Looking beyond the digital divide

At a previous point in my career, I benefited from professional development, autonomy in my classroom, and a superb technology infrastructure to become a connected, inspired and effective educator. Now, with the current climate in the field of education in the U.S., I fear that other teachers will lose, or never even experience, similar opportunities. As an education technology advocate interacting with teachers in a variety of settings, I see that our students are receiving vastly different types of education. This divide trickles specifically down to the educational technology experiences our students are receiving in schools, too.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010For approximately the past 20 years, I’ve mainly worked in urban educational settings ranging from a Catholic elementary school to inner city neighborhood schools to a highly successful independent school. Not only have I seen the predictable imbalance of resources in these schools, but I have also seen distinctly different sets of educational values. Experiential education is an important part of independent school culture, but in some of the other schools I’ve come across, the focus is entirely on test scores.

In the independent school where I once worked, third grade students receive hands-on, inquiry-based science instruction two times a week from a dedicated science teacher; the students also attend a computer science class once a week. In contrast, I know of an urban public school that stopped all science teaching in third grade so that students could participate a computer-based arithmetic drill program. Data had informed the administration that these third graders were behind in their ability to compute.

I suspect this isn’t the first or last situation in which a school seeks the silver bullet solution to low test scores, but this example alarms me for two reasons. First, the students are deprived of science education, which is already traditionally low on the priority list in many schools. Secondly, I question the value of using computers for test taking and rote drills. It seems such a waste of powerful technology that could be utilized in classrooms in much more engaging ways.

Clearly, each school mentioned above had different priorities, probably based on perceived needs of its students, and the underlying issues at hand are complex. Yet, I continue to wonder why our society continues to ignore the education apartheid that is going on in this country. I want to see us focus on student engagement and empowerment while not losing sight of continued improvement and accountability. I believe that it’s possible to achieve balance, and technology can play a vital role in this.

In my contributions to this blog, I hope to expand on these thoughts and concerns in relation to educational technology. If we are going to seriously look at how educators and students are leveraging the tools at hand, we must look at the bigger picture, too.

To get started, I’d like to recommend an article that I recently found via Stephen Downes on Twitter. In this piece, Henry Giroux expounds on the importance of public school teachers and I agree with him in that, “Teachers are no longer asked to think critically and be creative in the classroom. On the contrary, they are now forced to simply implement predetermined instructional procedures and standardized content, at best; and, at worst, put their imaginative powers on hold while using precious classroom time to teach students how to master the skill of test taking.”

I’m pondering Giroux’s observations in relation to educational technology. How are we going to expect teachers to leverage the potential of technology in their classrooms if this is the culture most are experiencing right now?

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  • Cheryl Oakes

    Lucy, great post! Nowhere do I remember in my schooling to become a teacher that anyone said to me go forth and teach all your students the same thing, at the same time,in the same manner. I am always looking for each student to have the aha! moment. I seek out different technologies for my students in order to make that a reality.However, in order for teachers to leverage the potential of technology we must put the technology in their hands and ask explicitly- how could this be used in your classroom? Then, we must model how it can be used, to begin that brainstorming process. We must also give teachers permission to put the technology in the hands of students, ask explicit inquiry questions and let the students be transformational with the technology. All this time thinking, creating and communicating is what we want our teachers and students to be doing.

  • Lucy Gray

    Thanks for your comments, Cheryl, and I agree with your points. There is an iterative process to learning and teaching, and I think many have lost sight of this. For, the technology definitely has to be tied to what we want our teachers and students to accomplish. How do we use these technology to deepen learning?

  • Bonnie Bracey-Sutton

    The interesting thing about being a good teacher with resources is to remember the journey and the things that made us both successful teachers. I cringe when I see the things that people say about teachers now. I worry that we lose the interest of those who might aspire to be teachers. I worry when I throw away the old technology, but know that technology is a moving target.

    Being Exposed to Technofluency is a Wonderful Thing

    Some of us fell into the best of places. I had professional development by the National Geographic. It changed my world.
    We had demonstrations and talks by experts, but we had to create lessons and do peer training. We explored every aspect of the use of the resources that the National Geographic had maps, media, experts, and the new then science of GPS. It was such a summer, kissed by the final event which was a trip to
    Deia, Mallorca , Spain as an earthwatch participant.

    NASA does a wonderful job too. Now with the budget cuts it may be hard to pick up the pieces of the wonderful things that they have to offer teachers, the community and students.
    I love the astronomy programs as a starter. AfterSchool Universe is my favorite of their programs.

    Here is a higher level event. My friend Melanie Stegman, Dr. Melanie Stegman, and other luminaries teaching teachers about the use of games and simulations, and others teaching about the use of supercomputing. We may never do TED.. but there are people like Henry Neeman and Diane Baxter who welcome teachers learning the use of new ideas.


