Technology, Learning, and the Digital Divide

This is a modified paper I wrote for one of my college classes. But it belongs here on Confessions of a Technophobe because technology in the classroom is becoming a really big deal. And as an aspiring future educator and ardent advocate of free and open-source software, I propose it’s use in the classroom as a means of crossing the great “digital divide:”

Technology is a great learning tool for students, but requires the same judicious and skillful use as other tools of learning. When audio-visual tools such as television and motion pictures were introduced into classrooms, teachers and students needed to be trained in the proper use of these technologies so that they would be an aid to learning rather than a distraction or a hindrance. We have all seen – or been – the student nodding off in the classroom during a movie rather than interacting with the material, and teachers were encouraged to use movies and videos with care to avoid that unfortunate result. Some teachers became dependent upon these new tools because they made it possible to provide the required access to learning materials with little or no effort by the teacher to actually convey the content themselves. The same can be true for the newer technology that enables access to material through the Internet, but there are ways to avoid it which should be implemented in every school. And there are ways to make this technology available in ways that minimize the “digital divide” between “haves” and “have-nots” in today’s classrooms. Both considerations are vital to the success of our students. This discussion seeks to address the following:

  • Integration

    of technology into instruction

  • Student

    safety on the Internet

  • Technology

    standards for middle school students

  • Choosing

    appropriate technology

Integration

My cooperating teacher, Mrs. P., integrates technology in her 7th-grade Civics and 8th-grade US History classes using an interactive web portal with downloadable assignments, readings, study guides in pdf format, and webquests; and e-mail links for communicating with students and parents. A closed television network at the middle school is accessible in every classroom so that teachers rarely need to purchase outside videos or other audio-visual aids for their classes. But Mrs. P. has brought in some documentaries on video from her own library to supplement the network library for her own classes. “There are resources available besides the ones offered by the school that include valuable material that is omitted or inadequately covered in the textbooks and video library,” she says. “Once I obtain approval for their use, I give my students the benefit of these extra resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have” (V. P., personal communication, February 6, 2015). One of her students uses a tablet as an accommodation, and is able to submit classwork digitally either by showing it to Mrs. P. or directly uploading it.

Safety

Mrs. P. is able to address both the “digital divide” and Internet safety by providing her students with access to the school library’s computers, which offer filtered access to the Internet using built-in hardware as well as software safety features in a safe environment. She falls short, in my opinion, by not adequately integrating research skills into the instructional material. Perhaps teaching research skills is considered to be beyond the ability of middle school students, but I share the opinion that research skills should be introduced as a necessary part of accessing information on-line. One educator writes, “While they’re learning to be good researchers, students will also be solidifying key Common Core competencies, like the ability to integrate knowledge, identify truthful reasoning, and use evidence to make a point” (Shwartz). If research skills are not included as part of the actual lesson, the research process becomes irrelevant to the students. A Google search can easily lead to unreliable, biased information or outright false information. Students must learn to identify good academic sources from bad ones. It is not enough to simply forbid students from using Wikipedia “because it is unreliable.” Students need to know how to tell whether material is reliable or not. Such skills are not beyond the ability of middle school students in my opinion. Any student that is mature enough to use the Internet is mature enough to learn basic research skills. A link from Ms. Shwartz’s article provides an ideal summary of what to look for in an easily applied acronym, “the CRAAP test” (Unknown). The acronym stands for:

  • Currency:

    The timeliness of the information,

  • Relevance:

    The importance of the information to your research,

  • Authority:

    The source of the information,

  • Accuracy:

    The reliability and truthfulness of the information, and

  • Purpose:

    The reason the information exists or is published.

It is not necessary for students learning to do Internet research to be left to their own devices in discerning which sources are good for their research or not. By integrating research skills into the subject matter itself, teachers in even the lower grades can give their students a big head start for the later years when they will be expected to put those skills to regular use.

Technology Standards for Middle School

While I have touched on what I think ought to be included, I have not been able to find a concrete and measurable statement of middle school grade-level technology standards in the Florida Standards, but only a vague reference in the Language Arts Standards to “the use of technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and link to and cite sources as well as to interact and collaborate with others, including linking to and citing sources” (http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/7/6/). Clearly, there remains much work to be done in order to make such a nebulous “standard” concrete enough to make it more than a wishful aspiration. Using or adapting the CRAAP test and other simple tools can help “put wheels on the cart,” enabling students to learn research skills as part of the subject matter so that it makes better sense. It also puts responsibility for learning firmly in the hands of learners rather than teachers. “The technologies that can be used to help students take ownership of their learning include blogs, wikis, online quizzes, and VoiceThread,” according to an article on making use of technology in the classroom (Bart). Mrs. P. makes use of some of these tools on her own web portal, but they could be made more interactive through the use of online puzzles and games rather than the burdensome printed crossword puzzles she hands out in class. One of the reasons she does not is because several of her students use older computers with unsupported operating systems like WindowsXP®, which lost support for security updates last April. Purchasing a new computer to replace a perfectly good one that doesn’t have the resources to run the new version of Microsoft Windows® is an unreasonable hardship on families. It is one example of what our textbook calls “the digital divide.”

Crossing “the Digital Divide”

“Technology offers hope to many, but it does not always offer opportunity to everyone,” our textbook asserts to introduce “the gap between technology haves and have-nots” (Sadker & Zittleman, p. 195). Even with the dramatic drop in prices for computers and Internet access, much vital technology is simply out of reach for many families. Even here at the College of Central Florida it is an issue for students who are not wealthy or who work during the hours that computers at the school are available in the Learning Center. One wonderful bridge over this great gap which has made huge advances in recent years, is the development of free and open-source software (FOSS) and free operating systems like GNU/Linux. This writer uses an ancient relic of a computer – one step up from an abacus – kept out of the landfill by means of a simple, elegant, point-and-click operating system that is absolutely free of charge. Loaded with a free office suite that does everything that it’s expensive proprietary Microsoft counterpart does, I have been able to get almost all of my school work done without having to spend hundreds of dollars to replace a working computer and upgrade massively expensive office software. The only glitch has been a requirement in two of my classes to use only Microsoft format in some assignments. LibreOffice, the most popular FOSS equivalent of Microsoft Office®, is able to convert documents into Microsoft format most of the time, but it should not be necessary since LibreOffice works on every platform including Windows. Keeping modest computers working well with free operating systems like Linux, and using no-cost software like OpenOffice or LibreOffice, the Evince pdf reader and other free tools has become a great bridge over the digital divide in many underdeveloped nations, impoverished schools, and even government agencies. It has been neglected in favor of expensive proprietary systems for far too long. The time is long past that public schools should have stopped holding their students and teachers hostage to mega-corporations which lock them into a single format. Access to information on the Internet is far too valuable a resource to be kept from students merely for the sake of appeasing a corporate giant.

References

Bart, M. (2011). How Technology Can Improve Learner-Centered Teaching. Magna Publications.

Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/

instructional-design/how-technology-can-improve-learner-centered-teaching/

Sadker, D. & Zittleman, K. (2013). Teachers, Schools, and Society. (10th edition). New York, NY.

McGraw-Hill

Shwartz, K. (2013, October). Teach Kids to Be Their Own Internet Filters. Retrieved from

http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/10/tech-kids-to-be-their-own-filter/

Unknown. (2012). The CRAAP Test. Retrieved from the North Carolina A&T University Library web

site: http://libguides.library.ncat.edu/content.php?pid=53820&sid=394505

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