The Digital Divide in 2018


Exploring inequality of access at home and at school

By Susan Brooks-Young

What comes to mind when the digital divide is mentioned? Historically this term referred to lack of access to hardware and internet connectivity. While it has not been resolved entirely, thanks to the increased availability of relatively inexpensive devices and programs such as E-rate, basic access is less of an issue today. However, as we have increased the numbers of available devices and internet-connected schools, we are discovering that solving the digital divide challenge is more complex than making “stuff” available.

Inequalities we recognize on today’s school campuses include network speed and bandwidth, the kinds of devices used to access the internet, and the quality of learning experiences offered to students.

In addition, as learning expectations expand to include students’ use of technology outside the traditional school day, educators are seeing that students’ access to devices and the internet away from school may vary widely, resulting in something called the “homework gap.” This is a situation where, for a variety of reasons, students lack sufficient connectivity to complete assignments, and then in some instances are penalized for not getting their homework done.

What do mindful educators need to explore as they evaluate the current status of the digital divide and how it might be impacting teaching and learning?

What does today’s digital divide look like?

One participant at a recent educators’ meeting announced that he’d read a report about digital-divide issues that indicated these problems have now all but disappeared. Several other attendees questioned this statement, which didn’t reflect their recent experiences, and asked to see the report. As we looked at the document, we could understand how he had gotten that impression. To say that the titles of various sections were misleading is being kind, but it’s the educators’ responsibility to make sure they are paying close attention and getting all the facts. In this case, it was clearly stated in the body of the report that there are still significant digital divide issues. Furthermore, the survey counted the number (not quality) of home devices and whether or not there was any type of internet connection, regardless of speed and data limitations.

What do we really need to look for when identifying digital-divide issues at school and at home? Begin by reviewing the situation on campus, where you are more likely to be familiar with at least some of the current concerns.

Questions that focus on availability of up-to-date devices, network speed, and bandwidth are an obvious place to begin, but inequity extends far beyond the number of devices available for student use on campus and how robust the network may be. Additional questions about hardware and connectivity might include, but not be limited to:

  • Are the devices provided by the school (or supplied by families in some cases) capable of supporting the work all students need to do?
  • Can students access school devices as needed? Must they be reserved in advance?
  • Is Wi-Fi coverage equitable across campus? Are there dead zones in certain areas?
  • Is the network capable of supporting all users throughout the day?

Then there are questions that focus on instructional practices, such as:

  • Who decides what devices are purchased for use, and what criteria are driving those decisions?
  • Are all students’ learning experiences similar? Are some confined to remedial activities while others use technology to enhance critical thinking and creativity?
  • Are teachers receiving the support they need to embrace teaching strategies that leverage the effective use of technology as a tool for teaching and learning?
  • Are students permitted to make choices about the digital tools they need to use to complete a task or project?

What about student access to devices and the internet away from school?

Educators may have formed false assumptions about students’ access based on information provided by parents and the students themselves. This frequently happens when students and/or parents are asked questions in surveys or other data collection activities that fail to get at the information educators actually need. It’s not enough to know that a student has home access to a tablet device that is used 30 minutes daily. It’s also necessary to know what type and model of tablet, what operating system it is running, how it connects to the internet, its screen size, if there are peripherals (such as a keyboard), if the student is sharing the device with one or more other people, and what the student is doing while using the device. The same is true for laptops, desktop computers, and smartphones. Specifics are needed to understand fully the capabilities of the device and how it is actually being used.

There are similar concerns related to internet connectivity. If there is home access, how robust is the network? If there is no home access, where do students need to be to get online — and is it possible for them to get there? If they are relying on a data plan for connectivity, can the plan support the required work, and what is the monthly data allowance? Is the plan shared with other devices?

Given the information above, what potential digital divide concerns are you able to identify on your campus and in students’ lives off-campus?

Impact on students

Once you’ve identified equity concerns for your students at school and at home, avoid the temptation to jump right to solutions. Instead, take time to explore how these concerns impact student learning. This will help direct your attention to the most important issues as well as to those that might be more easily dealt with. Technology-supported instruction is not the solution to every learning challenge, but there is ample research — beginning with the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow study published in 1995 (bit.ly/ACOT1995) up to more recent work including the 2009 TPACK Framework (TPACK.org) and the 2012 SAMR Model (bit.ly/TCTSAMR) — that shows that technology can positively impact student learning when designed carefully and used appropriately.

