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

My Technophobia

Any fan of the Star Trek movies will remember this little guy from the movie Star Trek – Insurrection:

That’s Artim, of the Baku. His ancestors came from a planet where technology had developed weapons that threatened to destroy all life. Determined never to allow that to happen again, some of them decided to colonize a new world where most technology would be forsaken, and to build an agrarian society where machines do not do all the work of the people, leaving the idle to make mischief. Despite being technologically advanced, Artim’s people have rejected technology.

“Artim” is the moniker (and image) I chose to identify myself by in the wonderful forums they have at PCLinuxOS. Because I’ve always been pretty scared of technology. I’m an artist, and the last thing I ever imagined I’d be doing would be repartitioning a hard drive and installing and configuring my own operating system! “Linux is only for techno-geeks,” I had always assumed, and whenever I had computer problems I simply took the machine to a Microsoft Certified repair geek and paid whatever ransom was required to get my computer running again. I didn’t want to have anything to do with fixing my own tech stuff. I was scared to even open the tower cabinet to blow dust out of it! When the new smart phones came out, I asked for a “regular” phone, preferably one like this:

Please, just keep it simple! I don’t want a fancy one that can track the orbits of planets and comets, or predict the weather, or tell me what my dreams mean and whatever else those “smart” phones do! I just want a mobile telephone for goodnessakes, can’t I just have a phone? Noooooo. They don’t even make those anymore. And the old bricks that once served only as phones won’t work anymore with the current technology.

I really do get freaked out by technology. But like Artim’s people in the movie, technology was imposed upon me by outsiders, and I had to overcome my fear and distrust of all things technological. When I joined the fire department it was all techno-stuff. In college it was techno-stuff. Lifesaving techno-stuff, good and beneficial techno-stuff. But no less frightening to me than the walking, talking android Starfleet Commander was to little Artim at first.

So am I some kind of tech guru now? No way. Have I lost my fear of technology? Not entirely. I’m still just an ordinary reluctant user of computers and smart phones and technology by necessity. And frankly I still fume at having it imposed upon me. I am far from embracing this new world I find myself in now, where – like Artim’s ancestors – technology threatens to destroy all life. “When you build a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man,” Artim’s father explained to Captain Picard.

Linux is not the fearful technology I imagined, though. It is simply the means by which I have overcome the tyranny imposed by Microsoft, just as the Enterprise’ technology liberated Artim’s world. In fact, Microsoft’s operating system is a lot more complicated, confusing, and bewildering than desktop Linux is. And look at the prices! Microsoft’s bloated, high-risk operating system: Two to three hundred dollars by itself, plus the cost of all the bloatware needed to maintain it (antivirus, anti-spyware, etc) and the cost of whatever software you need (Microsoft Office – $100 or more), and of course, the repeated cost of having a Microsoft Certified techno-geek repair the damage of ordinary use. Compare to Linux: Free. Completely free of charge for the operating system, no need for bloatware to maintain it, and free, open-source software like LibreOffice to do what others charge big bucks for. Maintaining it is also free of charge. Safe updates from software repositories maintained by volunteer developers, packagers, and maintainers. My Linux installs effortlessly in about 25 minutes. Try that with Winblows or Mac! I point-and-click my way through easily navigable screens, choose a name and a root (administrator) password and presto, done.

The only confusing thing for me has been all the different “flavors” Linux is available in, and the different desktop environments to choose from. But trying them all out costs nothing, and one can’t help but learn along the way. It took me a year to finally choose a favorite desktop, and two new ones have come along since then! Such wondrous variety, and all free.

More Reasons Not to Fear Linux

Linux has no “registry,” and thus no registry errors to slow it down to a crawl and no need for more software to “fix” it.

Linux is not susceptible to most viruses and malware like Winblows is, for two reasons: First because there aren’t many ‘Nixers as compared to ‘Dozers, so not much malware gets written to attack this “obscure” operating system. But second, because executable files don’t run in Linux like they do in Winblows, and the user doesn’t ordinarily operate in Linux as “Administrator” like Winblows users do. Viruses simply don’t have access to the system, and even if they get it through some act of deliberate stupidity on the part of the user, they may not even be executable there.

Linux works on just about any hardware nowadays, and it’s ideal for keeping older computers running better than new instead of replacing a perfectly good computer because Winblows doesn’t support the version that was installed when you bought it. Did you get that, WindowsXP users? Next April you don’t have to spend big bucks for a whole new machine just because support for WindowsXP is ending! There’s a completely FREE alternative that should not scare you like I was scared at first. Like Artim was.

I’m no Linux guru or techno-geek. I’m not running off to join Starfleet. I’m just an appreciative Baku boy with a better perspective of technology (and a new android friend). A little less bewildered and scared of it, and better able to help others just like me, who try to avoid technology and have been willing to pay tribute to a tyrant (Microsoft or Apple) rather than live free and on their own terms. Technology is meant to serve us, not the other way around! Remember Artim when April gets closer and your XP machine is about to become obsolete and more threatening than ever. Even a little sidekick can handle most desktop Linux distributions without any special geek-training. You can too. Don’t be scared.