January 29, 2014

The Digital Divide: Live With It

This post was last updated on September 5th, 2017 at 01:48 pm

The term “digital divide” is often used to describe the inequity in regards to access and ability with technology. It’s a thing for sure. What I’m talking about here is the divide that digital brings in relation to our existing model of education.

For years I’ve been hearing districts talk about “closing the achievement gap”. A worthy goal I suppose, depending on what you mean by achievement. But besides that, the desire for more equity is admirable but in some cases unrealistic and perhaps misguided to a degree. Certainly, we must recognize, support and empower all students and we will pay particular attention to those with them most hurdles and challenges.

But here’s the problem. We’ve introduced technology. Technology, when used effectively is an accelerated. As well it opens doors and provides resources, people and software that fundamentally puts the learner in the driver’s seat. The way I used to close the achievement gap was to tell my best students not to read ahead. I gave them busy work so I could help others catch up. Not exactly a system that honors and supports all learners but one that is focused on keeping everyone on the same page for as much as possible. Achievement and knowledge acquisition were nearly synonymous. In some cases, this is still happening in our schools. No longer do they need schools to learn. Teachers have to take on fundamentally different roles. What exactly those roles are is somewhat debatable, but knowledge provider and controlling the learning isn’t top on that list. The power and reality of digital is that it blows the lids off of learning. No more can we tell kids not to read ahead to the next chapter. We can’t be surprised when students have more knowledge about content that we might. We shouldn’t be shocked when students want to take their learning to places we didn’t anticipate or imagine. In most cases, we applaud this. This is essentially the promise and potential of digital. But when we bring our antiquated lens of scale and equity to the table, that often means putting kids in manageable containers where we can monitor and track progress and brag about how we’re closing the gap.

And what happens when the gap increases? Not because we’re doing a lousy job but because the ceiling of excellence and opportunity has been lifted? The focus and emphasis will always be on the low spectrum. I fear that in order to make ourselves seem more equitable we’ll either at best ignore and at worst confine opportunities for outstanding work for fear it makes others look bad. Our current grading system perpetuates this notion. 100% is the best you can do. No one can go beyond that. One effort that’s been made is to eliminate zeros. (I really don’t want that debated here but just want to use it as an example of closing the gap. I’ve written my thoughts on that topic before.) Now we’ve closed the gap by 50%. Whoopee! Our next move is to focus on the low end to get them up. Of course, all the time this usually means common assessments, easy to measure tasks/assignments/tests all in an effort to see the little bars on the spreadsheet move up. Meanwhile, the students who actually might be engaged and ready to do more are ignored since they’re already good.

Digital doesn’t play this game well. Books are containers, limiting the amount of information and ideas to the pages in the book. Grades, subjects and time have been the containers in schools. The web has no end.

Let’s stop worry about achievement gaps and realize that digital will increase the divide. Not because it’s providing less opportunity at the bottom but because it’s blown the ceiling. We have to live with that. It’s certainly messy and unsettling, but we have to face it.