The outcomes of equity concerns on campus might include limited classroom use of technology because of network issues or a lack of devices that are appropriate for some activities. A lack of high-quality professional development for teachers may result in poorly designed technology-supported instructional activities for students. Students whose experiences with technology are confined to remedial activities are not engaged in activities that typically have positive impacts on student performance. And students who are offered more challenging activities, but have little autonomy when it comes to determining how assignments will be completed, often disengage from the learning process.

Equity concerns off campus often result in students not being able to complete homework as assigned or having to go to extreme lengths to keep up with their work. Students who share a device with other family members or who have limited or no internet connectivity at home may want to do their work, but may not be able to due to circumstances beyond their control. Not only does this hurt them academically, but it may have a detrimental impact on family relationships.

Given the information above, how might current digital-divide issues impact your students’ learning both on and off campus?

Finding solutions

What can educators do to resolve digital divide concerns? Recognize that quick fixes may take care of problems in the short-term but are not ongoing solutions. For example, you may have heard about schools that enter partnerships with companies that will provide tablets with free 3G- or 4G-connectivity for one year or some type of Wi-Fi hotspot. This generous offer may immediately address Wi-Fi dead spots on campus or lack of internet access at home, but what happens at the end of the year? Typically, schools that take advantage of this kind of donation cannot afford to assume the cost of these accounts at the end of the year. With no backup plan, users are reduced to relying on limited Wi-Fi connections, resulting in little or no use of the devices. As tempting as that quick fix may be initially, limited connectivity that becomes a long-term reality is not helpful.

Start with the situation on campus. Once existing infrastructure issues are identified and you know how these challenges impact student learning, brainstorm strategies for resolution. Be a willing participant in rethinking the school infrastructure’s design along with how instructional activities can be developed and implemented. Then act on the decisions made. Here are examples of questions that typically need to be raised:

  • What is required to ensure that Wi-Fi connectivity is available all over campus?
  • What needs to be done to ensure that network speed and bandwidth can meet user demands?
  • What is the long-range plan for keeping infrastructure up to date?
  • What is the focus of criteria used for selection of devices for student use? Is it instructional need or something else?
  • Is a 1:1 program required to meet students’ learning needs? Why or why not?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of providing access to multiple types of devices?

Instructional issues may have also been identified, and solutions need to be determined. Here are questions that may help in this area.

  • What kind of professional development do teachers need to plan effective technology-supported instruction?
  • What types of ongoing support do teachers need to sustain changes in instructional design and activity implementation?
  • What kinds of digital instructional resources are available, and what is still needed?
  • What sustainable resources are available to provide support for infrastructure and instructional support?

Once you have a realistic picture of off-campus infrastructure and access to devices for your students, and you have identified how the current situation impacts student learning, what realistic solutions can you identify? Are there agencies, organizations, and schools within the community that might be willing to partner with you to design long-term solutions? For example, Next Century Cities (NextCenturyCities.org) supports mayors and city leaders who are willing to partner with local businesses and schools to bring affordable internet to local residents. Another possibility may be to work with local your internet service provider (ISP) to learn about affordable options for families that cannot afford expensive internet packages. It may be necessary to negotiate short-term, immediate connectivity solutions such as access to Wi-Fi networks at the public library or an after-school program, but if this is the case, be clear from the beginning that it is a temporary solution, and plan for how you will follow up with a more permanent solution.

What about students whose families cannot afford to purchase a device for each child? This may be one argument for devices that are provided by the school, but it also may be cost-prohibitive and discourages offering access to multiple types of devices that are suitable for different kinds of work. The long-term solution may be to have devices students can check out to use in class and take home for families that do not have the resources to provide their own, while other families do purchase devices for their children. One Catholic school dealt with this issue by holding a series of fundraising activities for students whose families could not purchase devices outright. Students participated in activities throughout the summer to earn the money needed to buy a device of their own. It is important to avoid taking stopgap measures, such as allowing students to bring inexpensive devices that are so limited in capability that they are not able to complete assignments.

What permanent solutions can you think of that would help your students bridge the digital divide?

Dealing with new digital-divide concerns is the responsibility of school staff, parents, and community members. One teacher will not be able to lead the charge but can certainly bring the discussion to the table. A resource that may be helpful in launching the discussion is a free documentary available online called Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America (DigitalDivide.com). Presented by Verizon, the focus is the digital divide in public schools, but Catholic school educators will definitely be able to relate to many of the concerns identified. The video runs about one hour and is worth watching with a critical eye. If the topic resonates with you, a free viewing toolkit for watching with a group is available at bit.ly/ViewingToolkit.

Image credit: Shutterstock 407031889

A former Catholic school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author.

Image credit: Shutterstock 407031889

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