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Bridging the New Digital Divide

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TECHNOLOGY CLASSROOM
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This article was originally published on Edutopia.

At the highest performing urban school in the city of Providence, Rhode Island, the mantra when it comes to education is "children always come first." And it isn't easy.

Like most public charter schools, the Paul Cuffee School strives to provide the same excellence in educational technology as nearby public schools, but because resources must primarily be allocated to paying salaries and leasing school buildings, extra money for technology is scarce.

Michael Obel-Omia, Head of School at Paul Cuffee, is constantly analyzing the needs of his students and faculty within the context of a long-range plan for IT integration that skates on a shoestring budget. His fundamental question?

In March of 2010, no one had even heard of an iPad. Now, almost three years later, there are well over 50 million of them. This is new technology, and the computing world has so much fluidity. How do I know that something newer won't take its place after my school has sacrificed to make a huge investment in tablets? The Amazon Kindle is less money than the iPad, but will it survive? The HP tablet was taken off the market! This is like choosing VHS or Beta. What if we choose wrong?

This anxiety might be found in any public school, but in a socioeconomically disadvantaged school like Paul Cuffee, with a population that includes 89 percent racial minorities, 77 percent students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and 46 percent from families living in deep poverty (with household incomes at less than half the federal poverty level), the stakes are exceptionally high when spending decisions are made. An iPad does not cost $500, even if that's what it says on the sticker. It costs $500 plus the expense of training, IT support and eventual upgrade or replacement. Technology purchases must be made wisely and strategically, and there is no room for error. According to Obel-Omia:

Technology is a tool, not a solution. What really matters in the classroom is teacher quality -- the human component of education. While we must prepare our students to be successful in a high-tech world, for this population of kids, there really is nothing more important than excellent teachers. There is no metric for how they "ignite the flame." We must make tough choices here.

The term "digital divide" used to refer to whether classrooms had computers and Internet connections. Today, there is a new kind of digital divide. Now that most American schools have basic hardware and connectivity, there is a sharp socioeconomic division between those that have savvy tech professionals and the high-speed connections that can support WiFi-dependent tablets or laptops, and those that lack these basic internal support structures for individual student devices, let alone the funds to purchase them for all students.

Further, there is a divide between those students who have parents able to support their technology use and learning at home, and those who do not. At Paul Cuffee, parents tend to be "connected" in that they have smartphones and computers, but they are often unable to supervise their children's understanding and use of technology at home due to a variety of cultural, economic and educational factors. This practice at home is critical to a child's ability to take advantage of what is taught in school. As schools become more technologically advanced, many homes do not keep up.

Then there are the trade-offs all schools face when allocating instructional time. As Obel-Omia explains:

It may be sexy and exciting to put a laptop or iPad into every student's hand. But if it doesn't teach critical thinking, reflection, compassion, citizenship -- is this the best investment for these kids? Skilled adults are needed in the lives of students to make an iPad more than a toy.

And if you ask the teachers and administrators at Paul Cuffee how they rank the priorities, you will hear the same conversations over and over about the pressing need for students to have "authentic experiences" such as field trips. For these teachers, virtual experiences on the computer take a back seat to real visits to museums, libraries and other cultural institutions that fit seamlessly into the daily lives of most middle- and upper-middle-class children.

In any discussion about technology involving the phrase "education will be revolutionized," one has to wonder how to strike the optimal balance between the virtual world and the real world for each child. Obel-Omia concludes:

There's a car commercial that talks about how the car can be used to "explore the world wide world," as opposed to the World Wide Web. I feel it's our responsibility to help our students unplug and explore their world. It's so amazing. Our kids live only a few miles from the beach, yet many of them have never seen the ocean until we take them there.

How might we best strike that balance between virtual and "real" world, particularly for more disadvantaged kids? Have you seen any good examples you'd like to share?

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