I just got back to Vancouver in time to enjoy the last few days of the Olympics. As I wandered around Robson street I couldn’t help but enjoy the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the cherry blossoms on the trees downtown. Spring has definitely arrived early this year. Despite the warm weather conditions and lack of fresh snow, the winter Olympics have managed to carry on successfully. As the old adage goes “Where there is a will…there is a way”. I saw this first hand at the end of January, when Cypress mountain closed to the public and began building the course for the moguls event and snowboard cross course using straw bales and transporting in snow via helicopters from neighbouring mountain tops. The time, expense and commitment to alter mother natures’ own plan has been phenomenal. The International Organizing Committee (IOC) for the Vancouver Olympics has shown us first hand what great things can be achieved when government, organizers, volunteers, trainers and athletes are all determined and motivated to achieve a common goal. I spent a great deal of time last night (while watching the women’s curling final) musing over what changes would have to take place in our education system to get administrators, teachers, librarians, parents and students all motivated to work toward the common goal of integrating technology into our schools effectively.
The digital divide that currently exists in our education system is not only about those with limited access to computers and information and communication technologies (ICT) but is about the unequal acquisition of related skills to use that technology effectively (Wikipedia). It is a complex issue that has many structural, cultural and social influences that impact it, including: income, education, geography, gender, age, disability and aboriginal status (Looker & Thiessen, 2003). The unfortunate nature of these influences is that “many of these divisions overlap, so that some groups are doubly or triply disadvantaged” (Looker & Thiessen, 2003). According to the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) blog post entitled “Web 2.0 in Schools: Our Digital Divides are Showing”, the contributing factors to the digital divide in schools can be amalgamated into four broader categories: access, skill, policy and motivation.
Quite simply, without access to computers, adequate software and ample Internet connections, our students will be unable to participate fully as digital citizens. However, as funding to public education continues to be cut, “administrators report that they are increasingly unable to meet the budget strain to maintain adequate computer facilities” and upgrade hardware (Couture, as cited in Looker & Thiessen, 2003). We need continued government and administrative financial support to make information technology purchases and upgrades a priority in schools.
Secondly, “providing schools with technology is not sufficient to close the digital divide. Teachers must receive the appropriate training in order to use technology effectively and to increase student learning (Wikipedia). Teachers need adequate time and training to acquire pedagogies for teaching information literacy skills such as locating and evaluating digital information and using collaborative Web 2.0 tools effectively. Without proper skills, intellectual access to information will continue to widen the digital divide between students.
A third inequality exists in the policies that schools adopt with respect to restricting and filtering websites that block access to Web 2.0 tools. Although I believe that all policy makers have the same intent to protect our children in the online environment, there needs to be equality in filtering policies so that all students have the ability to access Google Docs and other programs that can be effective collaborative learning tools (Nelson, 2009).
Perhaps the largest factor that is interconnected with access, skills and policy is motivation. As my colleague Mark mentioned during our class discussion this week motivation “fundamentally influences all of the others” (Harewood, 2010). Motivation and perceived needs is what determines which restrictions policy makers put on students’ access to particular websites. It also drives government and administrative mandates for funding and providing technological equipment needed to schools. Motivation also plays an integral role in a teacher’s own professional development to gain the skills and pedagogy to effectively teach their students the skills they need. The motivation of parents also directly impacts whether their children have computer access at home. Finally, a student’s motivation will greatly determine whether they embrace information and communication technology and demonstrate responsible digital citizenship. Without motivation from all stakeholders, none of the other barriers that contribute to the digital divide can be overcome.
How I can motivate my administration, my colleagues and my students to recognize the importance of information technology and adopt its use so that it becomes infused in the curriculum is perhaps the biggest challenge I have as a librarian. Starting the discussion on the contributing factors to the digital divide is only the necessary first step. Some of the suggestions made by Jan Gahala in her article “Promoting Technology Use in Schools” that I would like to try are: 1. Request time from administrators for teachers to partake in ongoing professional development. This could take the form of paid release time for independent practice or classroom-embedded mentoring. 2. Advocate for adequate tech support. 3. Recognize teacher successes with technology and share these stories with all staff members during meetings. 4. At faculty meetings, share ideas for using technology within different content areas. 5. Continue to design collaborative projects for students with authentic uses of technology for real-world application in the classroom. When people are motivated they have the ability to overcome tremendous obstacles and achieve great things. Nothing could illustrate that better than Olympic athletes like Brian McKeever, Petra Majdic or Joannie Rochette. Despite the difficulties and problems they have endured and have persevered to not only become successful, but inspirational. They have shown us all that the seemingly impossible is yet possible. I still believe that this can hold true for narrowing the digital divide that exists in our schools today.
