Bridging the Digital Divide in College

Over at the excellent Working Class Perspectives blog, Sherry Linkon has posted a thoughtful and provocative post The Digital Divide Goes to College. Spurred by a recent professional development day in which faculty at her working-class college were encouraged to use technology in innovative ways to support students’ learning, Sherry grapples with what New Media and new uses of technology might mean for poor and working-class students who are likely to have more limited access to technology off campus, who may arrive at college less experienced and less confident in technology, and who have very limited time to learn new skills.

These are vital questions and Sherry is so right when she notes that advocates of technology in teaching may glibly assume that all students (and all campuses) have access to similar resources.

They don’t.

Yet as Sherry notes:

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.

These are the very questions I’ve been grappling with over the past few years, so thought I’d think out loud here.  This is far from a definitive answer, but I have been thinking (and arguing) about these things for some time and trying also to act.  Some things have worked; others are still elusive.

But my thinking on these things today:

For me, these are questions of ensuring that the poor and working class students that I teach are well positioned when they leave my courses and my program to be vocal and active citizens, competitive in job searches, and ethical users of new technologies.

Though my institution is different from YSU (where I used to work with Sherry), we are far from “elite” and my students all commute to campus, most work unbelievable hours while going to school full time, many have limited access to technology off campus (most have internet access* but many have very  old equipment that they share with high school aged children doing homework or spouses running small businesses from home), and many come to campus adamantly believing themselves to be “not a techy”.

I teach teachers about using technology in diverse  classrooms, and increasingly, I use digital tools for assignments in my other courses, too, to connect people doing group work, and to nudge students into developing a public voice, to introduce new tools of persuasion. In the past few years, students have been able to

  • Talk directly with the author of one of their texts, via skype. The campus could never have afforded bringing him to campus to speak.
  • Create sophisticated multimedia narrative pieces in which they explore their status as first-generation students in powerful and moving ways that went far beyond what they could have created with writing alone.
  • Organize a student-led project by which college students mentor first-generation/low-income high school students about going to college. My students could never hold all the organizational meetings required to launch and sustain this project in person because their schedules are impossibly complicated. Instead, they’ve organized their work via a wiki, numerous Google documents, chat and text. Some students sometimes do this work from public libraries; others have their own technology. This project has evolved into a leadership development program for students who otherwise could never participate in conventional student life activities, and is possibly only because of technology.
  • Prepare for group class presentations by coordinating asynchronously via Google Presentations and the chat function available there, saving them extra trips to meet group members and the expense of child care while meeting with group members.
  • Communicate directly via their blogs with teachers of low-income children to press their thinking about how to use technology in under-resourced schools.
  • Students who are too exhausted or too intimidated to speak in class now have numerous ways to contribute to class discussions. (My favorite parts of on-line discussions are those that start with “So, the kids are finally in bed and I wanted to think more about something that we said in class today). I remain amazed at how many more students actively participate when conversation happens in class and on-line — and how many more perspectives are therefore heard by everyone in class.

As with all campuses, we struggle with questions of access, diminishing support, and shrinking campus resources.

And some ways we’ve started to address these real dilemmas:

  • With diminishing state resources, our students are charged a very minimal technology fee each quarter. A student committee decides how this money will be spent and most decisions are about access: Expanded lab hours, laptops that can be checked out without fees, upgraded wireless access — and middle-class students subsidize low-income students’ access.
  • Librarians make all course readings (except text books) available digitally so that students aren’t paying copying and printing charges.
  • Many faculty are moving away from the packaged and expensive “learning management systems” like Blackboard because they are unnecessarily complex while also being technologically limited, because the time invested in teaching students to use these university-specific tools has little to do with developing technology skills that they’ll need beyond college. I instead work with free wikis, blogs, easy website construction pages, and twitter –all of which are free and all of which involve skills transferable to political, community, and job related work.
  • Nearly all the tools I now use are accessible on a reasonably sophisticated cell phone (which Pew is showing is the technology portal used by many low-income adolescents). Needless to say, cell phones are not banned in my classes :).
  • New Media tools (such as those Gardner Campbell is talking about, most of which were developed after the research on which the article on “digital identities” that Sherry cites was done) are infinitely easier to learn than conventional Microsoft products, coding tools, or the more technical software that may be necessary in some degree programs. They are designed to teach users to use them — via video tutorials, on-line help forums, and extensive “how to” on many of these sites. Students aren’t left alone to figure them out — they have extensive , individualized on-line support. Most are free. Very few students that I’ve worked with in the past 3 years require extensive tutorials on these tools; I don’t take much class time to teach them, so that I can make myself available to those so intimidated that they cannot decide where to start setting up their accounts. They get there and they understand that they’ve done a powerful thing when they do.
  • A group of faculty just formed a peer-to-peer “e-learning” project in which we’ll share work on digital learning that we’re doing — via tools such Twitter, social bookmarking and blogging (all of which are free). We’ll meet occasionally and have occasional access to an outside consultant, but this is a low-cost project in which we’re learning more from and with  each other about what’s possible.
  • Some of us went to the Center for Digital Storytelling for training, precisely because the Center has developed methodologies to enable people with very limited time and limited experience with technology (most of their work is in low-income community settings) to create powerful multimedia projects through which they tell their stories to public audiences. We came back and trained colleagues in a three- day campus workshop; faculty are now experimenting with these very streamlined and often low-cost methodologies across the curriculum.
  • For classes that do require more sophisticated software, the campus “key cards” labs so that students enrolled in particular classes who have had training can come in and out of the labs even when the campus can’t afford to staff them — essentially any time that the campus is open.
  • I rarely require students to purchase textbooks, and the money that they save buying out-dated books that have little value beyond my course goes a long way toward being able to afford at least a basic netbook on which they can use most social media tools anywhere that they can access wi fi (and in my community, that includes coffee shops, some parking lots on campus even when buildings are closed, McDonald’s, public transportation). Our IT staff has recommended low-cost models to spare students wasting money on equipment that won’t meet their needs.

But I don’t provide alternative assignments, because this isn’t just about pegagogy but about participating in a cultural shift, and  skills of networking, writing for authentic audiences, creating multimedia to explain one’s life circumstances to others, collaboration — I consider all of these to be skills that are now vital to citizenship, community membership, and life-long learning.

And I’m committed that it not be only the middle-class students who develop these skills.

There is so much more thinking to be done about all of this.  What’s going on at other campuses  – beyond all of those for-profit schools that are making a killing by enrolling poor and first-generation students in “on-line” degree programs?

*Sherry cite census data about limited internet access in many homes, and I wonder: If we parse out the many households led by the elderly who may be low income and have low education levels, do we have a more optimistic sense of how many college students (traditional and non-traditional aged) may have access outside of campus?

8 thoughts on “Bridging the Digital Divide in College

  1. Sherry Linkon January 24, 2011 / 2:12 pm

    I love your list of ideas for addressing this, many of which are institutional.

    I am surprised by your response and one other person’s (on WC Perspectives) to the idea of offering alternatives. I agree that our students need to learn these skills, but I also know that they may not be able to do that within the confines of my course. Especially when the problem is access, not confidence or skill, I simply can’t feel good about letting a student fail because s/he didn’t have internet access that would work with Blackboard for posting to the discussion board.

    On the other hand, that example argues for more campuses, or at least more faculty, moving to less technically-overloaded tools. Much as I like the good old fashioned discussion boards that are so easy to set up and manage in Blackboard, I’m moving away from them because students find posting to a blog in WordPress or a wiki in PB Wiki so much easier — both in terms of their comfort/knowledge and in terms of how the technology works. Part of what this suggests is that we have to start thinking about the solutions to this challenge long before we get into the classroom. We have to build courses that use technology in accessible ways.

    • janevangalen January 24, 2011 / 5:38 pm

      Hi Sherry. I know. I am feeling very torn about the whole issue of accommodation and access… I think about how many ways the poor and working-class students in my classes are placed at disadvantage because of how poor their prior schooling was, or because internet companies aren’t servicing their areas yet, or just because the costs of college are so overwhelming. So I wonder … what is in their best interest to skip, and what is in their best interest to require? I surely don’t have clear answers to that.

      I spend a lot of my time with my own students who are interning in low income schools who want to argue that they shouldn’t have to learn this tech stuff because they won’t be able to use it in their placement where dusty and old computers are unusable. And I argue back that without knowing what’s possible by learning “this tech stuff”, those kids in those schools have one less advocate for adequate resources and high level teaching.

      So I don’t know. I didn’t mean to draw a line in the sand. But I’m thinking that this just has to be part of becoming educated now and I’m thinking a lot about how to make that work when administrators too often assume that everyone can just buy their own high end laptops and that solves the problem.

      There’s a lot of work to be done here, and your post was so spot-on that the “target” is moving away from these students as we’re trying to figure this out.

      Would love to keep the conversation going among others working with poor and working class students.

      • Sherry Linkon February 3, 2011 / 6:04 am

        Here’s a possible answer to your students who think they don’t need to learn the tech stuff: thinking critically about how technology can contribute to students’ learning can help us gain deeper understanding of the nature of learning. I know that exploring ways of using technology in my own teaching has improved my teaching even when I don’t use technology. Think of it not as learning tech stuff but as learning more about learning.

        Jane, we should think about putting together a panel or roundtable for a conference on this. Any chance you’d want to come to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference in Milwaukee next October?

        • janevangalen February 10, 2011 / 7:07 am

          Agree so much on being a better teacher as I shift ‘learning’ from listening to creating and collaborating. Would be very interested in talking more about the October conference!

  2. Tery Griffin March 23, 2011 / 5:41 am

    I like your approach here, Jane. I don’t like the CMSs either, and I agree that they’re only useful for the length of a student’s college career. I use WordPress for my main class sites, and other “real world” tools as needed. I use the CMS only to post grades.

    I have to think more about uses for cell phones. Right now, I have to ban them — some of my traditional age students can’t seem to stop either texting or glancing down at their phones to see who’s texting them. I’d rather think of a more constructive approach.

    I wonder if we should try a discussion over on the AWCA list of ways to use real world technology with this wc/pc/1st gen students that also work with the mc students most of us have as well. This would be a great panel or presentation for the AWCA conference as well. I’ve presented on similar topics — technology and this particular audience — at a couple of other conferences.

    • janevangalen March 23, 2011 / 6:01 am

      Hi Tery. This is a new world, and I really appreciate that people are thinking about the class dimensions. Moms in my classes so often feel the need to keep their phones out in case their kids need them.. they’re gone all day for work and then in classes at night. But yes, the multiple ways in which people can now “check out” of classes is pretty serious.

      Just cannot come to the AWCA conference. Travel money is completely gone and paying out of pocket for my professional work is getting old!

      Conversation on the list would be great. I know that I’m a better teacher as I incorporate more tech to enable more active learning, and it’s not without complications.

      • Tery Griffin March 23, 2011 / 6:27 am

        I hear you on the conference financing. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get money for this this year, either. The AWCA conference might have to be part of my vacation this year :-/.

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