    Have a look. I have more. I love these people who come out of their silos to help change, transform education.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    The things that I learned helped me to be a better teacher.
    I have however been in the space where all of the resources came from me. I taught in inner city DC for three years and it was quite a trial. I love children and I worry about them. I was like a magnet to the kids in the neighborhood because I lived close, maybe too close to the school. I could walk to school in three blocks. What was missing? Everything, everything.

    Today that school no longer reeks of urine and old school smells. It is a shiny new Police station.Sadly teachers who worked there and moved to other schools still lack the basic technology tools and support in spite of Michelle Rhee. It takes more than one person with a mandate to create a climate of change in schools that have suffered neglect, in teachers who have never been enriched with the pleasure part of teaching and
    the infusion of the knowledge that learning places give.

    The shackles of NCLB will be forever embedded unless we create
    invite, engage, embed, energize, let teachers explore and engage in the new technologies.

    There is a game that is of apps that some of us have been playing and the resources disappear. Let’s teach technology with technofluency to all. All of us cannot do TED, but we could do ED if the government gave us not just webinars, but the retrofit that the businesses say they want teachers to have. There are lots of us around who know how to and who would be pleased to help the learning places teach the teachers.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    We recently had a newspaper pundit in DC say that he looked and looked but he could not find any reputable bloggers or people in the DC area who had anything to say of merit.

    I thought about all of the programs and projects that some of us have participated in , Andy Carvin for one with the Digital Divide Network, which of course has disappeared.

    Andy and I pioneered listervs which are old technology, but they work. I think the newspaper columnists do a little research and then write their columns often without talking to a real teacher.

    Some of us worked with James Beniger, ” Triumph of Content” and we actually had great discussions and debates on line.
    I fear that a lot of this has been lost, though I do love the Starfish video. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

    In many urban settings people are not only waiting for superman and I don’t mean Michelle Rhee, but the training, support and funding that would allow them to be technofluent and ready fot the teaching that has to be a part of today’s world.

  • Sam Penrose

    Love seeing this stuff here, but I fear the constraints of the setting force a certain … rhetoric … that is unhelpful. Example: “I continue to wonder why our society continues to ignore the education apartheid that is going on in this country. I want to see us focus on student engagement and empowerment while not losing sight of continued improvement and accountability. I believe that it’s possible to achieve balance, and technology can play a vital role in this.”

    If you replace the loaded word “apartheid,” you could put these sentences into almost any speech on education given by any politician of any ideological bent in this country in the last 10 years without much changing it. You imply that the forces creating the current situation are hard to identify or unreported on. Finally, you resort to the word “balance” which is journalism code for “I’d rather tolerate the status quo than risk being called partisan.”

    I am thrilled to see the woes of America’s education system discussed on Radar. But a discussion that informs will need to be as specific, and as willing to reach appropriate judgements, as one on the iPad or Ubuntu Linux. Please post again on this topic, naming names and calling for action.

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Thanks Lucy for a great opening salvo. I haven’t had the years of classroom experience but I have spent my professional life watching the evolution of technology. The education world relationship with technology feels hauntingly like the relationship private industry had with tech in the late 1980s: for too many educators, technology is an expensive, headache inducing experience. It hasn’t transformed education. It hasn’t set teachers free.

    Call me an optimist, but I still believe that tech can help teachers break out of some of the shackles that are weighing them down (much of which was described here by Bonnie Bracey Sutton). Both technology–and teaching–will have to change.

    Exactly how will be grist for many future discussions….

  • Kathy Sanders

    Thank You Lucy. Your insightful comments are perfectly timed. Today was a particularly challenging day when I called in question what is the role of public education in best meeting the needs of the students. I too have had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and have seen how student engagement and technology have changed over the years. How should we really measure success? What truly makes a difference in our student’s lives? Why do educators and administrators view the vision of success so differently? and most importantly how can we ever reach a shared vision that recognizes how technology can empower our students to new heights of creativity in a collaborative community? The conversation must continue and courageous voices must speak up.

  • Lithos

    If you think that’s broken you should see how they handle Learning Disability programs. I got put into such a program in 3rd grade for having a reading disability and was forced to stay in the program my entire career in public education LONG after I had no reason to be in the program. It was vicious and soul crushing not being “allowed” to take classes in high school, even though I had better understanding of most concepts(compared to the normal student body) and did a better job than the “lords” tutoring my peers.

    I think the biggest problem is that it only takes a few students who never get a few core concepts to keep the whole class behind. For instance you can have whole classes from one teacher who never learned fractions properly(now when it comes time to learn concepts like slope or algebra they can hold the whole class behind). Essentially means that in the future for the entire area you will ALWAYS have 3 or 4 students that can’t properly do what a particular teacher missed. Or in worse case scenarios you have teachers who will literally say “You probably won’t ever understand this but I need to teach it to you anyways”, a real motivator there.