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Teaching in the Digital Divide

posted Oct 19, 2015, 7:46 AM by Shawn Beard

What is the Digital Divide?

For many years, teachers have battled the divides that exist due to race, poverty, and class.  These difficulties have created situations - either socially or politically - that made getting an education very difficult.  But today, even though these difficulties still exist, we endure a different type of divide between students - the Digital Divide.

The Digital Divide exists when students, due to poverty or other reasons, do not have access to the internet or a computer, or who do not have the skills necessary to make use of that technology.  While this is not a new problem (it became a widely used term in the 1990s), it is one that becomes ever more evident when schools begin implementing more technology in the classroom.  It became more to our teachers when we began an initiative to use Google Apps for Education in our district.  While many students do have access to internet, computers, and mobile devices, there still exists a small number of students who do not have the tools they need to implement GAFE Tools outside of the classroom.  And then there  are some that have the tools, but due to their locale ( a rural address), they simply don't have good access to the internet because the infrastructure has not caught up with use.  

To battle this issue, many creative approaches have been implemented with the goal of bridging the gap. For example, some communities across the country have written grants to create citywide free WiFi for residents.  The problem is that this is simply not feasible for all communities, and teachers need solutions now.  

What can we do differently?


  • Schools battle budget limits that create constraints on how much and what type of technology they can place in their buildings.  Faced with adding mobile technology to their menu of offerings, IT directors and schools simply don't have enough and the answer becomes "No" for mobile technology.  One thing that schools can do is to make a shift from spending dollars on outdated technology and workhorse computers that must be replaced every 5 years at a cost of $700- $1000 per machine.  By shifting to iPads or Chromebooks, schools can save a few dollars, and create a mobile climate that allows students and teachers to conduct learning in ways that seem more appropriate and normal (see 4 Benefits of having Mobile Technology in the Classroom), as opposed to being tied to a computer.  This year, our district made a shift from placing these machines in libraries, and began replacing them with Chromebooks.  By doing this, it created a cost savings for our district, and it gave the librarians the ability to check out Chromebooks to teachers and students, helping them to gain access during lunch, and before or after school.  

  • Some schools have gone the extra mile, and have initiated 1:1 programs, in which each student is given a mobile device which they can use during the school day. This is supported by a building or district wide WiFi signal that students can use all day long.  


  • For students who do not have access to mobile devices or internet at home, the difficulty is extreme, especially when a school has implemented a district wide technology initiative requiring students to use technology.  For a teacher, it can become a tipping point in which they give up all too easily on technology, because kids do not have access.  For example, lets say a teacher assigns an online quiz using Google Forms.  Students must complete this quiz by the next day, but you already have two or three students who say they can't because they don't have a computer at home.  Because this occurs regularly, and the teacher plans on using these tools every week, in addition to projects and essays, it become frustrating very quickly.  Rather than give up, teachers can do the following:
    • Use the school's computer lab for quizzes
    • Check out a mobile device cart if your school has one.
    • Assign take home quizzes and give students up to 2-3 days to complete it, with the expectation that they use the library to access the quiz.
    • Open your classroom early in the morning to allow students access if they need it.
    • Write a grant for mobile devices in your classroom.
  • One thing I always think about when it comes to student and parent complaints about completing projects, essays, and quizzes using technology, is that there was a time when all of us had to make a trip down to the public library to complete a research project.  This usually involved a trip downtown and required that we get a library card.  This was more of an expectation by our teachers rather than a request.  Libraries have computers that students can use to get online, so when it is time to complete a project and you don't have access, it is time to take a trip to the library.

Parent Teacher Organizations

  • PTA and PTO organizations can help by donating mobile devices (old iPods or iPads) to help create access.  In a case such as this, where donated items are given to the school, you'll want to keep the following in mind:
    • Make sure the device is wiped of any personal data or has been reset to factory conditions.
    • Check with the school's IT department to see if they can help manage donated devices.
    • Check with the district about their policy on donated items.

Training and Access for Parents

  • As mentioned in the opening paragraph, part of the divide involves the lack of skills required to use technology.  Helping our students requires that we not only understand the technology we expect students to use, but that we use it regularly enough that students become accustomed to its use.  Along with that, schools can also help by providing free training for parents.   If parents are able to use technology and gain the skills to do so, they will also be more supportive of their students using it, and may see the benefit of making it available in the home.  As well, by providing services to parents after school and one or more evenings a week, schools can also help parents with important processes such as applying for student aide or filling out ACT applications.