Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

While Celebrating Digital Learning, Remember the Digital Divide

obriena's picture

Tomorrow is the inaugural Digital Learning Day, a nationwide celebration of innovative teaching and learning through digital media and technology. New technologies are the future of learning, and it is inspiring to see how some teachers and schools are transforming the educational experience.

While celebrating these accomplishments, we must not forget that there are still a number of children who lack access to the promise that digital learning offers. Often, these children are also disadvantaged by virtue of their socioeconomic status.

Nick Pandolfo’s recent piece for The Hechinger Report really drives this point home. He highlights Bronzeville Scholastic Institute, a school that (according to the article) shares a homework lab with two others at Chicago’s DuSable High School campus – 24 computers for nearly a thousand students. Many of the school’s students (93% of whom receive free or reduced price lunch) cannot afford computers at home, and they do not have much access to them at school. Pandolfo writes that “Bronzeville Scholastic students born into a digital era struggle with basic skills, such as saving work to a flash drive and setting margins in Microsoft Word.”

Of course, not all schools in Chicago lack access to technology. The district has piloted one-to-one initiatives in several schools, and some city charter schools offer great opportunities for students to engage in digital learning.

And certainly many students in the greater Chicago area have good access to technology at school. In Deerfield Public Schools District 109, a district in the northern suburbs where 0% of students receive free or reduced price lunch (according to Greatschools), there are about 2,000 computer workstations for 3,100 students. Wilmette Public Schools District 39, another district in the northern suburbs where 0% of students receive free or reduced price lunch (again according to Greatschools), has at least one computer lab in each school, as well as laptops and some iPads for classroom use.  And my guess is that, unlike the students of Bronzeville Scholastic, these students also have access to technology at home.

Of course, there are many individuals and programs in our country working to close the digital divide. For example, Connect to Compete and Internet Essentials are offering low cost computers and Internet access to families of students that receive free or reduced price lunch. There are one-to-one technology programs, some of which target low-income students or all students in a school or district – or even state (think Maine, where 44.2% of students receive subsidized lunch and where in 2010 100% of all public middle schools participated in the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which equips all middle school students with learning technology).

Still, in looking at the technology offered in wealthy districts compared to poor schools like Bronzeville Scholastic, I get a bit concerned. The demographics of the students served by that school match up with those who have historically performed worse than their more-advantaged peers on academic assessments, as well as on other life outcomes. As learning and life become more dependent on the technology that they lack access to, are these students getting left further behind?

Tomorrow, in addition to celebrating the amazing accomplishments of schools, districts, teachers and students in digital learning, let’s take the opportunity to acknowledge that such learning opportunities are not yet universally available and call for more attention to be focused on closing the digital divide.

Photo from Ntgda