Tackling the Digital Divide: Low-Income Students Weigh In

| October 9, 2013 | 9 Comments
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The article For Low Income Kids, Access to Devices Could Be the Equalizer raised the possibility that mobile technology in classrooms could help narrow the digital divide between the nation’s low-income and more affluent students. The article, which included suggestions for educators about how to access devices and what do with them, struck a chord with readers. Many were outraged that some students are missing out on valuable learning resources because of their families’ socio-economic status, while others worried that bringing mobile devices into the classroom – any classroom – invites chaos.

“The internet is the modern day encyclopedia,” wrote commenter Patrick Hopkins, who grew up in a single-parent low-income household, and now teaches in an upper-middle class school district. Hopkins’ students are allowed to use their mobile devices in school after registering them with the administration, opening up opportunities for students to direct their own learning and take advantage of the internet’s vast trove of information. Hopkins noted many schools don’t have those same advantages, like his alma mater.

“Teachers must have an abundant amount of trust in their students that they are staying on task when using their own devices in the classroom.”

“Attending school in a dilapidated building with poor heating, and non-existent cooling systems, coupled with broken windows that were replaced with sheet metal, instead of glass, weighed heavy on a student’s psychic,” he wrote. “Student learning and teacher morale take heavy tolls in these types of environments. Without adequate learning resources and safe and secure learning environments low income student cannot compete in today’s society.” Hopkins points that schools can’t even meet these basic infrastructure needs, let alone student access to technology resources.

Many readers commented that all students should be given access to the internet and the devices that supply them, but fewer accepted the assertion made by Michael Mills, a professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas, that race plays a role in whether teachers trust students to use devices responsibly.

“[The article] stated that schools do not allow students of color to use their mobile devices because they think they will not use them in appropriate ways. I do not believe this is true at all,” wrote Amanda Phillips. “I think it is our job as teachers to set the ground rules and expectations of using these types of devices in class before they are even allowed to bring them. Each student should get an equal chance to bring and use their device in class; race should have nothing to do with it.”

Phillips’ comment was echoed by several readers who agreed that the bigger issue is how to set a structure for kids to use their own devices appropriately.

“It doesn’t matter where a child comes from, there are issues beyond being able to have kids have access to devices,” wrote Allie Kohl. “Implementing devices into the school throws a lot of red flags and makes it hard for teachers to really ensure that students are being productive and honest with the stuff they are getting accomplished on the devices at hand.”

Despite the concerns raised about how students would use mobile technology in the classroom, most commenters, whether teachers or interested readers, felt students should have access to devices in school. If students don’t own those devices, many felt the school should find ways to provide them.

TRUSTING STUDENTS

For some readers, it comes back to the issue of trust.

“I like how the point about trusting the students was brought up,” wrote Olivia Richard. “I find this extremely important when talking about BYOD [Bring Your Own Device]. Teachers must have an abundant amount of trust in their students that they are staying on task when using their own devices in the classroom.” And, to some extent, building that trust takes a leap of faith. No teacher will know if mobile technology could work in his classroom if he doesn’t start from the assumption that it might and take a leap of faith.

Some of the article’s suggestions for narrowing the digital divide struck a chord with Amanda Williams, who grew up with limited access to computers and the internet while in high school, making it challenging for her to finish assignments. She agrees that teachers need to show discretion when talking about the kids who don’t have access to devices so they don’t accidentally embarrass students. In her experience grouping students together to maximize devices in the classroom would be a great idea.

[RELATED: Internet Access for All: A New Program Targets Low-Income Students]

“Overall it is important to value all students — technology or no technology,” Williams wrote. “It is a great resource but should never be required to use in the classroom unless the school is providing the tools.”

Commenter Trevor Cline also had few resources as a student. “I grew up in a school where we did not use technology very much and this made me be behind somewhat once I got to college,” he wrote. “Once I got to college almost everything was done through technology and I was learning as we went with a lot of the technology programs.” Cline’s comment points to the need to prepare students not only to get to college, but to be able to keep up once there.

At this point, computers are required to complete assignments in the upper grades, but many schools aren’t all able to provide devices for every student. That makes it difficult for teachers who’d like to take advantage of the independent and self-directed learning opportunities that technology can offer. As Hopkins noted, it might be common in a more affluent public school, but impossible to contemplate in many lower-income schools that are still grappling with finding resources for basic needs. Getting to a point where teachers trust students enough to let them use whatever devices they do have, and creatively managing and grouping their use could be a starting point to get past the inequalities.

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  • deserteacher

    Trust is clearly important in the educational process. I would also suggest that this trust extends to believing the teachers will have high level classroom management skills to insure a valuable learning environment using technology safely and productively.

