The New Digital Divide? What’s Really Holding Teachers Back

When, thirty years ago, Steve Jobs predicted that there would be a computer in every home, the world was incredulous. Since then, his prophecy has largely been realized — across most communities.

There are still many places where the “digital divide”separates people who have access to technology from those who do not. Unequal access across different regions and socioeconomic groups looms large in the world of education, too, as students with personal computers, broadband access, and in turn, online learning tools enjoy opportunities that many of their peers lack.

The Digital Divide in the Classroom

As educational tools have increasingly gone digital — from flipped classrooms to tech P.E. — the divide no longer affects households alone. It’s now an issue in classrooms, as well.

As much as educators are excited and dazzled by the new, creative, and high-appeal formats that digital content and tools offer, many are finding they don’t always have the resources, skills, or time to use them.

The Possibilities of Widespread Digital Access

When digital tools are incorporated effectively, however, the results can be staggering. Many curricula that were once largely designed around a single, comprehensive paper textbook have been re-envisioned for digital media, with surprisingly effective results. A study of school districts in New Jersey and California that incorporated PBSLearningMedia resources into their curricula found that on average, “across subject areas, students’ performance on content assessment increased by 8 percentage points over the course of the study” (original emphasis). Additionally, “Participating students outperformed national and state norms for the content assessments on average of 10 and 11 percentage points at the end of the study.”

Videos, interactive games, and apps can all be interwoven into cohesive and engaging lesson plans that address multiple learning styles, creating a rich learning experience for students. Educators now have a whole new suite of digital tools on hand to tailor their students’ education. Rocky Mountain Middle School, for instance, relies on a wholly digital curriculum; students learn math, writing, English, Spanish, history, and science with the help of electronic devices. Over the course of one year, the school saw proficiency rates increase by more than 3 percent proficiency on the Utah SAGE scores in Language Arts.

As new digital learning tools are created, more information is being discovered about how students learn, and how technology creates more opportunities for learning. Students can manipulate a STEM curriculum text on interactive whiteboard-ready lessons to gain greater insight into math problems. Educational videos such as documentaries can similarly be woven into digital-rich, interactive history lessons. At Cypress Point Elementary School, Brittany Taraba found that using the web-based Eureka Math curriculum helped her students solve advanced math problems with ease.

As much as the value of these innovative digital resources is being increasingly recognized, and they are created carefully with the needs of educators and students in mind, they can still remain an untapped resource, often for simple, overlooked reasons.

Lack of Training

A major hurdle inhibiting educators from using digital resources is a lack of technology skills. In some cases, schools and educators rush to purchase and adopt high-quality, innovative digital programs — only to find them gathering dust on the “digital shelf.”

A basic knowledge of software and hardware platforms is required to implement many new tools; educators need to know how to load and launch programs, and how to update browsers if one doesn’t support a particular program.

Technical support is, furthermore, not available within many school buildings. When this support is lacking, educators may not be able to ascertain how to connect an iPad to an interactive whiteboard, for instance. If educators don’t have the necessary training to work with new technological resources, they will have to spend (often their own) time and possibly money to acquire these skills.

When the Hoboken School District gave every student at the Hoboken Junior Senior High School their very own laptop, the computers ended up in a storage closet instead of in the classroom. Laptops were stolen and damaged at such a rate that the small tech staff couldn’t keep up. Nor were teachers trained how best to use the computers for lessons. Instead, students reported using the computers for typing up their homework and doing research, but mostly “played games to mess around when we had free time.”

Lack of Time

A lack of time remains a significant barrier for integrating digital technology into already existing curriculum. Not only does it take time to set up the equipment and learn the basic design of new digital resources, but digital materials also require that educators reimagine existing curricula so they may take advantage of new digital content; one reason why standalone digital resources are so popular is that they can be popped into lesson plans without much adjustment.

Educators are already hard-pressed to teach within an approved curricular structure, and incorporating digital content can prove too high a burden on their overtaxed schedules — particularly when they don’t also have significant support from school leaders or districts.

Lack of Access

The lack of equipment is another obstacle that educators face. Do students have access to tablets and computers? Sometimes, schools may have the equipment, but if it’s outdated, it’s virtually useless because it doesn’t support the newest programs. Low-income schools, for example, may have equipment, but it’s often donated, and likely outdated and in need of expensive upgrades — which means taking up staff time and costly tech support.

If there is equipment, is there enough for each student and educator? Digital resources like interactive whiteboard-ready lessons often require that all students have access to the materials as they engage with the content simultaneously. And what about Internet access and WiFi? Many digital resources rely on high-speed Internet connections — imagine downloading a five-minute video with a dial-up connection. In the case of Hoboken Junior Senior High School, the issue was actually too much access; the whole town knew the school's wireless login information — and used it — which overburdened the network.

Possible Solutions

While content producers can offer some troubleshooting tips, educators who are already stretched thin and schools that are already strapped for cash still carry the time and financial burdens of implementing new digital resources.

Some districts have found ways to fund technology specialists to help educators redesign curriculum with new digital content and skilled tech staff to troubleshoot software and hardware problems in schools. The Tacoma Public Schools District in Washington State has an Instructional Technology Department that supports teachers as they incorporate digital content into their lesson plans.

Other solutions include building incentives for teachers to hone their technology skills, and making technology classes a part of required professional development. The Farmington Public School District in Michigan, for example, offers “E3 Certification” — Engage, Enhance, Empower — to encourage teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms. Once teachers achieve E3 Certification, which means demonstrating technology skills, implementing best practices, and working with colleagues to promote technology in the classroom, they are able to take advantage of other opportunities within the district — like grants — as well as receive additional recognition on their teaching evaluations.

These are all valuable ways forward — but still, not every school can afford them. Even when grants are available for technology, schools don’t always have the time and resources to apply for them. Similarly, when professional development opportunities make their way into districts, overburdened teachers may not be able to avail themselves of the training.

Still, more and more schools are successfully incorporating digital tools into their curricula. Jobs’s prediction seemed outlandish three decades ago. Now, it’s nearly a reality. The next frontier will be getting functioning technology into every classroom across America, with the time and resources to support its use.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education news, learn more about schools near you, and ask questions of our community of education experts.

Questions or feedback? Write to us a [email protected], or leave a comment below.