Last week we discussed the digital divide, and today I thought we could explore some practical strategies that teachers, as individuals, can adopt in an effort to bridge the digital divide in their classrooms.
Before we go ahead and look at some practical steps I thought it would be useful to sketch in some background on how technology is actually being used in classrooms across the US, in an effort to create some necessary context. We all read about glamorous examples of 1:1 programs where students enjoy an almost Utopian relationship with their school and teachers via a host of remarkable digital tools. We also know that schools that can afford these types of initiatives, and which have the policy frameworks and supporting networks in place to enable seamless tech integration are few and far between.
Change is happening at a far slower rate across “ordinary” schools. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation fund a series of research reports called Teachers Know Best. In 2015 they released a interesting report titled What Educators Want from Digital Instructional Tools 2.0, that sought out 3100 educators to establish the state of technology integration across K-12. Here are some highlights:
- While 93% of teachers are using digital tools to help guide instruction, less than 20% of classrooms have 1:1 device programs;
- 56% of teachers believe data and digital tools make them better teachers;
- 67% of teachers feel resources (both digital and non-digital) are sufficient to meet their subject standards; and
- 59% of teachers feel the digital tools they use frequently are effective.
To my untrained statistician’s eye these figures seem moderate, and indicate that the digitization of the classroom is not happening as rapidly as the tech media would have us think. I thought it helpful to air these facts and figures as they illustrate how great the challenges are in bridging the digital divide.
6 Practical strategies for teaching across the digital divide
So let’s look at the process of bridging the digital divide, using a step-by-step model - the steps are seldom easy to take, but at least by enumerating them we make them simple.
- Find out what you already have: Explore your school, speak with other teachers and students and establish what technology is currently available on campus. Make sure you also discover what platforms are being used, the current speed of the Internet at the school, what policies are in place governing Internet access, if there is available WiFi, what procedures are involved to access it, and if there are any dedicated resources such as administrative staff to managing connectivity and IT hardware at the school.
- Audit your student's access: Draw up a short survey, (try the one on page 11 of this study) that your students fill in. This will give you an accurate picture of the access needs and opportunities amongst your student population.
- Get creative: Using both steps 1 and 2 above you will be able to draw up a matrix of access opportunities. Focus on the positive, work with what you have and get creative. For instance if you only have one laptop with broadband access that requires a teacher sign-in, then look at designing project-based learning modules with teams of students where online research is simply one component of a larger project. Look at flipping your classroom on these occasions so that each group gets equal access to the laptop for research over a number of class periods.
- Focus on digital literacy: In an educational environment split by the digital divide, you can also assume that basic digital skills are not common among low-access students. So keep in mind that simple lessons such as:
- Creating Word documents
- Starting a social media account
- How online shopping works
- The basics of online research
- Making a spreadsheet
are also valid lessons to kick-start your class’s trajectory across the digital divide.
- Work within your community: Access to the Internet at school is a far less common problem than the lack of Internet access at home. Your matrix may reveal that many of your students have passable hand-held devices like smartphones that could assist with their homework assignments. The problem then is data and home access. Look to your community libraries, YMCAs and other community centers, coffee shops and businesses; they may be prepared to help you on a project-by-project basis by providing space and time out of school for your students to utilize their Internet connection on particular projects.
- Work with parents: There are a number of initiatives that aim to work with low-income households to improve their Internet connectivity. Work with parents and inform them of these opportunities. Organizations such as Everyone On aim to “Eliminate the digital divide by making high-speed, low-cost Internet service and computers and free digital literacy courses accessible to all unconnected Americans." They operate in 49 states, and help connect low-income families with the resources and assistance to get connected.
It’s daunting when our classrooms are not sufficiently geared to afford our students the very best opportunities. It is also a form of double-jeopardy that sees students from low-income families attend the most under-resourced schools - a function of what legislators recently called an “unconstitutional” school funding model. Teachers in these environments are often caught in the cross-hairs, digging deep for the technical and emotional resources to continue trying to bridge that divide.
The irony is that technology can and does help leapfrog communities across socioeconomic divides that keep students trapped in low-quality education. We simply need a greater stimulus, understanding and enthusiasm for digital tools - beyond what we read about in tech trend magazines - and work together to design digital solutions that fit our schools.