In a recent post at KQED/Mindshift, Tina Barseghian reports on the work of Michael Mills, a professor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Arkansas, who advocates for closing the digital divide between high and low income students. He argues that increasing access to digital devices can play a role in empowering low income students by opening pathways to information and social media, and by proxy, achievement. Ms. Barseghian cites a recent study reported at Mashable that demonstrated a 30% increase in test scores for low income students who were allowed to use mobile devices for learning and collaborating.
However, access and usage in schools vary along economic lines. The higher the income of the student body, the greater the availability and application of digital tools. Dr. Mills argues that this trend could be a matter of expectations and perhaps even “blatant racism” in the form of adults assuming that low income (read as minority) students will misuse digital domains. Ms. Barseghian quotes him as saying,
Access is a basic right. It’s the same as roads or clean water or electricity. Those are [accessible] here in this country because we expect it. The same thing should apply to the Internet. The Internet is about empowerment. If we take away this access because we think certain people aren’t going to use it right, we’re no better than governments who take away voting rights from minorities.
Ms. Barseghian goes on to provide a list of 11 ways that Dr. Mills suggests educators can work to narrow the divide.
HOW TO NARROW THE DIVIDE
For educators who want to start chipping away at the divide, Mills listed a number of ways.
1. GIVE STUDENTS ACCESS.
Many Title 1 schools — those in low-income communities — receive funds and grants, but don’t always buy what they need. If they have enough funds, Mills said schools should invest in a 1-1 program — a device for every student.
2. GIVE STUDENTS PROMPTS
Whether it’s the school that provides the device, or whether students are allowed to use their own, it’s important to give them guidance on how to use those devices for learning. “Students do not generally use their personal technology for learning activities unprompted,” he said. “We have to provide them with prompts.”
Educators should also be instrumental in guiding student etiquette with devices. For students who use text-speak and shorthand when handing in assignments, teachers can ask them to proofread and resend until the assignments are up to par. “We can teach them to use mobile literacy to help themselves,” he said.
3. PROVIDE INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES.
“We need to think about what we are teaching,” Mills said. “This is not technology — this is Pedagogy 101.” Educators must understand the dotted line between an assigned activity and the instructional objective, which should be tied to learning skills.
4. MAKE YOURSELF AVAILABLE.
Just giving kids a number where they can reach you has “exponential impact,” Mills said. “Just that small gesture tells kids you’re available.” For those who don’t feel comfortable giving students their phone numbers, Mills suggests using a Google voice account, which students can call and leave messages.
5. INVITE OBSERVERS TO YOUR MOBILE ENHANCED CLASS.
Parents, other teachers, and administrators will learn a lot from watching how kids can plug into learning by using their devices. During their visits, talk about the upward trajectory of kids you’ve noticed who have benefited from the change.
6. INVENTORY THE DEVICES.
Keep track of who owns what kind of device (especially after the holidays when kids receive new ones). This way, you can create flexible, shifting groups to make sure there’s a good variety of devices in every group. Don’t place all the iPhone 5 users in one group — mix them up to promote equity.
7. USE DISCRETION.
Be careful not to publicly call out kids who don’t have a device when organizing groups. Use common sense and compassion.
8. USE EVERYTHING YOU HAVE.
If the school has 10 Kindles, find ways to use them in your class. If it has six iPods or 30 computers, don’t let them collect dust. Even the oldest computers can be fired up for basic research.
9. REFRAME PRODUCTIVITY.
Sitting quietly doesn’t exemplify productivity, Mills said. If you have flexible processes, you can give students different ways of understanding.
10. TEACH PROCESS NOT CONTENT.
All educators, but especially those who teach low-income students, need to be open to students’ ideas of showing what they’ve learned. If they don’t want to write a blog, but want to create a video, be open to it.
11. VALUE COLLABORATION.
Promote group work and project based learning.
While these can make a difference at a classroom and school level, what can we do on a larger societal level to change the game for low income students when it comes to digital access and technological empowerment?