Are Shrinking Budgets Widening the Digital Divide?

March 24, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom

Last month’s issue of T.H.E. Journal: Technological Horizons in Education, recently made available online, brought up an issue we’ve been meaning to talk about here on the blog: digital equity. With ed-tech companies often catering to schools in search of latest technologies—and those with more money to spend—while other districts battle shrinking IT budgets, many experts are concerned that the digital divide will only widen.

Technapex writer Caity Doyle summarized the issue in her recent blog post:

If an edtech company focuses on developing tools for the lowest common denominator schools, they can be left in the dust, far behind companies who are developing expensive tools for students with access to the latest technology. But when companies ignore schools with outdated technology and fail to address issues of old hardware and lack of internet connection in student homes, they widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to digital learning tools.

T.H.E. Journal echoed Doyle’s sentiment. In their cover article, “The Incredible Shrinking Budget,” a panel of school district CTOs (chief technology officers) touched on the problematic issue of weighing needed technology upgrades against school budgets.

“We’ve always used our computers for six to seven years,” said director of technology at Palo Alto (California) Unified School District Ann Dunkin. Dunkin added that once computers can no longer meet the needs of middle schools, they are then sent to elementary schools where they move down the grade levels, ultimately retiring in kindergarten classrooms. “I have to pry ancient Macs that don’t have wireless cards out of the hands of kindergarten teachers,” said Dunkin. “Generally, computers don’t go to recycling until they are broken and worthless.”

The issue here is obvious—outdated hardware impairs educators’ ability to integrate new technologies in their pedagogy. And the concept of sending lower functioning, less-effective computers into elementary school classrooms as a recycling solution is, well, dubious at best. However, for some schools, this is the only option.

Another panelist, chief technology officer of Judson (Texas) Independent School District Steve Young, explained an IT plan that is expected to save the district 50 percent up front with savings totaling over $125,000. “Recently we purchased some relatively high-end refurbished equipment with five-year warranties, which we feel is a very sustainable practice,” said Young. “We are able to reuse some gently used computers, which are very high-quality computers, and should work very well for our staff for many years before we end up recycling them.”

In a recent Pew survey of middle and high school teachers (we wrote about it here), educators report big differences in access to the latest digital technologies between lower and higher income students and school districts. Teachers of students from low-income households were more likely to describe their school as “behind the curve.” And those teachers say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies at home is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching.

Some say that this issue of digital equity, and how school districts are working to overcome their limitations, is one that needs more publicity. Reporter for GigaOm and recent attendee of SXSWedu Ki Mae Heussner mentioned that despite the pressing need to talk about digital equity, it was absent from discussion at the Austin ed-tech conference earlier this month.

“Technology (especially mobile) is marching its way into communities across the country. But, obviously, that doesn’t mean penetration, quality and connectivity are evenly distributed,” wrote Heussner. Like Doyle, Heussner brought up the importance of developing technology for the “lowest common denominator” in schools, and said that only a few speakers touched on the topic, however briefly.

“In his keynote speech, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton cautioned the crowd to be mindful of the potential for technology to exacerbate the gap between kids in richer and poorer communities,” said Heussner. “But, amid presentations from Silicon Valley startups and discussions about pilot programs with the Palo Alto Unified School District, I didn’t hear digital equity issues echoed widely throughout the conference. I wish I did.”

In a presentation at the Digital Media and Learning Conference earlier this month, Justin Reich made a similar argument. He says that as we move toward emphasizing the power of individual learners, letting kids explore their own interests, and so on, we have to make sure we don’t exacerbate the existing opportunity divide.

The good news is that digital tools are letting kids hack their learning, communities, and world in all kinds of awesome new ways. The bad news is that these opportunities are not evenly distributed, and they may be accelerating inequalities between more and less affluent youth.

A new effort launched last week, Connect2Compete’s “EveryoneOn” campaign, aims to ameliorate some of this divide by offering free digital literacy training, high-speed internet, and low-cost computers to low-income communities. Read more at MindShift