Closing the Gap: Danger in the Digital Divide

EDTECH CHALLENGE | by Jesse M. Langley

Technology has rapidly evolved since the dawn of the Industrial Age and that has created a wealth of opportunities for education. But we don’t have a great track record of adopting technology and integrating it into classrooms in a timely fashion. If you look at the lag between technology implementation in our business and personal environments, as opposed to when we finally get around to introducing the same technology into classrooms, the discrepancy is glaring. And there are two distinct reasons this continues to occur.

Historically, there has been an institutionalized resistance to change on the part of educators when it comes to technology. But that’s beginning to change. As younger teachers enter the profession, they’re bringing their tech-savvy with them. And that’s a good thing. Tech-friendly teachers can go a long way toward closing the gap in the digital divide. But they can’t close the distance by themselves.

Institutionalized Inequality

The second reason that underlies the difficulty of introducing new technologies more quickly to classroom environments is a structural one. And it’s not a part of the education equation we like to talk about very much. The fact that the United States funds schools largely through property taxes has created an educational environment that perpetuates the problem. Because property taxes in wealthy areas create more revenues for schools and poorer areas provide fewer funds, we’ve unintentionally created a scenario of institutionalized inequality when it comes to technology access. When the extent of classroom technology was a blackboard and a copy machine, the impact on students was less noticeable. In the past, schools may have been an indicator of social class differences, but the quality of your education would have been similar regardless of whether you attended a wealthy school or a poor one.

But that’s no longer the case. Schools that struggle to find the funds to fix leaky roofs are not going to view iPad purchases as a good use of their limited resources. This means that the school a student attends determines their exposure to technologies and therefore their ability to successfully navigate an after-graduation landscape that will require technological competence. That raises the alarming prospect that the disparate access to technology could widen the distance between haves and have-nots in our society going forward. That’s not just a problem for education. That’s a problem for our society and even poses a serious issue in terms of democracy, equality and life chances.

Narrowing The Distance

Closing the gap in the digital divide needs to be a greater priority. And it’s achievable if we use creativity and innovation to incorporate solutions. The success of online education options for university students has trickled down to primary and secondary school students and many of them are thriving in ways they never did previously. And the technological tools students need don’t necessarily have to be prohibitively expensive. The Android-powered Aakash tablet that all Indian students have access to costs $49. That’s less than the price of many textbooks.

Giving students in under-funded school districts greater access to technology isn’t impossible. It’s not even necessarily difficult. But it won’t happen unless there is a visible push toward innovative methods for technology integration and an understanding that the digital divide isn’t just an inconvenience that we have to accept. It’s a problem for which a solution exists if we’re willing to undertake the effort required to close the gap in the digital divide.

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Jesse M. Langley is a contributor for EdTech Digest covering challenges educators face integrating technology into education and solutions that make sense. Write to:jessemlangley@gmail.com

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