Feb 28 2013

The Digital Divide Was Supposed to Be Closing. But Is It?

Survey of K–12 teachers says mobile technologies are essential, but when it comes to access, glaring socioeconomic disparities persist.

If I told you that a new survey released today reveals that teachers rely heavily on classroom technology, most of you would probably roll your eyes and yawn—or worse, tell me to find a new profession.

It’s pretty obvious. Technology is the reason you’re all here in the first place.

But here’s something that might surprise you: Despite the growing presence of technology in classrooms, 84 percent of middle and secondary teachers are concerned that the proliferation of mobile devices is contributing to the emergence of a new digital divide that undermines the progress and potential of America’s poorest schools.

The survey, from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, and conducted in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project (NWP), says that while 54 percent of middle and secondary Advanced Placement and NWP teachers believe their students have access at school to the technologies they need to succeed, just 18 percent believe their students have access to comparable resources at home.

“Teachers whose students are from the lowest income households feel they are at a disadvantage when it comes to using the Internet and other digital tools such as cell phones, tablet computers and e-readers to enhance the learning process,” said Kristen Purcell, associate director for research at the Pew Internet Project in a statement.

Her comments are striking, as are the survey’s findings, because they come at a time when many thought — thanks to the success of the federal E-Rate program and the advent of more affordable mobile technologies — that the access barrier between the haves and have-nots in K–12 schools was, at long last, a thing of the past.

Here’s a look at some of the survey’s key findings:

  • 73 percent of teachers say that they and/or their students use cell phones in the classroom or to complete assignments, according to the survey.
  • 45 percent of teachers say they use e-readers in class, while 43 percent use tablets with students to complete assignments.
  • 62 percent of teachers say their school does a “good job” when it comes to supporting efforts to integrate digital tools into the learning process. While 68 percent say their school provides formal training to do so.

But here’s where the digital divide comes into play:

  • The survey says teachers of students from low-income families are less likely than teachers of students from high-income families to use tablet computers (37 percent versus 56 percent) or e-readers (41 percent versus 55 percent) in their classrooms and on assignments.
  • More than half of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students (52 percent) indicate that students use cell phones to look up information in class, compared with just 35 percent of teachers in lower-income communities, according to the report.
  • While only 15 percent of teachers from high-income schools say their school is below grade or “behind the curve” when it comes to technology, 39 percent who teach students from low-income households say their school is behind the same curve.
  • 70 percent of teachers of high-income students say their school does a “good job” supplying the resources needed to bring digital devices into the classroom. That number drops to 50 percent when talking to teachers of students from low-income communities.
  • Teachers of low-income students are more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students (56 percent versus 21 percent) to report that a lack of access to technology is a “major challenge” to incorporating digital tools into their teaching, according to the report.

What do you think? Is the proliferation of mobile devices in education potentially contributing to a new digital divide? What can be done about it? Tell us in the Comments.


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