Addressing the Digital Divide: Where Do We Go From Here?

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There is a student I used to teach, who will remain unnamed to protect his privacy. He was a student a part of my STEM Honors class, and he always showed promising potential in coding assignments. Throughout my time getting to know him, I learned, like most of his classmates, he was highly motivated and believed in his academic prowess. Since the emergence of Virtual Learning, I’ve watched the challenges of adjusting to this time period change his motivation and diminish his belief in his ability to achieve academically. 

This year is his junior year in high school. When I was in high school, my junior year was the toughest, yet most rewarding year in high school; it was the year that determined my post-secondary success. Like most students who are attending an under-served school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year is his first time having a personal laptop and he is living with the expectation to thrive in a completely new learning environment. 

This experience for him and his peers has been devastating, traumatizing, stressful, overwhelming, depressing, and draining. However, he is resilient. But should he have to experience this much courage, independence, and pressure at his age? My grandma once told me, “you should never have to display that much independence”. 

What we all need is support. 

This past year has emphasized the importance of understanding what it takes to holistically support the academic success and personal development of our youth. Virtual Learning has forcibly engaged every stakeholder at every stage of a child’s development to acknowledge two important determinants of our future: 

1) What our children are learning

2) How they are using technology to learn.

When addressing the Digital Divide, I think it is crucial that we prioritize adequately informing and including every stakeholder in all planning and implementation processes for integrating technology and Digital Literacy into learning environments. Parents raising children, Students learning information, Educators teaching courses, Administrators leading schools, and Tech Professionals creating learning products ALL are the creators of our tomorrow. 

We are our support; and in this support, we all need the grace to adjust – as we do so rapidly.

There are a few key focus areas I’ve noticed in my local school system, of Philadelphia, that are a part of the disparities of the Digital Divide: 

Transforming School Systems and Policies

Due to the emergence of Virtual Learning, many schools had to rapidly adjust and revamp their systems and practices. This transition has revealed how much more critical attention needs to be given to what students are learning about technology, and how they’re learning to use technology. 

This can be achieved by making a greater investment in setting and implementing grade-level standards for Digital Literacy, as well as, training talent to uphold these expectations.

Information Sharing and Literacy

During this Virtual Learning experience, many parents, staff, and students have felt either overwhelmed with information or under-informed on certain aspects that have affected the learning process. For example, there have been scenarios where internet providers have had outages, but the change in service was not effectively communicated to families; which has resulted in students missing information and feeling helpless. 

There have also been moments where school administrations have made huge changes to their school’s Virtual Learning practices without adequate notice or input from families and staff; which has resulted in immense fatigue and disorientation. Some school districts may have not had these experiences, but this is what’s disproportionately happening in under-served communities. 

This can be changed by re-evaluating the effectiveness of communication channels, and equitably including key stakeholders as consultants throughout the process of information dissemination.

Tech and Wi-Fi Accessibility

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools did not account for whether their students had access to technology or Wi-Fi. Why is that? Yes, students were primarily learning in schools, but learning also happens at home; and for the past 25 years, access to information has primarily been provided through the Internet. 

This past year has revealed a better understanding of what students have access to, and how their homelife really affects their education. There are students in homes where their Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough to host multiple devices streaming at the same time; and the Chromebooks that many students rely on aren’t always able to handle processing multiple apps operating at the same time – such as Zoom, Nearpod, or Google Suite products. 

These limiting factors are critical aspects of our youth’s future success that have been neglected for too long, and it is important to address these issues equitably. 

There are many issues for our youth at risk if we as leaders in education and technology do not respond to these disparities quickly and equitably. One important thing that is at risk is our youth’s ability to properly cultivate and enfranchise themselves from having experiences during their youth. While being forced to stay home, and without adequate resources for many, this time period is diminishing the very essence of having youth; which is time.  

Time to have exposure to different areas to spark their interests; time to take risks or make mistakes; time to refine one’s aptitude to bounce back, try again, and learn how to take calculated risks. Time to create viable niche solutions to make a life for themselves. 

However, this moment in time also brings about a unique opportunity for all the youth to cultivate 21st-century skills that are essential to the future. If more youth are empowered to explore, take risks, and be creative with technology; they can exponentially grow from this experience. 

But with the Digital Divide widening daily, will all youth be a part of the world’s digital future? That is the question I think is important for us to ask ourselves as leaders, and act upon in our daily efforts to be the change we want to see in the world.

Research References: 

about Brittany
Brittany Jenkins is a Tech Educator and Entrepreneur who is the Founder of We Are Tech; an EdTech startup that focuses on empowering students and communities of color with technology.
Through We Are Tech she spearheads tech integration programs and provides Digital Literacy resources to K-12 schools. Throughout her career, she has worked in the Tech, Media, and Education industries at major companies – such as Facebook, NBC Universal, and Girls Who Code. In these experiences, her exposure to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion issues inspired her to found We Are Tech; and now her unique background empowers her to pay it forward by sharing her network and vast knowledge with youth of color.

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