NOVEMBER 4, 2011
This is the second in a series on the digital divide that exists in the world of education. Each article is by an Edudemic guest author. Want to weigh in? Click here to get your article published. Read Jill Rooney’s article “Education, Race and the Internet: Digital Divide or Racial Ravine?“
The rapid changes in technology over the last 75 years have created enormous opportunities for education. While some technologies such as the computer were adopted early on, a reluctance to embrace change coupled with a lack of funding has resulted in a continuing dependence on chalkboards and other anachronistic technologies. The extent to which schools adopt new technologies, not surprisingly, often depends on how well they’re funded. It isn’t uncommon for schools that are separated by very little physical distance to be at opposite ends of the technology gap.
Many folks familiar with this scenario understand the inherent lack of fairness in the disparate funding of schools. What many people don’t understand however is that it also threatens the uniquely American ideals of democracy and equality. One of the bedrocks of our democracy is the idea that we’re governed by the electoral choices of a well-informed citizenry. Having equal access to a decent education is the assumption that underlies this premise. But the ways in which rapid advances in technology are adopted have both positive and negative implications for schools and for broader society in general.
Preparing For The Workforce
One of the most positive results of schools embracing new technologies is found when low-income students gain skills they otherwise wouldn’t. The ability to type, use email and execute basic computer functions like Word and Excel are imperative in today’s workforce. When students who have no access to computers at home learn these skills specifically because of technology in the classroom, they have a far greater chance of moving from have-nots to haves in the future. Having technological competence gives them a better chance of success in the workforce and gives them a greater ability and confidence to pursue online education university options.
No Student Left Behind
When classrooms adopt iPads or other tablets in lower grades amongst younger students, the possibility that those students will be left behind in terms of the greater society decreases dramatically. Studies have consistently shown that new technology introduction to younger children provides better results than when introduced at a later age. Even if low-income students have no access to computers at home, the integration of new technology into all aspects of school life ensures that they have greater opportunities going forward.
There are some arguably negative implications to the adoption of new technologies as well. Some of the most evident for the short term involve dropping long-standing handwriting requirements. Penmanship was dropped from most English classes over the last twenty years and cursive writing requirements are quickly being cut from many programs as well. Depending on one’s perspective, not learning cursive in elementary school may not be the end of the world academically speaking. But advocates of teaching cursive argue that losing cursive is just one more case of technology eroding academic rigor.
Quality of Writing
There is another, lesser known, but reasonable argument against adopting computers across all academic disciplines. Pen and paper often tend to be more conducive to good writing than computer keyboarding. Longhand writing is more likely to result in well-reasoned, nuanced and intricate prose. This may arise from the fact that typing lends itself more easily to abrupt and punchy prose. The staccato quality of typing can work its way into writing. Stylistic arguments aside; a potentially far more worrisome implication for the long term is the increasing technology gap among schools.
When the only technology requirements for completing aprimary education involved paper, pencils, a slide rule and eventually calculators, the impact technology had in widening the divide between haves and have-nots was minimal. But the technology gap which exists in schools today also functions as a solidifier of social class. If low-income students are unlucky enough to attend schools which can’t fund technology purchases, the chance that they’ll find a way out of a low income life becomes less likely. It’s understandable that if a school can’t afford air conditioning, they’re probably not going to view iPads as a logical expenditure.
The Danger of Making Technology So Critical
The ability to use technologies such as laptops and tablet computers allows students to acquire the same sets of core competencies they’ll need in the workforce. Not acquiring these skill sets is more than an inconvenience. The ability to access information and basic computer literacy can function as a potential stepping-stone out of poverty for many students. If a student graduates high school without at least a rudimentary and working knowledge of new technologies, their future starts looking a lot less bright.
And since many school districts which can’t afford to incorporate technology into the classroom are largely found in less affluent areas, the likelihood of upward social mobility decreases significantly and social classes begin to look a lot more like social castes. The technology gap runs the risk of further cementing social class. This country has always celebrated the ability of Americans to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We love it when the underdog makes good. It’s part of our national identity to root for the little guy. But when the little guy is deprived of what are rapidly becoming basic tools of future economic survival, the ability for any effective bootstrap pulling begins to disappear.
Technology’s Impact on the Future
Twenty years ago, someone without computer skills could still expect to find a decent job which, though not providing a huge income, could still support a family. But now, jobs that used to be considered basic blue collar jobs require technological know-how. A car mechanic used to need mechanical aptitude and a good set of wrenches and they were in business. Working in customer service used to require basic telephone skills. But increasingly, even menial entry level jobs require much more computer literacy than what some disadvantaged students are getting in schools. If we want to ensure that more Americans continue to get a legitimate shot at the American Dream, we need to start a national dialogue focused on identifying workable solutions for narrowing the technology gap.