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The Digital Divide

What is the Digital Divide and why should anyone care?

The Digital Divide is a catch phrase that is frequently used in the context of the present education environment. What, exactly, is the Digital Divide?  Succinctly, it is the differences between ownership of and access to computer-based technologies by members of distinct socioeconomic and ethnic groups in (for the purposes of this discussion) the United States of America. While in some respects, recent studies on American’s access to technology are hopeful, (more Americans than ever own computers and access the internet) the Digital Divide, the gaps in access to some important technology tools between the technology haves and have nots, is growing. The implications for this district’s students are dire. With 80% of the district falling on the ‘have not’ side of the Digital Divide, a significant majority of  students here will be deprived of the fruits of the new digital economy. Reduced job opportunities, fewer advanced educational choices, and a diminished ability to perform at a high level in college are only some of the very real negative effects of ignoring the Digital Divide.  It is, therefore, critical to act and act quickly, to narrow this divide for your students. In order to do this, I am making five recommendations, designed to address specific needs. The district must seek out of budget process funding, build a sound, secure, modern technology infrastructure, improve technology knowledge of leadership, enhance teacher professional development, and use online and virtual learning to create programs not possible using traditional methods. The goal is to provide all important assets to assist this district in finding resources to meet current and future needs, suggest professional development resources for teachers and administrators, and offer new means of involving students in the digital world.

Narrowing and eventually closing the Digital Divide should be the goal of this and every school district in America. To accomplish this daunting task, a well thought out, detailed plan of action is required. Assessment, resources, leadership, and training are all keys to improving the district’s digital performance. The International society for Technology in Education divides these tasks into blocks titled Infrastructure, Leadership and Support, Professional Development, Teaching and Learning, and Family and Community. By focusing on accessing grant funding, building a modern, achievement oriented infrastructure, insuring administrators and leaders are competent and confident in dealing with the technological challenges facing schools today, and equipping teachers with resources, both actual and virtual the district can successfully address it challenges in closing the Digital Divide. While in no way does this report devalue the contributions of community resources, statistically, students access the internet and other technologies at community centers or other non-school locations, I have chosen not to discuss assets not under the control of the district directly in this memo. Similarly, while many students do access the internet at home, this memo is designed specifically to help the school district address the Digital Divide. While some districts do include programs like one laptop per student and technology purchasing assistance for needy children as part of their technology plan, this district’s needs (80% of its students are on the wrong side of the Digital Divide) are so wide ranging and deep, only by focusing limited resources on the most core issues can the district hope to narrow the Digital Divide in any meaningful way.

A large number of charitable trusts and corporate initiatives are actively involved in providing funds to schools seeking to improve technology. By seeking out these funds, the district can direct resources above and beyond municipally allocated funding for programs designed to close the Digital Divide. One example of these funding sources is the AT&T Foundation. In addition to their general support for community projects, AT&T funds their own AT&T Excelerator competitive technology grants program which has awarded over $300,000 in the past year alone for community technology initiatives. AT&T has awarded an average of 3 million dollars annually from this foundation. Other similar, national foundations and endowments exist, some of which I will list on my web site. In addition, local corporate citizens may prove to be willing contributors to initiatives designed to improve the quality of the area’s work force. Finally, the web site, Technology Grant News is an excellent source of companies and organizations that offer grants, broken down into categories, like K-12, directed specifically at helping schools meet their technology needs. Many of these grants give priority to those applicants with a demonstrated need for narrowing the Digital Divide. By seeking supplemental funding from external sources, the district may find it can direct funds toward initiatives aimed at closing the gap in technology access for its students.