References American Association of School Librarians. (October 30, 2008). Web 2.0 in Schools: Our Digital Divides are Showing. Retrieved from: http://www.aasl.ala.org/aaslblog/?m=200810
Gahala, Jan. (October 2001.) Critical Issue: Promoting Technology Use in Schools. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from: http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/methods/technlgy/te200.htm
Harewood, Mark. (February 21, 2010). Information Tech for Learning: Digital Divide Discussion Question One [Msg 24]. Message Posted to: https://vista4.srv.ualberta.ca/webct/urw/lc5122011.tp0/cobaltMainFrame.dowebct
Looker, Diane. Thiessen, Victor. (June 2003). The Digital Divide in Canadian Schools: Factors affecting student access to and use of information technology. Research Data Centres Program.
Nelson, Cathy. (December 30, 2009). Educational Inequality: more than just race or funding. TechnoTuesday blog. Retrieved from: http://blog.cathyjonelson.com/?p=1078.
Wikipedia (n.d) Digital Divide. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide
As I get older I start to appreciate my mom a whole lot more and wonder if I would ever have the same strength to accomplish what she did. My father died when my twin sister and I were only 3 years old, leaving her to raise 3 children on her own in a very isolated country cabin. I sent my mom a Valentine’s Day card this year to let her know I love her but I also felt compelled to express how thankful I was for her constant love, support and trust. Instead of clinging to us, as some mothers might when faced with such a dear loss, she raised us to be inquisitive and adventuresome. She allowed us the freedom to explore (“I’ll send you a postcard from every country I visit!”) and trusted us to set our own boundaries (“I’ll be home by midnight”), and learn from our own mistakes (“oops…I won’t do THAT again!”), knowing that we could come to her for help or assistance if needed (“mom, we dared Jen to lick the mailbox and now she can’t get her tongue off”).Her implicit trust allowed for reciprocal honesty and a lack of fear that there would ever be unwarranted repercussions for mistakes and accidents, as long as we acted responsibly. She managed to find that delicate balance between protection and trust in our abilities. This is something that I think all parents juggle with. As a teacher, I also feel that most educators feel the need to create a safe, learning environment and protect our students’ safety. But I often wonder if we aren’t being too overprotective and create an atmosphere that limits creativity and inquiry, and impinges on intellectual freedom, especially when it comes to online, internet filters.
Almost all schools across Canada and the US have some form of content-filtering system in place. “In many cases, schools have cranked up their filters so high that students searching for an innocuous but easily misunderstood term can’t get anywhere” (Villano). This can be extremely frustrating for both students and teachers. For students, my concern goes beyond being blocked to valid information during research projects on topics like the Canadian beaver or breast cancer. When students are blocked by sites that they regularly access outside of school, it starts to create a “digital disconnect” and further supports the sentiment that “real-learning takes place at home” (Bell). It also sends the clear message to students that we don’t trust them to make the right decisions or stay safe online.
Many teachers are also frustrated by filtering. Again, my concern here goes past the obvious point that blocking sites is infringing on intellectual freedom. I am more concerned about the message that is being sent to educators that tech personnel (who haven’t necessarily studied education) have more right to judge which interactive sites are educational or not. To many teachers, it becomes a question of professional respect that they are not trusted to judge and make choices about the sites they’d like to access in their classrooms. Of course teachers can request to have sites unblocked. However, from my discussions with other colleagues, this can often be an onerous and time-consuming task, that requires administration to step in on our behalves. The end result, as pointed out by Cathy Nelson is complacency by many educators to accept the status quo, even if they don’t agree with the decisions being made.
I support Villano’s opinion that “filters are well-intentioned, but inadequate”. The fact is, many teens can still get around a standard filter and “surmount the protective wall constructed by school staff to keep them safe” buy using anonymous proxies (Losinski). This information is readily shared on Facebook sites that are devoted to sharing strategies for getting around school filters (Warlick). Not only does this waste valuable instructional time, but is a constant source of frustration for tech personnel. It also erodes the trust between teachers, students and administration. Again, I have to agree with Villano that this is not a dispute about whether or not we need to protect kids, but “whether or not mandated internet filters are the best way to achieve those safeguards” (Villano).
