A messy blackboard, much thinking has happened here

It’s About Class: Interrogating the Digital Divide

 Published on July 2, 2012 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Jesse Stommel /  “To Educate” by Aaron Knox; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /  4

I live and work in one of America’s poorest regions, Appalachia — specifically eastern Kentucky. Businesses and municipalities don’t have a strong web presence (if any at all), Google Maps is essentially useless for getting anywhere, and the social network is still, largely, the local Churches and quilting bees. Howard Rheingold, in his book Net Smart, writes about how it is possible now to ask a question and get an answer on your phone anywhere. I hasten to add, as long as it’s not here, where even cell phone coverage is spotty at best.

Many of my students are part of the “new” digital divide, with limited access to both technology and high-speed internet. Even students with access to higher-speed cellular service may not be able to afford a data plan or the accompanying smartphone to take full advantage of it. But I think the biggest issue with this new digital divide is not that poorer students are misusing whatever technology they do have, it’s that they are not misusing it enough. And neither are we.

I have no doubt that many of my students are simply using technology in the same way they “use” television (and even before that, radio): passively consuming content. Technology, for most of the 20th century, has made it prohibitively expensive and thus difficult for people to create and mediate their own content. Just about anyone could write and start a small magazine, pamphlet, or newspaper (assuming rising literacy rates); increasingly, laws prohibited simply starting up one’s own radio or TV station. Not that it didn’t happen, but, as the classic 90s film Pump Up the Volume shows us, it came with a price. You could speak truth to power, as long as it wasn’t on government-controlled bandwidth.

We have, however, come full circle, and once again, to use some dangerous terminology, can somewhat control the means of production. We can write, speak, publish, create, hack, and play. But for many, I think, these means of critically interacting and using technology aren’t encouraged because the technology itself is still so expensive. While the cost of owning a computer has generally decreased, it is still a huge financial commitment for many individuals and families. Add to that the cost of what is believed to be required software, internet access, etc, it is easy to see why students are discouraged from playing with their technology — “don’t touch that, it’s not a toy!” But computers are toys as much as they are tools. Toys, of course, conjure up images of fundamentally trivial games and inconsequential objects; as the saying goes, however, for kids, playing is serious business.

Time is also money. There is little time or mental energy for an individual or family trying to make ends meet to just sit and play with their technology. Failure, as well, is more expensive, because if something breaks, there is no time or money to fix it. There are also few resources in the schools to help foster this sense of play and experimentation. In this era of high-stakes testing, suggesting to schools that are “failing” that perhaps what they need is less structured time and more time to play and experiment (particularly with technology) is unthinkable. Once again, the fear of failure, of breaking something, is too great. Firewalls are erected; computers and software are used for drill and kill exercises, if at all; strict rules and guidelines developed and enforced, and tech just becomes one more tool that imposes the banking concept of education on students.

I have been trying to get my students in Freshman Writing to blog, use Twitter, and to play with the technology that is available to them. I have always been met with great resistance. For them, Twitter is a waste of time, blogging is just an essay in another form, tech is a tool they have been taught to fear. This is not to say that they don’t know how to play, to create, to experiment. One of the reasons they disdain the technology is because many of them don’t see how it will help them get a job in their low-tech worlds; better to know how to hunt, grow gardens, slaughter cows, sew quilts, fish, forage, weld, etc. I am constantly in awe of all they do know how to do, versus what I (unfortunately) think they should know how to do. I’ve had students in my class who are computer science majors who only recently bought their first computer; contrast that with what elite engineering school Harvey Mudd requires all first-year students to take: a class where they build an old-fashioned tool the old-fashioned way. This is a real digital and class divide.

This is not to say that the students shouldn’t know how to critically engage and use these tools, but that I need to do a better job of bridging, between teacher and student, our dual class divide. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, which reflects the increasing class divide within the university itself.  In my own case, English shares a building with the College of Business. Our rooms have blackboards and badly out-of-date whiteboards and computers that only work about half the time, while the business classrooms have new whiteboards and up-to-date classroom technology. Recently, the English department had our two computer labs, often used as classroom space, taken away (the rooms are still there, but the computers are gone). Business still has all of theirs. The message from the university is clear, tech doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. Focus instead on what you are supposed to be doing: teaching writing. I don’t teach naked because of some pedagogical point, I do it because I have to.

But, you might say, a great teacher can find a way to overcome these limitations! This brings up another class issue: tenure-track versus non-tenure-track faculty and the increasing standardization of curriculum, particularly in the writing classroom. I am off the tenure-track, teaching writing according to an increasingly limited script. How much room or freedom do we have to play ourselves, to integrate technology and digital pedagogy in our classroom? How much time do we have to figure out the best ways to help our students learn and engage? What are the incentives? What are the punishments for failure? Low-paid, underappreciated, exploited, we are expected, in 15 weeks, to create college-ready writers out of students who don’t initially know how to attach a file to an email.

These are the digital divides that worry me, that discourage and prevent many teachers from embracing a more hybrid form of teaching. Both students and teachers need the support and encouragement to play, to have the time and fearlessness to use and “misuse” tech.

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