What the Digital Divide Teaches Us About Teaching Technology Skills

Flashback to the mid-1990’s – Vanilla Ice released Ice Ice Baby; Ross and Rachel were on a break; and Google, Amazon, and Hotmail (RIP) graced the internet. Oh, the memories. At the same time – and connected to accelerating internet technologies like Google – a digital gap began to emerge. 

As personal computer and internet access became readily available, there was also an observed disparity between access to technology and socioeconomic status. Scholars, policy makers, and advocacy groups referred to this as the “digital divide.” To combat this issue, many school districts began investing in both broadband internet and classroom technology.

Introducing the New Digital Divide

Today, more than 99 percent of K12 public schools in the US are connected to the internet, in large part thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s congressionally mandated “E-Rate” program, which went into effect in 1998.

School districts continue to spend billions each year on hardware, broadband, maintenance, and EdTech software. During the 2015-16 school year alone, 46 percent of districts increased their spending on hardware which included tablets, laptops, and desktop computers.

Though broadband use and school hardware availability are at an all-time high, a new digital divide has appeared. This is despite the myth that the ubiquity of cellphones, social media, and other online platforms in students’ daily lives means students are digitally adept at navigating complex technology landscapes. Indeed, many students still do not have the basic technology skills they need for success in school and in their future careers.


The Cost of Lagging Technology Skills

This digital skills gap is apparent in recent analysis of scores earned by students on online versus paper versions of assessments developed by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

For example, students who took the 2014-15 PARCC exam on a computer tended to score lower than those who took the same test using paper and pencil. In 2016, a district in Arizona conducted a study that showed those with strong technology skills scored higher than those with marginal or low digital literacy skills on their state’s online assessment, suggesting a connection between these skills and performance on online assessments.

Lagging technology skills haunt students as they move between grades and schools. Moreover, if students don’t develop a strong foundation with technology starting in elementary school, the digital divide will only widen as they continue in school. If students enter high school or college without proper technology skills, they will not be able to meet the expectations of their classes, such as using word processing and spreadsheet programs, conducting research to identify credible online sources, and typing notes at the speed of a garrulous professor’s lecture.

The impact of this technology skills gap is also significant for individuals entering the workforce. By 2020, it is estimated that nearly 80 percent of jobs will require some level of technology proficiency. Productivity lost due to low technology skills is estimated to cost the US economy $1.3 trillion each year. And time wasted as a result of inadequate digital skills adds up to 21 percent of a worker’s time, costing businesses roughly $10,000 per employee annually.

Obstacles to Teaching Technology Skills

Two common barriers to providing students with quality digital literacy instruction are inadequate teacher training and the lack of a standardized curriculum at most schools. Compared to core curriculum areas, teachers are often not provided specific training on teaching technology skills or any sort of curriculum to follow.

When this happens, teachers are essentially required to create their own curriculum by sifting through thousands of online resources. Vetting the quality and grade appropriateness of these items and creating lessons from scratch is laborious and time-consuming. As a result, students may encounter uneven quality of instruction.

Supported Teachers Lead to Equitable Instruction

In an effort to tackle this technology skills gap, many states have adopted national standards or created their own state standards that require specific technology skills be addressed within core subject areas.

For this to be effective, districts need to provide teachers with training, which includes best practices for using technology in the classroom, technology implementation models to follow, and clear guidelines for teaching technology skills, as well as a standardized curriculum for use across the district and ongoing support. When teachers feel included in the discussion about the role of technology in their school and are provided with the right support, they will feel empowered to introduce new concepts to their students.

It is clear that this new digital divide will not be bridged simply by providing students with more access to technology. By addressing the issues of teacher preparation and a non-standardized curriculum, districts will make great strides toward ensuring all students will be given an equal opportunity to develop the digital literacy skills they need to succeed in the classroom, during online assessments, and later in life.

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