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Bridging the Digital Divide in Classrooms

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Every teacher faces moments when it seems difficult (if not impossible) to engage students. This issue is crucial when we think about the importance of students becoming 21st-century explorers of knowledge.

In many classrooms, existing technologies are underused. But connected technology— the umbrella term for using computers, cell phones, and the Internet to extract or share knowledge—is essential for helping students connect with resources and expand their critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills.

Here are a few considerations that teachers should keep in mind as they think about ways to integrate technology into the classroom.

Increasing Access to Technology

In districts where technology spending has been cut and expansion has slowed to a crawl, teachers are searching for ways to connect their classrooms. As a result, many teachers have to create their own technology supply or provide administrators with alternatives for placing devices into students’ hands.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device): BYOD provides an opportunity for students to use their own devices in class. This is a great option because students are already familiar with the device, and districts don’t have to foot the bill.

Considerations to keep in mind: Classrooms need a reliable wireless Internet connection, and teachers need a plan for utilizing technology for maximum effect. Supporting different devices also requires basic knowledge in troubleshooting and the limitations of devices.

In my own classroom, I find that differences in platforms (Mac. vs Windows) limit the apps or tools that I want to use with students. But I’ve also encountered two greater problems: students without devices and students unwilling to use their devices for school. The first issue can be resolved by having students share devices (if they’re willing). The second issue is slightly more nuanced. Some of my students had to be convinced to use their devices in class, which made me feel uncomfortable (after all, the devices didn’t belong to me). But that is a decision that schools, and, ultimately, teachers, must make for themselves.

Leasing programs: Leasing programs are enticing. They require a certain level of infrastructure while providing students with an opportunity to “lease” a device from the school at a lower cost.

Considerations to keep in mind: The initial cost of purchasing devices is high, and there is potential for student abuse. One strategy is to create a student-parent contract. Leasing payments help schools maintain technology by covering repair and replacement costs, while students and parents assume responsibility for individual devices. This allows students even greater access to technology (with a smaller long-term cost), as opposed to a “one-to-one” model of purchasing devices.

Computer labs: Most schools have computer labs. So how can teachers utilize these resources better?

Considerations to keep in mind: First, ensure that teachers are actually using the computer labs that already exist. If technology goes underused, those who hold the keys to the budget will be more resistant to increasing it. Second, teachers should create projects that center around concentrated use of labs, with thorough preparation and intense follow-up.

Time in the computer lab is usually limited. Students and teachers need to plan to make the most of it. For example, write down research questions in advance. It’s also helpful to scope out potential websites for students before using the lab. Narrowing the focus of lab time makes it more productive.

Building a Technology Environment

Marc Prensky brought to light a dichotomy within education that still exists for many teachers. Teachers who find technology to be somewhat of a foreign concept—digital immigrants—do not easily move through digital work environments or actively seek new tools and opportunities. Instead, they often translate digital work back into an “analog” format.

In contrast, digital natives—most students today—have grown up surrounded by digital technology. They have learned to adapt quickly to changing surroundings, and they feel comfortable in a digital space. They enjoy discovering new innovations that change the way that they live, work, and communicate.

One common analogy in comparing the two groups would be the way they edit papers. A digital immigrant would print a digital document and mark it up with a pen, whereas a digital native would use online reviewing tools (like Track Changes) to make edits.

So how do these concepts relate to the classroom? Teachers who find themselves speaking a different technology language than their students need support to take advantage of the power that technology can have on students’ growth and success. The process involves a few key steps:

A positive attitude. Be open to technology and the potential it holds.

Professional development. The learning curve for individual teachers varies significantly, with some requiring step-by-step assistance and others finding sessions an unproductive use of time. Using a peer network within schools to learn how to properly use devices—and find inspiration for using them in class—can provide a stopgap option in a collaborative working environment.

Allowing students (the digital natives) to lead technology use in the classroom. This can be empowering and exciting for both students and teachers. Students know what technology they prefer to use, what tools work best for them, and how to get the most out of the resources given to them. By allowing students to provide input in constructing activities, you will create a high level of engagement and commitment to learning.

A “no fear of failure” policy. Teachers need freedom to innovate and use failure as fuel for reflection and growth. Rewarding teachers who embrace technology through simple shout-outs at faculty meetings or notes of appreciation can build the foundation for a school culture in which students and teachers are creative and innovative.

Time to Act

Teachers should drive forward the movement to infuse with technology students’ learning and prepare them for collaborative 21st-century workplaces. In order to do so, they must proactively search for the personalized training they need to make this work possible.

Search for webinars that guide teachers through technology. Knock on the door of a helpful colleague. Keep an eye on blogs and social media to find teachers who actively use technology. It’s time to bridge the digital divide and bring education into the full power of 21st-century learning.

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