September 24, 2008

Education in the 21st century: the Digital Divide (2nd in a series)

A busy week in my classroom last week.   My students checked out the school’s laptops to work on their blogs and the essays that are due later this month, and we had our Open House/parent-teacher conferences, so I was able to show off my digital classroom. The parents that came in seemed to be impressed and pleased with their student’s use of technology in the classroom, and a few made very positive remarks on the availability of notes and podcasts of my classes.  The idea that my class walls are that transparent: that they can actually listen in on my classes as well as track what we are doing and even read their student’s essays and blogs really appealed to them.  Sounds great, right?  Well, the week wasn’t exactly a technological rose garden.

At no time has the digital divide appeared more clear to me than last week.  There were quite a number of students who were clearly out of their depth when it came to how to use even the most basic programs, and even with their peers helping them, a fair bit of time was used to teach and re-teach quite a few students the skills that many others take for granted.  So why didn’t I just give up and tell the students to take out paper and pen/pencil?  Quite simply because I felt I had no choice.  Working with the technology isn’t about me, it’s about them.  It’s about getting them ready for a world where computer familiarity is an expectation.  Any student entering college or the work force without basic computer and thinking skills is at a tremendous disadvantage.

There are numerous flaws with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (more about that in another article), but one of the biggest is the lack of addressing skills in and with the use of technology.  Numerous reports from a variety of sources have discussed the impact of technology on student achievement and have assailed standardized testing’s lack of ability to test critical and analytical thinking and problem solving skills (among other things), instead choosing to focus on the basic skills of reading and writing.  While the basic skills are crucial, they are no longer enough if we expect our children to not just survive in the 21st century, but to thrive and gain the ability to lead our society forward.

So what do we do?  How do we cross the divide?  How do we get our children to think in ways we can’t yet wish we could?  Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.  NCLB is set up so that the lower a school scores on tests, the more money they lose, which then means the less they can afford when it comes to programs and technology that could propel the school forward.  It’s no accident that the poorest schools score the lowest on the test.  NCLB seems to smack of elitism at its worst, a “let them eat cake” attitude that is both unrealistic and disastrous for our nation’s future.  It’s no secret that the law needs a serious overhaul.

But until that happens, what do we do?  The solution involves serious action and commitment on behalf of our teachers, our students, and their parents.  The biggest difference anyone can make is involvement.  Get involved.  Engage.  If you’re a parent, encourage your child to shut off the television and read for at least 30 minutes a night; it doesn’t matter what, just read; remember what I said about critical thinking skills?  While you’re at it, read with your child.  If your child is too old to read to them, then sit down next to them with your own stuff to read. It may not seem like it, but reading together is a better way to bond than you might think.  Go to parent-teacher conferences and get to know your child’s teachers. Remember that you and your child’s teachers have the same goal: raising your child to be the best person they can possibly be.  Be a teammate with the teachers in the school.  Finally, ask yourself: does your child really need the latest video game system or cell phone when a good laptop or desktop would benefit them far, far more?

Teachers: most parents aren’t out to make your life more difficult, they just want what is best for their child.  Yes, there are some parents that are dropping the ball when it comes to their child, but how many teachers do you know that should have gotten out of teaching a long time ago? How many should have never entered the field at all?  Further, when it comes to technology, keep up.  If you want to be the best teacher you can, open up to the scary ideas that might change your world forever. Learn how to set up a basic web page, a blog, a wiki so your students can access what they need when they need it.  Teach your students what you learn.  Don’t take it for granted that they all know how to email, or that they all know how to interact with Web 2.0; you’d be surprised to find out how few of them actually do.  Besides, all that technology is just plain fun to use.

If you’re a business owner, you can help, too. Getting new computers in the office?  Great, give the old ones to a local school.  Two years ago, a local business kicked a good dozen or so computers to the school where I work with the caveat that they had to go to students who could benefit from them but couldn’t afford one of their own.  The teachers on my team and I were able to get three for our students.  The look on the faces of the students who received the computers is not one I’m likely to forget anytime soon.

If we want to close the digital divide, we can start right here, right now.  It doesn’t take a lot of money, and it doesn’t even take a lot of time, but it does take commitment. If you ask me, our kids are worth it.

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