  • Vip Gupta

    It seems to me that using mobile devices as a learning tool depends a great deal on culture. Students, particularly students from lower income backgrounds, use their mobile devices primarily in a social/cultural context. Teachers can leverage mobile devices in education if they themselves are connected or understand how the students are already using these devices. It is too often the case that teachers do not allow for these devices or place too harsh restrictions on their use because they are culturally disconnected from how the students participate in a digital/online world. I don’t believe classroom management is the issue, meeting students where they are at is the issue. When we have done that in my curriculum and classes, management issues all but vanish.

  • Teacher of low-income

    It seems to me that the people who wrote these articles are like the people who are making educational laws. Neither have a clue as to what is going on in the classrooms in which they speak. I teach in a very low-income area. 100% is on free lunch. My district’s buildings are not dilapidated nor run down. They have been newly remodeled and are beautiful. For a school to discriminate the use of mobile devices due to the color of their student’s skin is down right barbaric! If there is such a school, they should be reported to authorities, not written about in some online article! I teach in a computer classroom, of which there are 3 in my high school. We also have 3 computer labs! Being in a low-income school district does not mean you cannot provide for the students. As for trust being an issue, last year my high school allowed mobile devices at lunch and in green/yellow light classrooms. What happened? The adage, “Give them an inch, and they will take a mile” merited. Last year was a trial period. Needless to say, it was not continued this year. In our low income area, the only mobile device the students own is a cell phone. Granted you can have some great learning using these devices; however, think about it: Low income. Most are pay-as-you-go and few have internet capabilities. Do the people that write these articles consider that fact? These low-income kids like to show them off. However, when it came right down to it, they couldn’t connect! I know. I tried it! My district is as low-income as you can get, and we are not “grappling with finding resources for basic needs”. Our district is full of new computers! New devices are being used by the students. These articles are correct in the fact that there is a digital divide between low-income and the other classes. That digital divide is not in the classroom, however. It is in their homes. The ONLY exposure these kids have IS at school, which puts them at a disadvantage. Most kids use a computer, or even video games, at home on a daily basis. Low-income kids have several classes they can take. That is the huge difference!

    • tbarseghian

      Thanks for your response. Those quoted in the article are readers who posted comments about their own personal experiences, so it’s unfair to say they don’t “have a clue about what’s going on in the classrooms in which they speak.” They’re commenting about what they observed and felt personally.
      That said, in the same manner that the other commenters’ voices, perspectives, and shared experiences are appreciated, so are yours.

  • http://AquiAmigo.com/ Michael S. Mills

    Thank you for this article. I am so pleased to read about more and more educators devoting themselves to providing opportunities to promote digital equity in our schools. I also want to point out to some of those quoted in this story that I maintain my position that race does indeed play a factor in mobile device opportunities in our schools. With that said, I would hope readers would understand that race is only one factor that impacts digital equity. It is part of the larger issue, which Olivia Richard correctly identified as trust.

    Trust in our students is a necessity for any innovative enterprise, particularly a BYOT initiative. This trust, along with, as “desertteacher” notes, effective classroom management practices (nothing fancy, just the basics; you know, teacher proximity, engaging instruction, positive rapport), creates an environment in which truly exciting educational opportunities occur. In the comment section, Vip Gupta makes a salient case for connecting with students “where they are.” Bravo! That’s the ticket! I am positive that cultural connection is an integral part of effective classroom management (often by creating a community of mutual respect and understanding rather than imposing harsh restrictions).

    Going back to the issue of race, I would like to think that race does not play a factor in BYOT implementation, but I also live in a world where the effects of racial discrimination are all too manifest. This is not limited to BYOT policies but include a vast array of educational resources. It’s often frowned upon to be so blunt because we are moved by many to believe that we live in a post-racial society. We don’t. At least not in Central Arkansas. School districts outside the Little Rock metro area are commonly referred to as “white-flight” schools, and there is where you see a great discrepancy between what students outside Little Rock are able to do and what students in Little Rock are not allowed to do.

    I take issue with Amanda Phillip’s contention that race does not play a role in parceling out educational innovations like BYOT because that contention is rooted in a generalization. I respect the fact that she and other readers of MindShift do not allow such baseness, but there are those who do. I would like to think otherwise, but I see what I see. Notably, I do agree with her final statement: “race should have nothing to do with” BYOT implementation.

    I wish more educators would read this article and understand what “deserteacher” and Vip Gupta are saying, respective to promoting an inclusiveness that transcends race or income status: trust students, make cultural connections, and create a safe, productive, and engaging learning environment (whether there’s technology involved or not).

  • truthisgood

    Make sure those poor kids aren’t doing something “bad” on those laptops while the well-off kids are using theirs to bully their “friends” into suicide.

  • Brian Kuhn

    We have recently initiated a focus group with two elementary, two secondary schools to explore all the benefits and issues/challenges of a BYOT approach. Our district has a significant range of socioeconomic demographics from severe poverty to very wealthy and everything in-between. Equity is a very serious concern we have. I wonder what others are doing to ensure equity of access is not worse but rather improved through adopting a BYOT approach. I wrote http://www.shift2future.com/2013/10/empower-students-to-choose-technology.html to describe my thoughts on our approach.

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