As a former teacher in a rural school district, I was always concerned by the digital divide between the students that had digital technology at home and those that did not. I was concerned about giving students projects or homework assignments that required the use of a computer or access to the Internet. It was assumed that many of my students did not have access to this technology at home. To avoid phone calls from frustrated parents, I avoided assigning certain projects that I knew could have great potential to be educational and engaging. I could not assign these projects because all students would not be able to participate. The digital divide that affected my students was mostly related to location and socio-economic status.
When it came to school technology, the same digital divide that affected my students at home was also present in the classroom. Due to the school's rural location, I was concerned that the school's access to unreliable Internet would keep my classes from starting and completing online projects during school hours. Plus, the school computer lab had to be shared by all other departments. Since the lab was being utilized on most days, it was virtually impossible to schedule the lab for more than one day. Due to possible technical issues and limited use of digital technology, I strived to have a contingency plan when it came to classroom projects and activities. Every lesson plan had to be adaptable in case technology was not available. Due to a lack of technology, I felt as though my lessons were becoming stagnant and dull. Not having technology in the classroom made it harder to engage students and expose them to the wonders of learning.
Since my time as a teacher, technology has changed in positive ways. This positive change also has affected the digital divide. Digital technologies like smartphones and tablets are now more affordable. Handheld mobile devices are much less expensive than desktop computers. Also, the use of 3G and 4G networks for Internet access on smartphones and tablets makes the old, unreliable, rural Internet no longer an issue. My former students are now more likely to have a digital device in their pocket, with access to reliable Internet, than they are to have a computer at home. The wonders of learning can be accessed from anywhere, anytime.
This change in mobile technology is not unique to my former classroom. According to a recent survey conducted by the Verizon Foundation, "Smartphone use for homework...crosses income levels with nearly one in three (29%) of students from the lowest income households reporting smartphone usage to do their homework assignments." (Page 3, Sarmiento and Glauber) It appears that the digital divide that once focused on economic inequality is slowly fading away. Any teacher will agree that it is now harder to teach a class period without hearing an annoying buzz from someone's smartphone. Yet, students are still required to hide their digital devices and are not allowed to use them in the classroom. Why?
There is a new digital divide in education. This time it is not about where students live or how much money their parents earn. This digital divide is between the households (Haves), and the schools (Have Nots). According to the findings from the same Verizon Foundation survey, "...more than half of all middle school students (54%) say they are not allowed to use laptops in the classroom for learning purposes, (68%) of students are not allowed to use a tablet for learning purposes, and (88%) say they are not allowed to use smartphones for learning in the classroom." (Page 3, Sarmiento and Glauber)
How can we, as educators, address the new digital divide and close the gap between technology use at home and at school? Educational apps and websites, like Wonderopolis, are at the tips of our students' fingers. The digital world is waiting. As teachers, we have the power to unlock the wonders of learning. So, what is stopping us?