Infrastructure, defined as hardware, software, networking, and connectivity; is one need which can only be solved with purchases or donations. Any number of major technology companies offer discounted hardware and software to schools and educators. Techsoup offers a list of these companies along with a description of the kinds of assistance most likely to be garnered from each, and how to contact them. Through Techsoup, Microsoft, for example, offers an open license version of Office for the Macintosh, for $16.00 for qualifying districts. Many more technology companies make donations of in kind of services or hardware/ software; and a district with limited funding for infrastructure would be well advised to take advantage of these potential sources of low cost solutions. Not to be overlooked in the infrastructure area is connectivity. Connecting to the internet, maintaining web sites, hosting, and email are other areas in which in kind donation or discounted services are often available for K-12 institutions, especially those with a demonstrated presence on the less advantaged side of the Digital Divide. Again, the Techsoup site offers access to Concentric’s web hosting and email hosting services to qualifying districts for free or at vastly below market price.

Quite often the people making decisions on funding, training, and deployment of technology are persons least experienced in its use and least knowledgeable in the manner in which it can best compliment curricula already in use within a school district. This is not really surprising, as most leaders in schools, superintendents, principals, and associate principals, are engaged in a wide variety critical tasks of which technology is only one. In addition, these same leaders are more likely to be older and less likely to be true Digital Natives; men and women who have grown up ‘connected’.  Teaching the leaders, therefore, is a pressing need for most districts, but particularly pressing for a district like this one in which the needs of the students are far greater than the ever elusive ‘average’ district. A number of resources exist for cooperative information exchanges among leaders at the top of the K-12 pyramid.  A district’s leaders must be able to make informed decisions in steering the school system on a course that will narrow the Digital Divide.  The Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE) was created specifically to address the shortage of administrators trained and able to implement technology in school districts.

Front line educators also need all important technology skills in order to effectively communicate with their tech hungry students, as well as teach them the skills they will need to succeed in this new economy. 21st Century Schools is one resource offering educators looking to improve the quality of technology learning in their schools curricula, professional development assistance, and support materials. Professional  development in the area of technology education is crucial to narrowing the gap between the digital haves and the digital have nots. Peer partnering and a more collective approach to education can be a good way to infuse technology into daily instruction, particularly for teachers with less access to first quality tools and funding for outside training. To quote from a joint University of California/ Irvine and University of Minnesota paper on teacher professional engagement, “Teachers who adopt a collaborative stance toward teaching are more likely to build a professional identity... This professional identity includes publishing papers, offering workshops and speaking at conferences. They view their relationship to other educators within and beyond the school as an important determinant of the quality of student learning in the classroom.” By seeking these outside their own classroom interactions, teachers benefit from the knowledge of their peers within their own buildings and without and can become recognized as professionals with a unique blend of skills. This standing can, in turn, attract the kind of recognition and prestige that may make it easier to attract additional grant funding as well as a better quality of applicant for teaching positions in the district. Edutopia, a project funded by the George Lucas Foundation, provides access to models of outstanding K-12 programs in public schools from around the nation. These models can help teachers create similar programs within this district.

Virtual education alternatives offer funding challenged districts relatively inexpensive access to outstanding technology education programs for teachers and students for a fraction of ‘in person’ costs. Distance learning, virtual classrooms, and email based instruction are all being used right now with a high level of efficacy by school districts all over the United States. As an example, the Discovery Educator Network is designed to assist teachers interested in using media in the classroom. Florida Virtual School, (FLVS) for example, is a full-time accredited public high school at which students receive diplomas for course work done entirely online. FLVS  allows students nationwide to take AP courses and other instructional modules on a pay as you go basis. For this district, outsourcing small enrollment courses could be an important way to add important technology related programs like Advanced Placement classes, Web Design, and Computer Programming; which might not otherwise be cost effectively added to the curriculum.

In conclusion, the Digital Divide is real and it is already damaging our student’s ability to compete in the global economy. Current research tells us that for the foreseeable future, economic vitality will be closely tied to technology education and competence. You can begin today by assessing the district’s distinct needs in the areas of  funding, infrastructure, educator training, and choosing from the options I have provided in virtual learning. To investigate these resources more thoroughly, please go to my web site at: http://paul35mm.googlepages.com/home for a complete listing of the resources I have noted in this report. Technology is not an optional area of interest in today’s work environment. The understanding and ability to use it effectively is integral to the economic success of our students. I stand ready to assist the district in any way possible as you work to close the Digital Divide for your students.