Feb 8, 2009

The Digital Divide: How relevant is it?

"It is dangerously destabilizing to have half the world on the cutting edge of technology while the other half struggles on the bare edge of survival." Bill Clinton

It is definitely unsettling to consider that 1 in 2 Americans are online while 1 in 250 Africans has internet access and that the United States and Canada have more internet users than Asia, Africa, and Latin America combined (Bridges.org). It is even more unsettling to learn that we don't need to do a comparison between continents to see a divide. We can look within our own communities and schools to discover a digital divide.

What is the digital divide?

The digital divide is defined as "the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technology (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities" (OECD in Looker and Thiessen, 2003). The divide also affects members of minority ethnic or language groups, and those in more rural and remote regions (Looker and Thiessen, 2003). In other words, the digital divide is the division between those who have access to information and communication technologies and are using it effectively, and those who do not (Bridges.org).

How is the digital divide a relevant issue for teachers today?

When I compare two schools that I have recently taught in, a rural community school and an urban school, there are some clear divisions with information and communication technology within each school. In the rural school, while I had five computers in my classroom, a smartboard, access to a computer lab in the afternoons, and a "supernet" connection, the divisions technology specialist would come once in a while to fix glitches in the network and on different computers. There was also little support from a technology specialist for integrating technology. To update computer skills, teachers can take an online course or travel for a minimum of five hours to attend a workshop where the teacher has to use a lot of their own money to attend. The digital divide is seen within this rural school. In fact, rural schools are less likely than urban ones to have a well trained specialist, feed from teaching responsibilities, to coordinate ICT in the school. They are also less likely to have different types of technical training (Looker and Thiessen, 2003).

On the other hand, in the urban school, we have a teacher-librarian who seems to be constantly updating the library, a technology specialist within the division that I have seen twice already (I started work last Monday), who answers questions about technology integration, classrooms have mobile smartboards (which come with their own set of challenges), and one computer lab to share in the afternoons. There is high speed internet, but it is difficult to get into the lab more than once a week and it is difficult to get through a lesson without tripping over the smartboard cord at least three times and having to reorient the board each time. Access to professional development is much easier where I am currently located because the various school divisions around the city offer a variety of technology workshops in the evenings throughout the year.

While we had supernet in the rural school and high speed internet access in the urban one, the challenges of integrating technology effectively, especially with Web 2.0 tools, still remain. The article, "Web 2.0 in Schools: Our Digital Divide is Showing," discusses a model describing the four levels of influence that take the form of the digital divide in schools. The four levels in the model are:

1. Access - Does your school network crash? Do you have access to high speed internet? Do all students have access to a computer? How about at home?
There are times when our network crashes and part of the lesson was using the internet. Not all students in my classes have computers at home. Computer use at the school is their only opportunity to use the computer.

2. Skill - What skill level would you rate yourself at for integrating technology into your lessons? How will you continue to update your knowledge and skills? What skill level do your students come in with? Keep in mind that research shows that families with low level of parental education, and those from rural areas are less likely to have computer access at home (Looker and Thiessen, 2003). I find that I am continuously developing my technology skills and my knowledge to integrate technology with my units. It is a constant challenge for me.

3. Policy - Does your school have an acceptable use policy? Do the filters work effectively? Our school is currently developing an acceptable use policy. The filters are pretty tight. it is difficult to deliver lessons that i planned at home, because many sites are blocked. Can you believe the podcasting site is blocked?

4. Motivation - Are you motivated to learn more about technology? Are you motivated to integrate technology? Since you are currently reading this, you must be somewhat motivated, but how about your colleagues? How can you motivate them? I am motivated to learn about technology and love to gain new ideas and understanding of integrating it in the classroom. I think it is a challenge to get others on board to use technology in their classrooms, especially since I am a classroom teacher, not a teacher librarian. But I am certainly willing to try to motivate and share my ideas.

Did any of this sound familiar to you?

While reflecting on the questions that came to me while looking at the model, I wondered what some possible solutions are to bridge the gap of the digital divide in schools. I came up with a few solutions:

1. Since having a computer at home increases the likelihood that students will graduate from high school, then we need to think of ways to give students more opportunities to use the computer. Can a school fundraise to have laptops to sign out to students? Can schools and companies recycle their old computers by somehow giving their computers to those students in need?

2. Can professional development for teachers in rural areas be done online through certain sites or even through video conferencing?

3. Can teachers support and motivate each other during PLC's or other times throughout the school year?

4. Can schools celebrate what different classes are doing and showcase the use of technology in hopes of inspiring others?

Is the digital divide closing?

In "Unveiling the Digital Divide," George Sciadas claims that "in an overall sense, the digital divide is closing" since from year to year more people are using the internet and the comparison is not so much between the haves and have nots, but rather between the "haves", "have more" and "have less" groups (Sciadas, 2002). As long as we maintain the "Standards for the 21st Century Learner," and a vision for schools and libraries, I believe that we are well on our way to bridging the gap.

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