The best long term solution that I have seen proposed is “shifting the emphasis from policing the way students use the internet to educating them about using it more safely” (Villano). How will this impact my teaching in the short term? I will continue to teach my students some of the topics suggested by David Warlick including: digital citizenship, how to safeguard personal information, reporting and ignoring advances from strangers, how to handle cyber-bullying, and being courteous in online communication. I will also follow Buffy Hamilton’s advice and continue to educate my administration and tech personnel about the sites I want unblocked and show how they will improve student engagement and achievement. Most importantly, I need to remind my administration that students need guided instruction and opportunities to learn how to use social media thoughtfully and wisely (Hamilton). We need to give our students as many opportunities as possible to think for themselves, apply what they know and develop good judgment.
My mom is not only one of the greatest people I know, she was also a fantastic teacher for over 30 years. In my own classroom I often think about what makes for a successful student. The answer is often comprised of what my mother gave to me and my sisters – honesty, open dialogue, freedom to explore and many opportunities to build trust by allowing us to think for ourselves and show good judgment. I think we should be enabling our students to do the same.
Bell, Mary Ann. (Sept/Oct. 2008). I’m Mad and I’m Not Gonna Take it Anymore! Multimedia & Internet@Schools. p. 37-39.
Hamilton, Buffy. (December 10, 2009). Fighting the Filter. The Unquiet Librarian Blog. Retrieved from: http://theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/fighting-the-filter/
Losinski, Robert. (March 2007). Patrolling Web 2.0. T.H.E Journal. 34 (3), p. 50.
Nelson, Cathy. (October 17, 2009). Filters? A Problem of Complacency? Techno Tuesday Blog. Retrieved from: http://blog.cathyjonelson.com/?p=954
Villano, Matt. (May 2008). What Are We Protecting Them From? T.H.E. Journal. 35 (5), p. 48.
There is no question that students today are different than they were 10 years ago. As any classroom teacher can attest, it is rare to find paper notes on the floor of the classroom at the end of the day. Instead, it has become commonplace to witness students text-messaging the person sitting next to them, their friend in the class down the hall or perhaps the boyfriend in the other high school across town. Prensky has termed these learners “Digital Natives” in reference to the fact that they are the first generation born and raised in a completely digital world. Many of my students have never seen a rotary dial phone and give me absolutely horrified looks when I tell them I grew up with a black and white TV without cable or a remote. To them, the concept of life without the internet is alien. In turn, they share many characteristics that also seem foreign to me. They spend more than double the time with technology than they do reading books, and are more comfortable sending texts or instant messages than emailing or calling on the phone (Palfrey & Gasser). They routinely multi-task, are constantly connected and have many real and virtual friends- some of whom they've never met in person (Palfrey & Gasser). But I often wonder - are these ‘Digital Natives’ that fundamentally different from me, and do they actually learn differently than I did when I was their age? If so, what are the best ways to engage and teach ‘Digital Natives’? What are some of the barriers that teachers are facing when teaching their students today, and how do we overcome them?
In Danah Boyd’s presentation on “Teenagers who are living and learning with Social Media”, she states that teens have the same basic interests as previous generations. Hanging out with friends, flirting, gossiping and joking around are the underlying dynamics of teen culture and this has not changed from generation to generation. What has changed is the advent of new technologies that change the methods and visibility of their socializing. Teens would still prefer to hand out with their friends in person, but if their class schedules don’t match or they lack mobility, it has become advantageous to meet and chat online instead (Boyd). Naturally, the online socializing that students do outside the classroom has implications on the social environment in the school. But does their use of technology actually change the way that these students learn?
Some, like Prensky would suggest that “today’s students have not changed incrementally, [but] a big discontinuity has taken place”. So much so, that their brains’ thinking patterns have actually changed. Whether or not digital learning has actually changed the brains’ processes has yet to be established. However, there are many psychologists, neuroscientists and educational theorists trying to determine how learning in a digital environment compares to ‘traditional’ learning and whether Digital Natives absorb and retain information the same way (Palfrey & Gasser). Even if we are unable to ascertain if the brain itself is changing in the digital world, we need to accept that the mode of socializing and learning is changing. “In order for schools to adapt to the habits of Digital Natives and how they are processing information, educators need to accept that the mode of learning is changing rapidly in a digital age. Before answering the questions about how precisely to use technology in schools, we must understand these changes." (Palfrey & Gasser). Once this is better understood, we can overcome the first barrier to teaching Digital Natives and it will become easier to adapt educational pedagogies.
