Engaging the Divide

On equity in the digital classroom

In her article “Digital Divide in the Classroom” Diana Gonzalez analyzes the gap between students who are able to experience and critique digital media and those who aren’t. She references a study that found schools with lower SES levels have more restrictions on technology, and she questions whether the educators know that in doing so they are spreading the digital divide and consequently disadvantaging the youth. The students in these schools, whose tech access at home is likely to be poor or nonexistent, will be compared in the job force and in higher education (sometimes subconsciously) to others who have had more access to and experience with technology (both at home and in the classroom).

Enter: me. A year after I started teaching college, I volunteered to teach an online composition course. I had been skeptical—like many of my fellow writing instructors—but I pushed myself because I knew that the world wasn’t going to give up the idea and that I’d need to understand it or fall behind. The consequences of teaching behind the times—something many English instructors take pride in—are more serious than the whimsy of the phrase connotes. At the time I volunteered to jump into the digital classroom, I was a fresh teacher trying to get ahead, thinking of my career and my future. Now I’m more aware of the larger picture. The technology decisions I make are about what’s helping my students get ahead — or in many cases, get caught up. Many of my students are the ones Gonzalez is worried about—the students who aren’t pictured on the cultural postcard of kids being naturals with technology.

Reading Gonzalez’s article awoken a feeling in me I’d had before. Earlier in the year I latched on to Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” because of certain truths it revealed—truths I was living but for which I didn’t yet have a name. Tokumitsu exposed the shadow side of the Do What You Love (DWYL) mantra: “Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased.” As long as we insist that to DWYL is more valuable culturally than working to sustain a livelihood, we are also unjustly implying that everyone else is a failure. Gonzalez similarly criticizes a so-called “positive stereotype”—the idea that the youth of today are naturally proficient with technology. The shadow side to this is “that when children are not good at tech, for lack of access, they are [perceived as] individually flawed.”

Tokumitsu and Gonzalez are both writing about how class in the US is hidden and about the unfair consequences of that — about our own unknowing bias toward people stemming from cultural messages that may sound positive. I once took a two-year hiatus from teaching college to work in New York for a non-profit LGBT agency where I spent a lot of time speaking with people about certain cultural messages (stereotypes) and the hurt they cause our youth. Gonzalez is correct to criticize the cultural message she defines. When educators trust in this type of stereotype and are met with a young person who doesn’t meet those expectations, the sense of failure felt shouldn’t be blamed on the student. Thankfully, Gonzalez offers ways to look inward as faculty on our own approaches to technology in the classroom so that we can avoid seeing our students as failures and start doing our part to bridge the digital divide.

Another place for higher education faculty to start might be with the image of the college professor. If I walked into a room full of people, gave them each a piece a paper and marker and told them to draw a picture of a college professor, what do you think they’d draw? If I were to repeat this in rooms all across the US, what do you think would be the most common characteristics? I’m thinking that a figure accessorized by a tricked out laptop wirelessly communicating with a tablet or smartphone isn’t going to be at the top of the list.

We are used to seeing our beloved cultural archetype The Professor in fictionalized classrooms all over the media. Propped against a table or desk at the front of the room, he’s a lone genius extracting beautiful thoughts from unsuspecting students armed with nothing but wild hand gestures and his (it’s a man, of course) voice. He’s warm but strict. Intimidating as a role model, even to me. But I’m getting over it, because the further into the 21st century we go, the less he has to offer. Sure, there will always be a niche for great orators who spark discussions in class. I too measure my teaching days partially based on how engaged the students are with each other and with me. But let’s stop deceiving ourselves that this model is the best model to prepare our students for life. This model itself is a mirage. There are many inherent values in having a “no-tech” classroom—where it’s only the professor, the students, and the ideas—but arguably even in this scenario today, tech exists.

Tech is in the way we ask students to create and respond to topics; technology use inspires the ideas we discuss in the first place. Technology is the submerged half of a creative duo allowing the “lone genius” Professor to appear to walk on water. (To read more about the illusion of the lone genius, see this recent New York Times article.) What’s more, if students were taught only in this way for their entire lives, it would be easy to see that we’d be doing our 21st century children a disservice.

Diana Gonzalez warns us that we limit the ways our students can develop “cultural capital” when we limit tech opportunities in the classroom. Indeed, the policies on student technology use in primary and secondary education may factor into the vast spectrum of preparedness for college that my students represent.

Not all of my students have been asked to critique media before, nor have they been taught how “to create digital work that improves their social status.” The longer I teach the more I realize my obligation not to shy away from technology projects as some educators do, in well-intentioned hopes of keeping an even playing field. The indicators all point to the same conclusion: There is no even playing field.

Instead, we should be focusing on ways to offer support to students on different sides of the digital divide. Closing the gap starts with our own transformation. My journey from a self-proclaimed Old Schooler to where I am now has spanned the length of my teaching career — albeit much shorter than many — and I hope it continues. We don’t have to give all the old methods up. I still love a good circle of desks. But we need to actively engage the digital divide. We can begin by polling our incoming students about their experiences with technology. And, it’s good to remind ourselves that while we are the frontline fighters trying to close the gap, technology is backing us up.


Nick Tryling

Nick Tryling received her MFA from The American University in Washington DC. Transplanted to the MidWest, she now teaches writing at The University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

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