For many people who have broadband connection at home, it is sometimes hard to imagine the effects of the digital divide in a classroom setting. While many educators assume that students can go to the library after school or perhaps find free wifi at a fast food restaurant, this is often easier said than done — especially for younger students who are not of driving age. While a few districts nationwide have 100%of their students connected at home and while other districts have virtually no student connected at home, the vast majority of districts fall somewhere in the middle. As educators move to using technology to enhance learning, collaboration, and differentiation, having students that don’t have access at home can have subtle but observable effects on learning and achievement. Here are 5 examples (names of teachers changed) that illustrate this from my teaching experience in a district that has about 36% of students on free and reduced lunch.
Case #1: In a 9th grade World History class, Chris was working in a collaborative group on a summative project with 3 other students. The group members assigned work on specific presentation slides and research to be done outside of class. Although Chris works hard in class, he cannot fulfill his work requirements outside of class because he can’t access research or the actual presentation. Students in his group reach out to the teacher after class to share their frustrations with Chris and the fact that their presentation is suffering. The teacher approaches Chris, and he is a little sheepish and says that he will try his best to finish. It takes several months before the teacher actually realizes that Chris does not have access at home.
Case #2: Ms. Hawkins 10th grade English class is writing an essay and is going through the writing process which entails multiple drafts, feedback, and revision. As part of the revision process, Ms. Hawkins assigns students to do electronic peer reviews for homework. 6 of her students do not have access at home and have difficulty providing quality reviews. As a result, the face to face process of going over peer reviews and asking clarifying questions does not run smoothly and the whole class (both those with and without access) suffers as a result.
Case #3: Mr. Bobzien is a 5th grade teacher who is flipping his classroom. He creates instructional videos and assigns the videos and practice problems for homework. At home, parents often learn math along with their kids and help them after watching the videos. Back in the classroom, Mr. Bobzien checks in with individual students and checks for understanding. Although all of the 5th graders in his class have chromebooks to take home, seven of his students don’t have access at home. As a result, these students try to learn math the best that they can before school and during class. Overall, Mr. Bobzien’s students are achieving at higher levels in the flipped classroom model, but those without access are progressing at a much slower rate.
Case #4: Mrs. Thompson, an environmental science teacher, assigns a class discussion question once a week for homework in Canvas. She notices this has elevated the level of discussion in her class and that students often refer to the discussions the next day in class. She started to evaluate students on their communication skills, but she notes that several of her students rarely submit answers. Although she encourages students to log in at the start of class, she notes that students who are not submitting at home often have less developed responses and don’t benefit from the online interaction and thinking of other students. She suspects that several of her students don’t have home access.
Case #5 Effects on teaching practice
Mr. Evans teaches at a high poverty school in our district and has a friend (Ms. Fuller) who teaches at a low poverty school. Mr. Evans rarely assigns electronic homework and research as he knows that almost half of his students do not have home access. Instead, he assigns paper copies and foregoes the electronic benefits of reading differentiation, peer chats, peer revisions, and collaborative electronic projects. His friend Ms. Fuller, on the other hand, assigns creative and collaborative work outside of school. Although Mr. Evans and Ms. Fuller teach the same grade level in the same district, when they compare notes they realize that their students are getting a very different education!