Learning to Mow the Grass


The original meaning of the Digital Divide (computer ownership) has shifted to other dimensions of technology: type of access, type of use, capability of effective use, level of computer knowledge, etc.  The most pervasive indication of the Digital Divide in my corner of higher education is the varying skill levels of our students.  Skill differences have been attributed to disparities among schools (ability to provide robust experience with technology) and differences in home environments (ability to provide support necessary to reinforce classroom learning), often tied to socioeconomic factors and the provision of various components:

·       Computers and software – quantity and quality

·       Infrastructure – robust and well-maintained

·       Access – connection speed (costs have increased along with speed), type of device

·       Support/reinforcement of skills and use (educational versus entertainment, etc.)

Differences also exist among faculty in ability and willingness to incorporate digital technology in their courses, but that is generally more generational than socioeconomic.  Digital literacy for both students and faculty falls along a continuum: Basic Literacy, Functional Literacy, and Fluency.

Improving digital literacy, like all learning, takes desire, time, effort, focus and discipline, especially when trying to attain mastery of new skills or material.  Just as reading carefully selected and assigned materials creates different knowledge and wisdom than recreational reading, not all time spent online leads to equal levels of digital literacy.  Although using any digital device will increase digital literacy, at least with thatdevice, time on social media does not translate into learning and honing one’s skills in searching databases for appropriate peer reviewed sources for a research paper.  Accessing the internet via a smartphone is not the same as using a desktop or laptop computer to create an in-depth report.

In formal education, discipline is initially imposed or modeled by a teacher or parent, then internalized as self-discipline.  Some researchers have found evidence of what they call a ‘time-wasting’ gap or divide, most noticeable along socioeconomic lines and often indicating a lack of self-discipline or parental oversight.  When considering spending decisions in schools, Michael Obel-Omia observes: “It may be sexy and exciting to put a laptop or iPad into every student's hand. But if it doesn't teach critical thinking, reflection, compassion, citizenship — is this the best investment for these kids? Skilled adults are needed in the lives of students to make an iPad more than a toy.”  (Day)
Balance between the desire to explore new horizons and the need for more focused work to reinforce higher level education based skills is important.  Desiring to connect with and keep up with friends, many students spend precious discretionary time on social media.  They learn skills for those sites extremely well, but not necessarily those needed for success in higher education.

When talking about work outcomes in her work as a corporate trainer, my sister uses the example of a six year old that really wants to mow the grass but lacks the skill versus a sixteen year old has the skill to mow the grass but lacks the desire – the results are amazingly similar.  The yard looks a mess because of the lack of a critical component, in one case skill (6-year old) and in the other, desire (16-year old).   The 6-year old, full of desire, eventually gains the necessary skill through practice and guided learning.  The same is true in the digital world.
People need both experience and access to gain the necessary skills to fully exploit digital resources.  Here are a few of the skills needed to help close the experiential digital divide:

1.     an idea of where to begin work on a digital project, whether it’s knowledge of software, how to use a database, or how to effectively and efficiently search the internet (using the same search string, my Google search and your Google search will NOT produce the same results – try it with a friend…),

2.     the ability to recognize the limits of the information at hand (point of view, bias, opinion versus research study),

3.     the skill or knowledge of what to do when one hits the wall or limit of information at hand, and

4.     the ability to deal with information overload.

Two ways libraries are working to increase access to materials are through support of open access journalsand digitization projects.  The former helps put scholarly materials into the hands of everyone, not just those who can afford to pay for subscriptions. The later helps bring valuable and often unique scholarly materials out of the necessary protective custody of Archives and Special Collections units.  The current project I coordinate, Berea Digital, is one such effort.   This and Berea College’s EDGE programthat provides each student with a laptop are ways Berea College is working to provide experience and access to our students, helping to close the experiential digital divide.
But still questions remain –

·       Which is more critical to learning – the desire and passion to learn that enlivens and sustains life-long learning or the skills that enable higher level/deeper engagement/learning, etc.?

·       Which are more important in the universe of digital media – do the skills fuel further desire to learn or does the desire to learn drive the willingness to conquer new skills?

·       Are experience and access two sides of the same coin in the process of learning new digital skills?  Are they so closely connected that one cannot easily take place without the other?

Lori Day, “Bridging the New Digital Divide,” Edutopia, 3 January 2013 <http://www.edutopia.org/blog/bridging-the-new-digital-divide-lori-day>.

Image by Clover_1 and available on Flickr. 


There are many great points here. Your response and an article I read recently for class (that suggests everyone should be learning code in the composition class) has me thinking about how we can bridge the skills that students have (the ability to post engaging content online) and the abilities they lack (searching through content, working outside of web 2.0 templates). I have given them activities on Boolean searches, but there seems to be more that can be done. The last time I taught I allowed students to use Storify to create arguments, but I think this can really be developed. 

As to your question, "Which are more important in the universe of digital media – do the skills fuel further desire to learn or does the desire to learn drive the willingness to conquer new skills?"--I wonder if the desire to produce is part of this. Learning is certainly not linear. We often pick up skills we didn't realize we needed when working on a new media (or any) project. I do think there is a lot to be said for the desire to produce in learning and thinking analytically. 

One of the unfortunate changes I've seen over the last 30 years is the decline in experiential opportunities students have at young ages. It seems as though the inability for young students to experiment with technology contributes to a suprising amount of anxiety towards playing with tech in later life.

For comparison's sake, by the end of primary school, I had already coded several simple programs in BASIC, used plotting programs to draw simple shapes, and wasted my weight in dot-matrix printer paper using the desktop publishing program. This was not a privileged school system by any means (at one, the whole school shared one computer wheeled around on a cart) but it seems as though allowing children to "get dirty" with technology was more of a priority. 

Today, my own children (the oldest in 5th grade) are limited to dull, pre-fab "learning games" that seem to be little more than extensions of the traditional learning experience. While they have more technology in each classroom as well as adequate computer labs, this access is squandered on these contrived, tepid experiences. For most of my kids' classmates, the allure of technology is further squelched by the exclusive use of smartphones (in lieu of personal computers) in the home. This results in a fear of the bare technology - of virtual code and material components. 

My point is this: I lament the fact that, in increasing experience and access for the young, we may have sacrificed the opportunity for kids to experience the recursive nature of manipulating technology. As you said, what good is an iPad in the classroom if it's only used to digitally replicate the paperbound lessons? How about creating and debugging simple apps to use on that iPad instead? 

Our early education system has to do a far better job providing quality experience and access. Until we have students who recognize that the shiny, flashy facade of digital technology is just the exposed portion of an iceberg of human error and aging hardware, and are unafraid to explore solutions to these wonderful glitches, we'll always contend with this anxiety. 

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