We're Closing the Digital Divide. Now Let's End the Participation Gap.

Diversity and Equity

We're Closing the Digital Divide. Now Let's End the Participation Gap.

By Matt Hiefield and Vanessa Monterosa     Oct 16, 2018

We're Closing the Digital Divide. Now Let's End the Participation Gap.

First some good news: the divide in access to digital devices is decreasing. School districts across the country are upgrading networks and integrating more classroom technology, and smartphones have become increasingly ubiquitous across socioeconomic lines. With that said, there are still significant gaps for some students at home. Educators are beginning to take note of a new problem: a digital participation divide.

Previously, the digital participation divide seemed to revolve around access time. Wealthier students traditionally had more access at home, while students of poverty had less access due to a variety of economic factors. Now the quality of digital participation is coming into question. Recent studies have shown that lower income children often spend more time with technology as it has become a type of “digital babysitter” for parents who have to be out of the house for extended periods of time.

According to one article, a recent survey from Common Sense Media discovered that “low-income parents sat their young children, from birth to age eight, in front of a television or a computer screen for 3 hours and 29 minutes a day, on average”—almost double the amount of screen time that high-income children get. More specifically, the participation divide refers to the fact that some students are more plugged into an internet culture around creating, connecting with others and giving and receiving feedback around their work.

Digital Citizenship Promotes Digital Equity

This observation around screen time and media usage has profound implications for educators. The solution, however, is not to take technology away from students. Rather, educators need to develop or renew a focus on digital citizenship, and this includes the cultivation of a digital footprint that reflects their knowledge, interests and passions that can be leveraged to support their college/career aspirations.

Often seen as an “add on” consideration in many districts, digital citizenship needs to be addressed intentionally. Most of our students have not had a formal in-depth instruction on digital citizenship. Although students may get some instruction at home, many families simply do not have the background to do this. In fact, research has shown that at all family income levels, it is often students who are teaching their parents about technology. This landscape requires a formal and deliberate approach to teaching digital citizenship and creating systems to support its classroom implementation.

This means not only teaching specific digital citizenship skills across the curriculum, but also communicating with (and teaching) parents as well. Most report cards and online grading platforms do not communicate any information on digital citizenship skills and the appropriate use (and overuse) of technology. While organizations like Common Sense Media are playing an important role in educating families, schools and school districts must participate in a systemic manner as well.

This digital participation divide becomes more apparent when looking beyond the number of devices found in schools. The teaching that is taking place within schools with technology becomes a matter of equity and educational opportunity. Using technology to “drill and kill” students for test prep saps the creativity and curiosity out of the classroom environment.

These types of activities contain little to no collaboration and don’t allow for research and deeper inquiry skills—a key part of digital citizenship curricula. Using technology in this way might appear to be easier when it comes to managing classroom behavior as it can provide a framework for specific directions (e.g. “finish this practice test in the next 30 minutes”). Paradoxically, these types of lessons can encourage boredom, dread and misbehavior.

Getting Started and Making Improvements

Schools and districts around the country are working hard to integrate digital citizenship with varying rates of success. However, efforts are often focused at the classroom level with little system-level support, such as through explicit policies and district-level programs. For this reason, it is critical to engage digital citizenship from a system-level perspective, embedding digital citizenship practices across the instructional program.

For example, districts might develop or update policies to incorporate elements of digital citizenship, signaling to stakeholders that digital citizenship is not an add on—it is an essential element to help students thrive in an increasingly digital world.

If your school or district needs time to adjust to a systems-level approach to digital citizenship, consider centering conversations around updating your district's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to reflect both the responsibility of maintaining technology and leveraging it to engage in meaningful and effective ways online. Incorporating concepts of digital participation in a district policy helps build a culture of digital citizenship, especially when tied to a main policy document such as an AUP.

If your school or district is ready to answer ISTE CEO Richard Culatta's #DigCitCommit call—which encourages educators to do just one thing to promote positive digital citizenship—consider developing a policy that positions digital citizenship as a critical life skill for the college and career success of today's learners.

Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District developed a Social Media Policy for both students and staff, identifying the instructional opportunities available when educators allow for authentic digital participation that helps students establish a positive, meaningful digital footprint. Providing dynamic and transformational learning opportunities for all of our students remains an ongoing challenge, and a laser like focus on digital citizenship is key to achieving digital equity for all our students.

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