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Technology and Early Learning: Part Three Bridging the Digital Divide
Practical Resources for Educators

Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at global learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). She is a member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School and senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
This piece was originally published on 02/05/2015 on the HMH blog.

Just over 30 years ago, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates shared a vision for a society with “a computer on every desk and in every Girl at computerhome.” We’ve made great progress since then – over 80% of the American population now has a home computer and more people than ever now use the internet. From smartphones to Skype, digital resources shape much of our daily lives.

Today’s edtech landscape is exciting, with adaptive technology, learning management tools and interactive content designed for students on-the-go. However, we still have work to do when it comes to digital equity and closing the digital divide — the Pew Research Center reports that digital access varies drastically by state and geography.

Furthermore, educators report a number of barriers to smooth tech integration in the classroom, from budget challenges to low-bandwidth internet connections to lack of professional development, and many have also observed that their classroom’s use of technology remains basic – word processing, video projection or simple research.

We’ve explored the concept of “too much” tech and the importance of a digital diet in the last post, but what’s at stake when learners do not have access to digital learning resources?

Here’s some food for thought about the digital divide and education:

  • 72% of public K-12 schools and the majority of public libraries do not have sufficient broadband to support 21st century learning.
  • 30% of households do not have high-speed internet, making it difficult for students to benefit from digital learning tools at home.
  • Teachers and students in underserved areas disproportionately carry the burden of these access issues.
  • 85% of teachers surveyed by the Pew Research Center seek out their own opportunities for professional development around effective use of tech; 75% say digital tools have added new demands to their lives.
  • 84% of teachers worry that access to new technology is leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and districts.

Comprehensive digital literacy and advanced technology training has become more essential than ever to career development and college-readiness. We can’t afford to have some students using microblogs, creating podcasts and communicating with instructors via social networks, while others struggle with outdated hardware and limited internet connections. Without holistic action to bridge this access gap, many young people (and educators) will be left behind. 

Digital equity is a complex systemic issue that stretches beyond the education space, but it is not insurmountable and individual actions will make a difference. So, what can educators looking to increase access and sharpen skills within their own classrooms and communities do to move forward? There’s plenty:

Look To Your Greater Community

  • Explore creating technology alliances with civic organizations such as the YMCARotary, and Boys and Girls Clubs
  • Local community colleges, colleges and universities have some of the best technology resource centers around. They also often have services for the greater community, like volunteer mentoring programs and free or inexpensive workshops.
  • Children’s museums offer age-appropriate technology centers for teachers, parents and kids. See if there is an Intel Computer Clubhouse in your community and encourage students to join.
  • Create relationships with local businesses. Many are interested in community investment and can offer professional development for teachers and/or resources for students.

Utilize Complimentary Tech Support 

  • Stores that sell computers often hold workshops for people that have recently purchased equipment. Sales people can be very knowledgeable and eager to help you better understand the technology landscape.
  • All tech companies provide tutorials, videos and product information for their products. Increasingly, customer service support is available by online chat in addition to toll-free phone calls and is reliable and real-time.
  • Internet and telecommunications providers routinely have school and at-home programs available for communities and families that do not regular have internet access. 

Visit Your Local Library Network

  • Make a standing appointment with a local resource librarian. Libraries often offer free courses or seminars. You could even provide questions prior to your appointment to maximize learning time.
  • Most public libraries now offer computer and internet access. Don’t be afraid to ask the librarians for information about access – what are the rules or guidelines for young users? Are there times when the computer stations are used for classes, or are very busy? Are there branches of your local library network that are especially well-equipped?
  • Check out a book! There are many great print resources on technology for beginners looking to enhance their digital skills and expertise.

Technology is best learned through practice. If one thing is certain about the tech boom, it is that the digital landscape is constantly evolving. It is easier to gain confidence when you understand that learning new things is an inherent part of using and benefitting from technology. And don’t be scared to learn from your students – they make great teachers, too!