At Youngstown State last week, we held a one-day institute on teaching with technology. Faculty and staff spent the day talking about innovative ways of using technology to facilitate our students’ learning, and a keynote speaker, Gardner Campbell, challenged us to think creatively about how technology is changing education. Among other things, he suggested that tools like digital storytelling and blogs can engage students in more active critical thinking and communicating and help extend their learning far beyond the classroom. While participants expressed enthusiasm and curiosity about how they might expand their uses of technology, a side conversation kept popping up – a conversation about the whether we can fully use new media technologies when we teach so many poor and working-class students, for whom the digital divide remains a real challenge.
In my own divided professional life, with one foot in working-class studies and another in scholarship of teaching and learning, I have often felt frustrated listening to my colleagues touting ever more technologically-grounded pedagogies. Predictably, many of those who most avidly develop and promote innovative uses of new media work at elite institutions where they have access to the latest equipment and software as well as support for innovative, technology-centered pedagogy. They’ve heard me complain perhaps too often that I can’t do what they do, because I don’t have enough technical support, and I sometimes can’t even get my classes into computer labs. Working-class institutions simply can’t afford to provide the quality and quantity of technology available at wealthier schools.
But, of course, the digital divide in higher education isn’t just about faculty access. Access is an even greater challenge for poor and working-class students. 2009 data from the U.S. Census shows that the lower the household income and the lower the level of education in a family – two key measures of social class — the less likely people are to use the internet. African-Americans and Hispanics also use the internet less than whites or Asians. Given those patterns, it’s not surprising that working-class students, especially students of color, often do not have internet access at home. Those who do are more likely to use dial-up services or to work on older, slower computers.
Colleges and universities try to address this problem by providing open labs and wireless internet access in college buildings. But even with reasonably good technology available on campus, many of our students struggle to complete online assignments, access readings and other course materials online, or do projects using new media. Why?
The obvious answer is time. At YSU and many other urban working-class institutions, most of our students live off-campus, sometimes as much as an hour away, and most work, often 40 hours a week or more. They come to campus for classes, and they have difficulty finding time to stay or to come back to access computers. Often, the time they have to do schoolwork is the middle of the night, when campus labs are closed.
But even when they can find time to work on campus computers, these students come into the lab with limited experience, so doing internet-based assignments is harder. They may not be familiar with the software or have enough experience to confidently figure it out on their own. At YSU, the Writing Center is trying to address that aspect of the technology gap by offering workshops on the basics of word processing as well as how to use a flash drive and e-mail. But for many, catching up digitally is a slow and daunting process.
Yet, as educational researcher Joanna Goode has argued, the problem goes beyond computer access and skills. She suggests that by the time they reach college, students have developed a “technological identity,” a set of ideas and expectations about their own relationship with technology. Students who have had limited access to technology before college may well come into the classroom, and even more important into the computer lab, worried about their own lack of knowledge and unsure about whether they can ever catch up. Goode argues that such students need training and support, not just better technical access.
Even as some of our students struggle to work well with emerging technologies, others come with years of experience, expertise, and digital flexibility. In a chapter in Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Linda B. Nielson identifies some of the characteristics of the “millennial generation.” It’s just one of many articles from the last decade telling us that today’s college students think differently and have different expectations of college, in part because they are – supposedly – so immersed in new media technology. For faculty at working-class institutions, especially, that creates an even greater challenge: while some of our students are struggling with technology, others are much more tech-savvy than we are, and they want us to use technology more fully and more creatively. Finding the balance between the two sides of the digital divide – two sides that are growing further apart – remains a challenge, one with which we must wrestle even as we develop new ways of teaching with technology.
How are we to bridge this gap? We begin, of course, with awareness. Those of us who teach poor and working-class students must be mindful of the challenges some of our students will face in using technology. And we must be prepared to offer alternatives. That might mean accepting a hand-written journal in lieu of online discussion postings from a few students or providing hard copies of online resources. It might also mean being a bit lenient on deadlines. Our institutions could go beyond providing access to hardware and software on campus. Some internet providers offer discounted internet access through educational institutions, and schools could rent equipment.
But as Goode suggests, we must also be prepared to teach not just the content but also the tools, including technology. That can happen on the institutional level, through workshops to help students develop their computer skills, but some of the work will fall on the shoulders of individual faculty. If we want to use technology in the classroom, and if we know that some of our students are not fully prepared, then it’s in our interest as well as that of our students to help them.
Technology provides opportunities for more active, inquiry-based learning, and many faculty are excited by the possibilities. We see how new media can expand our students’ learning opportunities, engage them in significant questions, connect them with authentic audiences, and help them develop skills for both professional and personal life. If we want to embrace those possibilities, we must accept responsibility not only for preparing ourselves but also for preparing our students.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies