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The realities of the “digital divide” are increasingly apparent. In a consumer culture that equates status with early adoption of the newest iPhone, access to new technology necessarily splits pretty clearly along socio-economic class lines. According to U.S. census data, for example, more than 30 million homes have no broadband access, most of them concentrated in some of the poorest parts of the country.

Even in schools, technological innovation tends to trickle down from the affluent to the disadvantaged. Only 54 percent of middle school and high school teachers surveyed thought their students “have sufficient access to digital tools at school,” according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, and 84 percent said that “today’s digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts.”

Monday, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $1.5 billion increase in the spending cap (to $3.9 billion yearly) for the Federal initiative to bring high-speed Internet access to all schools.

Digital divide in education
(Photo by Sarah Garland)

If access to technology is not distributed equally, then neither is access to digital literacy – mastery of the skills essential for roles in tomorrow’s economy. In his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made a similar point, explaining that Bill Gates’ elite exposure to a school computer club gave him an unprecedented opportunity to practice with computer technologies, and thus a headstart on the future. Gates told Gladwell, “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time.”

Today, educators and policy makers understand the advantage that privileged students like Gates have. However, I’m not entirely sure that they are asking all of the right questions about it.

The notion of digital literacy, or “Information, Communications, and Technology Literacy” (ICT Literacy), usually takes into account the vocational skills required to operate digital machines or the intellectual skills required to program or ‘code’ them. The concept does not account for the social and intellectual advantages that are available to affluent students with access to more, and better integrated, educational technologies.

In other words, it is not only about skills, but also about cognition, etiquette, motivation, socialization and culture — the context within which one uses the tools.

Put simply, because rich kids have better access to digital tools, they are learning to think behave, and make meaning in ways that will likely correlate with elite status and success in the future. Poor kids are not learning the same things.

This discrepancy is barely being addressed, because sometimes, in our enthusiasm to improve teaching and learning, we forget that school is not only about the academic content and the vocational skills. It is also about the context of the classroom — what students learn from interacting with one another and with the tools of their learning environment.

For example, imagine the difference between a classroom that is full of seamlessly integrated technology — laptops, desktops, tablets — and the classroom that only has one or two obsolete candy-colored iMacs on a shelf lining the back wall. In the affluent classroom, perhaps students regularly benefit from digital simulations and game-based learning. They have access not only to cutting-edge educational content, but also to the psychological, social and emotional benefits of digital game play.

A recent study from the American Psychological Association (APA) identified some of the cognitive, motivational, emotional and social benefits of gaming. Not only do digital games improve attention, focus and reaction time, they also have motivational benefits, it reported. They teach players to understand that the ability to master a skill set is the result of intentional practice rather than innate ability — they promote an incremental, rather than an entity theory of intelligence. In addition, the APA study points out that digital games have been shown to improve emotional intelligence by inducing positive mood states and possibly helping kids develop adaptive emotion regulation. Emotional intelligence, of course, is linked the ability to experience empathy, which influences social interaction. These cognitive, motivational, social and emotional skills are the building blocks of 21st Century skills.

Popular education writers and reformers seem to have collectively adopted the term “21st Century skills.” Literally thousands of articles are written about these skills. But many are not skills in the vocational sense of the word. Instead, they are social and emotional skills. Most lists of 21st Century skills include critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, cross-disciplinary thinking. All of these depend on one’s ability to use ideas and tools adaptively and in context. The context of the classroom, therefore, plays an enormous role not only in the development of reason and cognition, but also in the development of skills that are traditionally associated with personal identity and social mores.

The great educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky often used the term “social environment” to refer to the non-academic influences that are both intentionally and unintentionally facilitated by schools. Classroom design is part of the social environment, along with the teacher/student power structure, the popularity dynamics within a peer group and many other factors.

Vygotsky understood education as the process through which individuals learn how to adapt and use inherited knowledge systems within particular social environments – that is, how to use content in context. “The student’s experience, the formation of conditional reflexes, is determined wholly and without exception by the social environment,” Vygotsky wrote. “The social environment is the true lever of the educational process, and the teacher’s overall role reduces to adjusting this lever.”

Borrowing from Vygotsky, it is useful for us to understand that the digital divide is first and foremost a social environment divide. Researchers, however, have only barely considered the deep consequences of the social environment disparity that results from unequal exposure to educational technologies.

Digital tools are not only changing the way we learn, they are also changing the way we behave. Students who learn with laptops, tablets and other digital devices will internalize particular social and emotional skills, specific thought patterns and ways of interacting with the world that will eventually become the new ‘ordinary.’ Students who do not have access to these technologies, or who receive exposure only in a minimally integrated way, will find themselves disadvantaged.

Guest columnist Jordan Shapiro teaches in Temple University’s Intellectual Heritage Department, and studies and writes frequently about game-based education and digital learning.

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  1. Much has been written about the academic advantages of students in affluent educational settings with respect to their access to digital devices. However, little has been said about the social and emotional skills developed through the use of digital learning. As a principal working to implement a 1:1 digital learning initiative in a rural high poverty high school, I am intrigued by this additional layer of benefit access to digital learning can provide. Digital equity truly is a social justice issue!

  2. “The concept [of ICT] does not account for the social and intellectual advantages that are available to affluent students with access to more, and better integrated, educational technologies.”

    Not to quibble with an otherwise interesting article … but the impact of effective ICT integration on digital inclusion, and related discourse about potential implications for educators, is discussed in some form by dozens of ICT scholars. Castells, Tilly, Warschauer, van Dijk, Mossberger, DiMaggio, Garip, and Hargittai (among others) have all referenced how unequal access to ICTs and social inclusion-exclusion dynamics reinforce and reproduce preexisting contours of inequality, in the classroom as elsewhere in society.

    To your larger point, it’s a sad reality that industry groups like SIIA are proud to trumpet how assessment software is leading the charge in the education software sector (see their latest “Behind the Data” report). The idea of introducing game theory and other interactive tools as a medium for teaching noncognitive skills is a compelling one. But unless software packages align with the CCSSO’s and NCLB’s testing agenda, and cause publishers like Pearson to sit up and take notice, IMO they’re not going to gain much traction in places like LAUSD — let alone smaller school districts.

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