Bridging the Digital Divide - Part I
One of the more serious side-effects of the Information Age is the issue known as 'The Digital Divide,' i.e., the gap that exists between those who are technologically advantaged and those for whom technology access is difficult. While some students are entering high school with up-to-date skills and, therefore, making rapid progress, others have little or no hands-on computer experience. This type of situation can exist in the same school district. There are no universal standards in place that mandate 'what' and 'when' a student should learn specific computer skills. Worse, there are no standards in place for 'what, when or how' teachers should implement technology. Most people would agree that computers will become - if they haven't already - ubiquitous in most workplaces; that most people should have some general knowledge of how to use a computer for daily personal and professional tasks. Most careers have job requirements that include some aspect of technology use - even McDonald's uses a computerized cash register.
If we are to educate all of America's students to the highest level possible, we must not 'profile' some students as not likely to need certain skills, but educate them all equally, with technology skills included. There are a number of issues to be considered when attempting to implement a universal set of technology standards. Chief among them are: Administrators, teachers, and students, as well as an equitable distribution of technology tools and Internet connectivity.
Administrators, who make the purchasing decisions as well as fund staff development, are often ill-informed about the technology and training needed at the classroom level. Assuredly, some have well chosen teams which make recommendations, but many do not, or the technology teams make poor recommendations. And some administrators are simply technophobic because their skills are not up-to-date, or they themselves are not interested.
Teachers very often have no direction as to what they should be teaching when it comes to technology. Should they be using computers to reinforce basic skills? Should they be teaching about the computer? Should they require students to use the computer to complete projects? Should the students have fun when they're using a program, or not? If it's fun, it must not be work, or is it? Teachers themselves may not know very much about technology, and may be afraid to integrate it into their curriculums. Further, administrators do not provide enough paid inservices for teachers to learn these skills.
Students can themselves be a hindrance to integrating technology in the classroom. Excuses such as: "I don't like computers," "Computers are for boys," "I'm never going to use a computer," are heard often. A school staff that's paying attention can overcome all of these problems. Not liking computers stems from fear of failure; erroneously connecting computers to a gender identity can be corrected by staff modeling their own use and by finding programs that better suit a student's taste; and never planning to use a computer (also said about Math/Algebra/History, etc.) can be changed by exposing students to the many careers which require, or are enhanced by, the use of technology.
The final problem, equitable distribution of hardware/software, and Internet connectivity, is being addressed on many levels. This problem will eventually be solved, either on a Federal or State level, because it's easy to quantify (ratio of computers to students, number of computers connected to the Internet, type of software programs available to the student, etc.).
Providing an instructional model, e.g., standards, for teachers to use and administrators to reinforce with equipment and software, will do much to overcome the Digital Divide. Age appropriate instruction, both on and about the computer, is the missing link. Just as we teach reading skills so the student can then use reading to acquire more knowledge, we need to teach computer skills to foster the ability to use the computer as a learning tool, especially with regard to the Internet. In our next issue, we provide a sketch of basic guidelines which, if implemented, will help us cross the Digital Divide.
[TO BE CONTINUED]