Americans might not notice this change or care all that much as it doesn't affect them directly.  If a household already has access to high speed broadband, then a reclassification of cell phone plans as broadband might not matter.  However, if you listen closely to conversations about connectivity in smaller towns, you might be surprised at how difficult being connected (through broadband and/or cellphone) can be.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Connectivity Is Not a Simple Yes/No Question

The digital divide is still apparent in schools throughout our country, and it can be
heartbreaking when schools with great hardware and connectivity are only a few
miles away from schools who have fewer devices and slow to no connectivity.  
With coordination, advocacy, and planning, more schools are getting better access.  

As schools gain access and teachers learn how to implement technology in
meaningful ways that extend outside of the classroom, the next focus tends to
be on home access and connectivity.  Many educators start by trying to find out if
students are connected at home.  However, a recent study by the Cooney Center that
was funded by the Gates foundation reported that “access to the Internet and digital
devices is no longer a simple yes/no question.  Whether families have consistent quality
connections and capabilities to make the most of being connected is becoming just
as important.”  The study went on to survey low and moderate income parents with
school aged children (ages 6-13) and found that

52% said that their access was too slow
26% said that too many people share the same computer
20% said that their internet had been cut off in the last year due to not paying the bill.

Initially, then, educators who ask a simple yes/no question might be convinced that
there is little problem for their students to access the internet at home because a high
percentage of them said that they had access.  In addition, accessibility gets clouded by
the definition of what it means to be connected.  Increasingly, low/moderate income
families are shifting away from broadband and to a wireless only connectivity.

Again, students might say that they are connected when they answer a teacher,
but this type of connectivity is most likely not enough to meet the demands of what a
teacher is asking a student to accomplish outside of the classroom.

Once schools realize that connectivity is not a simple yes/no proposition,
then it is easier to design more meaningful surveys.   Knowing the types of
connectivity that are found in a student population is the first step in brainstorming
strategies for learning opportunities outside of the school day.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Skilled Teachers: A Critical Part of Bridging the Digital Divide

Skilled Teachers:  A Critical Part of Bridging the Digital Divide

A few years ago, a discussion of the digital divide centered first around devices and then about access.  Schools with few devices worked to find ways to add to their computer labs, and today many districts are moving to class sets of devices for each classroom,  mobile computer/ipad carts, expanded computer labs, or a 1 to 1 device per student implementation.  As districts purchase more
technology, many realize that their wifi infrastructure is inadequate and cannot handle the increase traffic from school and student devices.  When the infrastructure is inadequate to begin with, districts scramble to figure out how to increase bandwidth as well as security.  Great strides are being made in this area, but much work remains to be done -- especially in some financially strapped rural and inner city districts.  In general, an emerging definition of digital equity involves access to devices, access to broadband, and access to consistent opportunities to sharpen skills within in the classroom.

What is fast becoming a critical part of the digital divide//digital equity equation, though, is teacher training.   There are certainly superb examples of technology use in most schools where teachers and students are using devices to transform classrooms into a dynamic and collaborative learning environment.  However, these examples are often the result of a skilled teacher who is willing to experiment and innovate with technology.  This means going beyond assigning online worksheets or drill and kill tasks and providing technology uses that engage and foster higher level thinking and collaboration.

The great challenge, though, is teaching educators how to use technology in transformative ways and to do this in a systemic manner.   This doesn't mean that all teachers need to teach in the same way.  Efforts to mandate uniformity seldom succeed.  However, there should not be vast differences in tech use within the same grade level at the same school, or within the same grade levels at schools in the same district. 

Districts throughout the U.S. have found out that implementing technology without adequate training leads to both wasted money and wasted opportunities.  When new chromebooks or ipads gather dust in a back of a classroom because a teacher isn't sure how to use them effectively, everyone loses.  Devoting money and personnel for professional development and tech mentoring in a systemic manner is critical.  In the end, technology can magnify both good teaching and bad teaching.  Figuring out how to support all teachers (and not just applaud the few great examples of tech use within a district) is critical in providing a quality and engaging education for all students.  A district can have access to devices and adequate connectivity, but without a district wide focus on training teachers in best practice, digital divides will continue to appear.