Tackling the Digital Divide: Low-Income Students Weigh In

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The article For Low Income Kids, Access to Devices Could Be the Equalizer raised the possibility that mobile technology in classrooms could help narrow the digital divide between the nation’s low-income and more affluent students. The article, which included suggestions for educators about how to access devices and what do with them, struck a chord with readers. Many were outraged that some students are missing out on valuable learning resources because of their families’ socio-economic status, while others worried that bringing mobile devices into the classroom – any classroom – invites chaos.

"The internet is the modern day encyclopedia,” wrote commenter Patrick Hopkins, who grew up in a single-parent low-income household, and now teaches in an upper-middle class school district. Hopkins' students are allowed to use their mobile devices in school after registering them with the administration, opening up opportunities for students to direct their own learning and take advantage of the internet's vast trove of information. Hopkins noted many schools don’t have those same advantages, like his alma mater.

“Attending school in a dilapidated building with poor heating, and non-existent cooling systems, coupled with broken windows that were replaced with sheet metal, instead of glass, weighed heavy on a student’s psychic,” he wrote. “Student learning and teacher morale take heavy tolls in these types of environments. Without adequate learning resources and safe and secure learning environments low income student cannot compete in today’s society.” Hopkins points that schools can't even meet these basic infrastructure needs, let alone student access to technology resources.

Many readers commented that all students should be given access to the internet and the devices that supply them, but fewer accepted the assertion made by Michael Mills, a professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas, that race plays a role in whether teachers trust students to use devices responsibly.

“[The article] stated that schools do not allow students of color to use their mobile devices because they think they will not use them in appropriate ways. I do not believe this is true at all,” wrote Amanda Phillips. “I think it is our job as teachers to set the ground rules and expectations of using these types of devices in class before they are even allowed to bring them. Each student should get an equal chance to bring and use their device in class; race should have nothing to do with it.”

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Phillips' comment was echoed by several readers who agreed that the bigger issue is how to set a structure for kids to use their own devices appropriately.

“It doesn't matter where a child comes from, there are issues beyond being able to have kids have access to devices,” wrote Allie Kohl. “Implementing devices into the school throws a lot of red flags and makes it hard for teachers to really ensure that students are being productive and honest with the stuff they are getting accomplished on the devices at hand.”

Despite the concerns raised about how students would use mobile technology in the classroom, most commenters, whether teachers or interested readers, felt students should have access to devices in school. If students don’t own those devices, many felt the school should find ways to provide them.

TRUSTING STUDENTS

For some readers, it comes back to the issue of trust.

“I like how the point about trusting the students was brought up,” wrote Olivia Richard. “I find this extremely important when talking about BYOD [Bring Your Own Device]. Teachers must have an abundant amount of trust in their students that they are staying on task when using their own devices in the classroom.” And, to some extent, building that trust takes a leap of faith. No teacher will know if mobile technology could work in his classroom if he doesn’t start from the assumption that it might and take a leap of faith.

Some of the article’s suggestions for narrowing the digital divide struck a chord with Amanda Williams, who grew up with limited access to computers and the internet while in high school, making it challenging for her to finish assignments. She agrees that teachers need to show discretion when talking about the kids who don’t have access to devices so they don’t accidentally embarrass students. In her experience grouping students together to maximize devices in the classroom would be a great idea.

[RELATED: Internet Access for All: A New Program Targets Low-Income Students]

“Overall it is important to value all students -- technology or no technology,” Williams wrote. “It is a great resource but should never be required to use in the classroom unless the school is providing the tools.”

Commenter Trevor Cline also had few resources as a student. “I grew up in a school where we did not use technology very much and this made me be behind somewhat once I got to college,” he wrote. “Once I got to college almost everything was done through technology and I was learning as we went with a lot of the technology programs.” Cline’s comment points to the need to prepare students not only to get to college, but to be able to keep up once there.

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At this point, computers are required to complete assignments in the upper grades, but many schools aren’t all able to provide devices for every student. That makes it difficult for teachers who’d like to take advantage of the independent and self-directed learning opportunities that technology can offer. As Hopkins noted, it might be common in a more affluent public school, but impossible to contemplate in many lower-income schools that are still grappling with finding resources for basic needs. Getting to a point where teachers trust students enough to let them use whatever devices they do have, and creatively managing and grouping their use could be a starting point to get past the inequalities.

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