The second barrier to teaching Digital Natives exists in the digital divide that is forming, not only in availability of funding for new technologies in schools, but also in providing the necessary tech literacy skills. Funding to provide new technology to schools varies so widely between the provinces and the disparity between schools even within the same district can also be surprisingly different. Secondly, very little professional development has taken place for teachers to become comfortable with new technologies. Many administrators are installing smart boards and projectors in classrooms without giving the teachers any support in how to actually use them effectively in their teaching. As a result, many teachers find them to be 'gadgets' instead of tools that can actually help them and their students. This is resulting in a second type of digital divide that is forming between students who have been taught critical thinking skills and information literacy and those who have not. We cannot assume that all Digital Natives are tech-savvy just because they have access to technology and grew up with exposure to it. This barrier can only be resolved with adequate funding and adequate professional development for teachers in all schools, in all provinces.
A third barrier that exists in teaching Digital Natives is labeling them as such. On one hand, “labels in education may facilitate understanding in generalized conversations providing all participants understand the terms” (Harewood). In labeling this group as ‘Digital Natives' it forces current educators to examine the way in which they communicate and learn. By labeling a group as ‘Digital’, it could serve as a blatant and useful reminder to teachers that we are indeed dealing with a different ‘model’ of student and that as a result, teaching methods need to evolve as well. On the other hand, I feel that this label is more harmful than beneficial. The pitfall of labeling any group is the assumptions that ALL students this age become plagued with. One of the myths identified in Christine Greenhow's article "Who Are Today's Learners?” was that every digital native student is extremely techno-savvy. It has been shown that this assumption is not necessarily true. Danah Boyd agrees, saying that by labeling our students as ‘Digital Natives’ “we project a lot of assumptions onto them that they must be experts because they’re using technology all the time”. As educators, we can’t assume that they are inherently better with technology, just because they’ve been exposed to it all their lives. As adults and educators, we simply have far more information, experience and sociality behind us than our students, and we also “have a critical thinking around technology that [our students] don’t necessarily have” (Boyd). Our role as educators is to help empower our students “to do what they’re already doing and make sense of it in a broader world” (Boyd). If we continue to label our students as ‘Digital Natives’ and ourselves as “Digital Immigrants, we overemphasize the differences between groups, and in the process exaggerate the divides that exist between us. “The more that we assume it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’, the more we create these generational divides that cost us every day.” (Boyd.)
So what can we do to overcome these barriers and teach our students better? First and foremost, we need to forget any assumptions that we may have about our students’ being tech-savvy just because they’ve grown up surrounded by technology and the internet. Second, we should be providing the scaffolding to help young people develop critical thinking and information literacy skills with technology (Boyd). Finally, as commented on NetFamilyNews Blog we should also recognize that “it’s new technology but the same old concepts of ethics and responsibility” apply (Collier). We need to teach our students safe online behaviour and emphasis the importance of creating an online identity that reflects who they truly are and leave positive digital footprints (Palfrey & Gasser).
Boyd, Danah. (May 12, 2009).Living and Learning with Social Media. YouTube. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rmoc9F6fceQ
Collier, Anne. (December 3, 2009). Not Just Digital Natives & Immigrants! NetFamilyNews.org. Retrieved from:http://www.netfamilynews.org/2009/12/not-just-digital-natives-immigrants.html
Greenhow, Christine. (September/October 2008). Who Are Today’s Learners? Learning & Leading with Technology. 36 (4), 10-11.
Harewood, Mark. (February 1, 2010). Information Tech for Learning: Digital Natives Discussion Question One [Msg 2]. Message Posted to: https://vista4.srv.ualberta.ca/webct/urw/lc5122011.tp0/cobaltMainFrame.dowebct
Palfrey, John. Gasser, Urs. (2008). Digital Natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Prensky, Marc. (October 2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. 9 (5), 1-6.
Image Credit: Fetus talking on cell phone. Retrieved from: http://francisanderson.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/gyj_bor_rou_sha.jpg