Classroom Technology

In Fla. Schools, Digital Divide Shifts From Access to Use, Research Finds

By Benjamin Herold — April 09, 2016 4 min read
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Washington, D.C.

Florida public schools have made dramatic strides in providing students with equitable access to computers, but a divide continues to separate how poor and more affluent students actually use that digital technology, according to new research presented here as part of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

The shape of the new digital divide: Lower-income Florida students are more likely to use software for drill-and-kill practice of basic skills than their more-affluent peers, who are more likely to use software in ways that foster creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

The disparity is particularly pronounced at the elementary level.

“Overall, access has improved in schools, and it is a much more encouraging situation than where we were just eight or nine years ago,” said Albert Ritzhaupt, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, in an interview.

“But our results also show that there are meaningful differences at other levels of the digital divide,” he said.

Ritzhaupt’s paper, titled “A Longitudinal Study of the Digital Divide in Florida Schools: Beyond Access,” was co-authored with Kara Dawson and Matthew Wilson of the University of Florida and Tina Hohlfeld of the University of South Florida. The study relies on seven years’ worth of survey data, which the state collected from public K-12 schools as part of Florida’s Technology Resource Inventory in each year from 2008-09 to 2014-15. All told, 2,244 schools from 67 districts are represented in the study.

The researchers’ analysis is based on a three-tiered model for understanding the digital divide:

  • Access to hardware, software, the Internet, and technology support within schools.
  • Integration of technology into the process of teaching and learning within the classroom.
  • Empowerment of students “to select and use [digital] tools seamlessly, just as they use pencil or pens, to accomplish their individual goals.”

Until recently, researchers and policymakers have been heavily focused on that first tier.

More recently, however, their attention has started turning to better understanding and addressing the reality that digital technologies inside schools are not used in the same ways or for the same purposes by all students.

One major example: In its new National Education Technology Plan, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted this “digital-use divide” and called for schools and teachers to promote more “active” uses of ed tech (such as coding, creative media production, design, and collaboration with experts.)

The new research from Ritzhaupt and his colleagues provide large-scale quantitative validation of that notion.

Among their findings:

  • Florida students’ access to computers (both desktops and laptops, including modern computers of both types that meet the state’s recommended specifications) inside school has increased dramatically since 2008, to the point that there are no statistically significant differences between schools serving poor and more affluent students. The researchers attribute this success in large part to Florida’s mandate that all schools administer state tests online.
  • Students in more-affluent elementary schools, however, had greater access to more software programs than students in lower-income elementary schools.
  • Teachers across all types of schools used software for administrative purposes (such as email or maintaining gradebooks) at high levels.
  • Teachers in lower-income schools were far more unlikely than their counterparts in more-affluent schools to use email, class websites, and other digital and online technologies to communicate with their students’ families. The researchers attributed this to continued large gaps in home access to, and use of, the Internet.
  • Students in lower-income elementary schools were consistently, statistically significantly more likely than their more affluent peers to use classroom software for “directed instruction” type activities, such as drill-and-practice.
  • Students in higher-income elementary schools, on the other hand, were more likely than their lower-income peers to use classroom software for “constructivist” purposes, such as creating (via software for painting/drawing and creating desktop videos and presentations), engaging with simulations, using tool-based software (such as graphic organizers, spreadsheets, and databases), and conducting research.
  • Students in more-affluent middle and high schools were also more likely than their lower-income peers to use classroom software for constructivist purposes, although the differences in most years were not statistically significant.

“The good news is that the digital divide for modern computers may have disappeared,” the researchers conclude, but “our data suggest that there is a consistent difference between high- and low-[income] schools at the elementary level in favor of [more-affluent] elementary schools.”

See also:

for live coverage of #AERA16.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.