Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled Bonnie Bracey Sutton’s name.
The “digital divide”—a focus of national attention in the 1990s—has slipped to the policy periphery since the start of this decade. But dozens of educators who gathered here recently for a “Digital Equity Summit” agreed that gaps in access to computer technologies and digital media have not gone away, and that it is time to get them back onto policymakers’ radar screens.
“There’s definitely been a loss of momentum,” said Jerry Crystal, a “technology integration coach” for magnet schools in the Hartford, Conn., school district. The divide, he added, has been overshadowed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the demands that its accountability requirements have placed on school resources.
Mr. Crystal was one of about 90 educators at the June 23 summit, which fell one day before thousands poured into the city for the National Educational Computing Conference, the nation’s biggest annual conference on educational technology in K-12 education.
Critics of the “digital divide” concept say it has disappeared as low-income and racial-minority families have acquired computers, and as state and federal money, from such sources as the E-rate program, has been used to redress technology imbalances among rich and poor school districts.
But Bonnie Bracey Sutton, an educator and long-time activist on this issue, said at the gathering that some progress in closing the divide is slipping away. “There’s a new divide developing around Internet 2 and Web 2.0,” she said, referring to the latest generation of online technologies, including videos, social networks, and software that allows students to work collaboratively.
Defining the Divide
The digital-equity gathering was hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education, a Washington-based membership organization that also hosts NECC. The larger conference, which runs through June 25, is expected to attract more than 18,000 educators and company representatives to a feast of the latest education-related gadgets and software, and of speakers and workshops on the intricacies of using them in running schools and improving educational outcomes.
Debates over the digital divide have been dogged by disagreements over how the gap is defined, and therefore quantified, as a report that the ISTE released at the summit suggested. “Though an exact definition remains elusive, the term ‘digital divide’ generally refers to the disconnect that occurs between those with access to technology and those without, while recognizing the myriad factors that can have an impact on that inequity,” the report states.
Rather than the “divide,” most participants used the term “digital equity,” which the report defined as much by educational outcomes as technological inputs. “When considering the role of technology in development of the 21st-century learner, digital equity is more than a comparable delivery of goods and services, but fair distribution based on students’ needs,” the report says.
The report, “A National Consideration of Digital Equity,” offered ideas for addressing the digital divide, such as using project-based learning to “explore the intellectual capacity of non-English speaking students,” providing open labs after school and on weekends, and tapping local colleges and universities to help with technology training for teachers.
Speakers at the digital-equity summit underscored what they described as the technological malnutrition that continues to put children who belong to racial or ethnic minorities, are female, or come from low-income families at educational disadvantage.
“Why are the same children losing out, as we keep redefining the digital divide?” asked Sylvia G. Rousseau, a professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, in her keynote speech at the digital-equity gathering.
Gaps in Use
Arguing that technology has posed particular educational and social problems for disadvantaged children, Ms. Rousseau sketched a history of technology’s negative impact on African-Americans, sweeping the cotton gin, the Cadillac automobile, movies and television, the boom box, the iPod, and drill-and-practice software into her analysis.
“As much as I admire technology … it has a mixed history in the way it has impacted our lives,” she said.
And she pointed to contemporary technology—including television, video games, the Web, and educational software—as reinforcing a cultural “construct” of race, class, and gender that sets limitations for the academic achievement of disadvantaged children. “The issue isn’t all technology,” she said, “yet in this day, it has everything to do with technology.”
In today’s schools, Ms. Rousseau said, low-income children of color too often are using educational software that has them engage in skill and fact drills rather than in creative, “constructivist” experiences more often available to white or middle-class children.
Her point resonated with Mr. Crystal, the technology-integration coach from Hartford.
After the session, he said school districts were spending their educational technology budgets on “drill and kill” tools because of the overwhelming pressure to meet federal requirements.
“The focus on NCLB is like just looking at the blue threads in a tapestry; you don’t see that [student achievement] is a manifestation of lots of other areas,” Mr. Crystal said. With a broader focus and more creative tools, disadvantaged students miss out on important learning modes, such as cooperative learning and sharing ideas with others, he said.
Not all educators agree that drill technology is a bad thing; some say that with powerful data-collection systems and a focus on key building blocks of learning, drilling students is a valuable use of technology. That perspective, however, was not voiced at the summit.
‘Being a Nerd”
The roundtable discussions that followed the keynote speech highlighted various aspects of the digital divide. Those included the special needs of rural schools; the need to rally local school leaders; programs to refurbish computers or subsidize technology for needy individuals; concerns about technology’s impact on Native American culture; and the importance of including students in decisionmaking.
Among the sessions at the gathering was a panel discussion involving four African-American students from three Atlanta public schools who discussed their avid use of video games, iPods, music-editing software, and the Web, for entertainment as well as schooling.
“Me being a nerd helps me,” said Akanima Effang, who attends a high-tech high school in Atlanta. “I get good grades.”
Another student, Lamar Richardson, said his love of video games gave rise to his interest in robotics and an ambition to create his own video games. But he learned that technology was not always educationally optimal, at least for him, when he took an online course: “I found it difficult to learn, because you couldn’t see your teacher.”
Lauren Alford, another panelist, acknowledged that she and the other panel members were privileged, and advised the participants to “focus on getting technology to more schools that don’t have it.”