Education in Spring 2020: The Digital Divide

When I started working in educational technology, scholars and practitioners were concerned with the “digital divide” that existed in schools. Some populations (white, male, and rich) were more likely to have access to computers in schools. When it was first recognized, the digital divide was specific to access to hardware at school.

Over time, schools were able to address this digital divide as school and technology leaders were able to document all students had access to hardware. (Obviously, we could debate the dubious data used to claim the first digital divide had been addressed. I suspect the digital divide is still well-entrenched even though all students may be looking at screens during their school day… even before the move to emergent remote teaching.)

Scholars began to define the digital divide in new terms. While some students used Chromebooks to access “drill-and-kill” sites, others used them (or even Macintosh computers) to learn multimedia design which was integrated into their courses. The nature of the technology-rich teaching and learning became the basis for the second definition of the digital divide. Some students experienced deep learning; others experienced inert learning.

In spring 2020, we learned the digital divide remains. The move to “remote learning” is much easier for those who have broadband access to the Internet in the places where they live. (Notice, as well, my assumption in the previous sentence that students have a single or even any place where they live.) As schools became one-to-one institutions and each learner was provided with a device to use at school and moved communications with families, instruction, grades, and other aspects of teaching and learning and schooling online, they effectively shut large populations of students off from the school unless they were at the school.

In 2020, the digital divide extends beyond campus. If educators are to reason, “digital tools, and digital literacy, and digital information is essential for learning,” then society must accept the cost of providing Internet access as a public service. Roads and highways are provided by and for the public and the “information superhighway” (a term that originated when we sought to address the first digital divide) must be provided in the same manner. We must also resolve to provide devices to connect to those parts of the classroom that extend into online spaces.

These issues are larger than the public school; educators may not have “been paid” to advocate for such initiatives in the past, but just as they now have the responsibility to speak out about the current digital divide. This is as much an problem educators must resolved as the original disparate access to hardware inside their buildings.