Education Opinion

Teachers’ Perspectives on the Digital Divide

By Justin Reich — March 05, 2013 4 min read
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The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project continually delivers fascinating, high-quality research products. Their most recent study of teachers and technology surveyed several thousands teachers involved in Advanced Placement classes and the National Writing Project; they call them “leading edge” teachers. For me, the most interesting part of the report digs deeply into issues of technology and equity. One set of highlights includes these findings:

Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers’ experiences with using digital tools in their teaching vary in some notable ways depending on the socioeconomic status of the students they teach. Among these findings:

  • 70% of teachers working in the highest income areas say their school does a “good job” providing teachers the resources and support they need to incorporate digital tools in the classroom, compared with 50% of teachers working in the lowest income areas
  • 73% of teachers of high income students receive formal training in this area, compared with 60% of teachers of low income students
  • 56% of teachers of students from higher income households say they or their students use tablet computers in the learning process, compared with 37% of teachers of the lowest income students
  • 55% of teachers of higher income students say they or their students use e-readers in the classroom, compared with 41% teaching in low income areas
  • 52% of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students say their students use cell phones to look up information in class, compared with 35% of teachers of the lowest income students
  • 39% of AP and NWP teachers of low income students say their school is “behind the curve” when it comes to effectively using digital tools in the learning process; just 15% of teachers of higher income students rate their schools poorly in this area
  • 56% of teachers of the lowest income students say that a lack of resources among students to access digital technologies is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching; 21% of teachers of the highest income students report that problem
  • 49% of teachers of students living in low income households say their school’s use of internet filters has a major impact on their teaching, compared with 24% of those who teach better off students who say that
  • 33% of teachers of lower income students say their school’s rules about classroom cell phone use by students have a major impact on their teaching, compared with 15% of those who teach students from the highest income households

With these kind of survey data, one thing worth doing is comparing them with similar data in the recent past. So I looked back at the National Center of Education Statistics’ 2009 report on Teacher’s Use of Education Technology.

It’s hard to compare these kinds of data. The surveys ask different questions: Pew has more about teacher attitudes and NCES has more questions about specific technology applications and uses. The populations are different: NCES has a representative sample of all U.S. public school teachers, Pew has a special sample of two particular groups of teachers. The data were collected three years apart.

Some of the divides that emerge in the 2013 Pew study, didn’t appear in the 2009 NCES study. In the NCES study:

  • 48% of teachers in high-poverty schools use technology “often” versus 36% in low-poverty schools
  • 54% of teachers in low-poverty schools reported receiving 1-8 hours of edtech professional development and 35% of teachers reported receiving 9 or more hours. In low-poverty schools, 54% reported receiving 1-8 hours and 30% reported receiving 9 or more hours.
  • 82% of teachers in low-poverty schools reported their edtech professional development met their goals and needs. As did 80% of teachers in high-poverty districts.
  • 67% of teachers in low-poverty schools use technology to conduct research, compared to 64% in high-poverty schools.

To be sure, the NCES study identified some important gaps between teachers in different kinds of schools*, but these differences between the NCES and Pew findings are intriguing.

Are things getting worse? Are conditions for AP and NWP teachers worse than those for other teachers? Are the differences an artifact of how questions are asked as opposed to differences in actual conditions? Which questions produce results that are a better proxy for actual conditions, Pew’s questions about teacher attitudes or NCES’s questions about specific details of technology usage?

This is the part of the blog post where I wrap things up with a pithy statement about the key insights from comparing these studies. I have no such statement.

On the whole, these studies together point to different experiences for students in schools serving different populations. The exact nature of those differences is harder to pin down.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

* From the NCES study:
(Results differed by low and high poverty concentration of the school for the percentage of teachers that reported their students used educational technology sometimes or often during classes to prepare written text (66 and 56 percent, respectively), learn or practice basic skills (61 and 83 percent, respectively), and develop and present multimedia presentations (47 and 36 percent, respectively).

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