School & District Management Opinion

The Digital Fault Line: Parents, Teachers, and Normal

By Justin Reich — May 09, 2013 3 min read

This is the third post in a series about about Understanding Digital Inequalities, based on a workshop at the American Educational Researchers Association. The first post examined the the evolving Digital Fault Line, and the second post looked at Power, Policy, and Leadership. During this AERA workshop, we held an interactive, collaborative session to surface key themes related to the evolving digital divide (or what I call, the Digital Fault Line with its ever opening and closing divides). As presenters, we committed to producing a “flash publication” this week where we put our collective insights into writing and quickly get them out in the public sphere. In this final post, we report out on our discussions about parents and teachers and some of Mark Chen’s thoughts about the Normal and the Marginal. My hope is that for scholars, this provides an opportunity to document and extend our conversations. For practitioners, I hope this provides a more transparent window into how researchers are theorizing the evolving digital divide.

First, I want to share Mark Chen’s terrific visual summary of our conversation. It’s worth clicking on to see at full size. The main topic areas from our discussion are in blue, and then Mark highlighted our challenges and obstacles in orange and our opportunities and solutions in green. As you can see, digital inequality is a complex space, and the challenges and opportunities are linked in nuanced ways.


Mark recently posted some very provocative thoughts on his own blog about how the “normal” gets framed in discussions of inequality. He draws on his own doctoral research about World of Warcraft gamers to describe how changing technologies empower certain practices and marginalize others—a kind of meta-framing for change that’s helpful in thinking about the specific issues of social inequalities. He offers these provocative questions towards the end of his post:

I guess all this is to say that there's a lot more at stake than the simple construct of the "digital divide." Progress always leaves someone behind. Forming and reforming new ways of doing things will always marginalize someone. How as educators do we minimize this as much as possible, and when do we sit back and realize that the costs may not outweigh the benefits? How do we recognize when to intervene and in what ways?

Parents and Teachers

I facilitated a small group that discussed the domains of parents and teachers. If any single theme connected our ideas, it was that we can’t think of addressing digital inequalities exclusively at the level of the individual student. As I’ve written before, if it takes a village to raise a child, you have to teach the village. We discussed both the importance and the lack of intergenerational learning spaces and learning opportunities. We talked about the challenges of teacher training, where the teacher education curriculum is both very difficult to change in most institutions and yet in most programs teachers learn very little about new technologies, and the digital dimensions of social inequalities go unexamined.

We began to brainstorm ideas about design principles for effective interventions that reduce inequalities in digital learning; interventions that don’t just create new opportunities but create opportunities in ways that disproportionately benefit the students we most hope to serve. We discussed the importance of having work that is culturally situated and culturally responsive, engages participants in the design of new opportunities for learning, imagines possibilities for intergenerational learning, and ensures that learning opportunities are available in multiple languages and provide multiple access points for entry. These are only a few ideas, but they are beginning of what I think would be a very productive project to categorize the commonalities behind successful efforts to address divides along the digital fault line.

Janet Kolodner, of Georgia Tech and the National Science Foundation, offered some of the final words of our session. She suggested that we stop using one word that comes up frequently in these discussions: intervention. It’s a funny word to use in education, with a history (I think) from the psychology literature. People (myself included) use the term to mean an intentional effort to change someone’s thinking, behavior or learning, usually in the context of some kind of research study (e.g “the intervention in our experiment was giving child a mainframe computer and a stack of punchcards...”). Janet critiqued the word as both too cold and clinical and too modest. “We don’t need interventions; we need innovation.”

Many thanks to all of our participants for sharing their time and insight with us, and I look forward to staying in conversation.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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