Bridging the Digital Divide in the Classroom


I teach Freshman Writing at a rural, regional state institution. Our service region is one of the poorest in the country. Many of our students come from rural, Title I schools (heck, even the school here in town is a Title I school). Our service area is also a place where high-speed has not yet reached, and data plans on mobile phones remain too expensive for many families. A majority of my students come to me having only experienced educational technology as films projected on SmartBoards or Drill-and-Kill style test-preparation software.

But as we recruit students from outside our service area and outside our state (for their out-of-state tuition revenue and to keep our enrollment numbers up), we are getting more and more middle-class, suburban students who are more technologically savvy. This can cause a great deal of tension within the classroom community; there can be a lot of shame around admitting you’ve never owned a computer or don’t know what Tumblr is. As an instructor it is also a challenged to try and design assignments that are both challenging and doable for the majority of the students; many of my students who go home on weekends can’t complete assignments, or they are overwhelmed by everything they don’t know.

One strategy that I have employed is to hold all of my classes in a computer lab on campus and allow time in class for students to complete their assignments. This way, I am also on hand (along with a tech person) to help them with any problems they have, be it technical or more related to the topic at hand (in my case, writing). This past fall, I incorporated a “how-to” assignment for the students. They have to choose a tech tool (it could be hardware or software) to introduce, explain how to use, and then also explain how it could be used to help them in their education (study aid, networking tool, publishing, etc). Their audience is their fellow classmates.

They are free to choose whatever means they want to create this how-to guide: video, podcast, website, PowerPoint or other presentation software, or even just a plain old Word document. We discuss what makes a good “how to” document, how to best incorporate visuals, and, once they have chosen a tool, figure out how it can be used to assist in their education and learning. We then share our documents with the class in mini-presentations, allowing the students to receive feedback and go back to refine their final document.

But it also allows for me to see who is more comfortable using technology, who uses technology well, and who is pushing themselves in these areas. It allows for students to learn from one another, as well as break down barriers between various class (and skills) divisions. I am pushed, too, to learn about potential new tools that I can incorporate into my own pedagogy, taking into account how the students view these tools, so I can introduce them more effectively. For example, they don’t like Twitter, but Pinterest is a big hit for the moment; the great thing about this assignment is that I can also stay current as to “what kids are into these days,” specifically the kids that matter the most to me: my students.  

It is one small step, but one that the majority of my students seem to enjoy, and it opens up a conversation about how they approach and use technology in their lives and breaks down the barrier between using technology “for fun” and using technology “for school.” New tools and methodologies are introduced, but it doesn’t come form the top-down (me dictating what tools they must use) but organically from their peers. I am still there to push them, asking the hard questions to get them to think about issues of privacy, security, utility, accessibility, etc, but these discussions are initiated by their own interests, skill-level, and creativity.

How do you deal with the issues of unequal access and experiences with technology in your classroom? 

Photo Credit: athena. via Compfight cc

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