Technology has become an essential part of the curricula of every school across the United States. In many schools, almost every aspect of education has been digitized – grade books are online systems, lessons are created on the computer and delivered via powerpoint, homework and supplemental exercises are completed on websites, Other classrooms are filled floor to ceiling with tech–interactive whiteboards, tablets, and laptops, used in day to day activities. However, as digital media and technology proliferate, it is vital to consider the question of access. Access can mean physical availabilities of media, which is determined by things like use of technology in the home and quality of schools, but it also must take into account a student’s ability to use the technology, which can be shaped by the amount of media literacy and previous exposure to technology. Both aspects of access are determined in part by race and socio-economic status. In their current state, our public schools are unequal. Black and white students see different levels of academic success, and one of the factors that shape this is their access to media.
Failing to consider questions of access causes education systems can become oppressive and a reflection of white supremacy. Paulo Freire explores these concepts in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire contrasts this “banking” method with a “problem-posing” method of education. In the latter, the dichotomy of the teacher-student roles are up-ended, essentially, both parties assume both roles, the teacher and student teaching and learning with one another. Freire sums this method up saying “Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality. The former attempts to maintain the submersion of consciousness; the latter strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality” (Freire 81). By presenting information fully in context, and addressing problems and creating solutions, education is suddenly relevant; meaningful and fulfilling to the student.
This model is incredibly important in present society, where schools are too often another means of oppression that uplifts privileged students and leaves behind those who are disadvantaged. Instead, problem-posing education fully involves every student. While memorization of simple facts may only feel relevant to a select few students, critical analysis of one’s world and one’s own existence is universal. This method is also the only hope for liberation. An oppressed person will struggle to move towards liberation until they have a true understanding of their character, specifically the duality that comes with being oppressed. Traditional styles of education give students neither the means nor the motivation to reflect inward and discover the internalization of oppression. They also almost never consider the structures of oppression that govern our world, nor question institutions such as capitalism or the flaws in our democracy. They maintain these standards, instead placing the blame for oppression on the oppressed. The method Freire suggests, however, has no need to uphold these hierarchies without question, because unlike some current methods, it is not itself just an extension of oppression. Instead, “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (Freire 83). Students and teachers alike have freedom, freedom to question and transform their realities.
Digital media and technology can give students such opportunities to transform their realities, or they can exacerbate the inequalities that are already present. I begin with Freire’s argument because I think it is vital to think of our education system from a critical perspective, taking into consideration the way that it functions as an instrument of white supremacy and capitalism. It is, in part, as a result of this that even when we introduce technology that in theory should help reduce achievement gaps into that classroom, it often only widens such gaps. There are many educators who argue that technology is a “great equalizer,” able to make a quality education more accessible for all. It is, however, important to look at the statistics and numbers and see what effect digital media and technology has truly had on student achievement.
The digital divide is defined as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.” The access can be affected by a variety of factors; socio-economic status, race, region in which one lives, etc. In an educational context, it is directly linked to the achievement gap, research has found that the achievement gap is “greater among those who have different levels of Internet information use.” The achievement gap refers to the disparities in academic performance between different groups of students, specifically and for the purpose of this essay, between white and Black or Hispanic students. This gap appears in a wide variety of places–grades, graduation rates, college acceptance rates, test scores, and enrollment in high-level courses to name a few. If digital media was truly a great equalizer, then after its introduction into schools, the gap should have begun to narrow as students gained equal opportunities to learn. However, as U.S. News reports, the achievement gap has narrowed only very slightly since 1965 and even widened in some places.
This indicates that overall, the introduction of tech into classrooms has not yet had a profound impact on increasing opportunity for Black students. Instead, there have been some more concerning impacts. As classrooms become more digitized, an increasing amount of the work required is done via online platforms, whether it be digital presentations, in-class assignments on computers, or homework practice expected to be completed on an online platform. This presents a problem for two interconnected reasons: lack of access and lack of media literacy. The latter is almost always in part a result of the former–if a student does not have access to technology or digital media at home, then they are less likely to understand how to use and understand the technology presented to them than their peer who grew up using computers and smartphones. As a result, these students will have a greater learning curve when it comes to using technology to complete school assignments, which puts them at a disadvantage.
This issue is not just one of access, but one of race. Black and white students are not equally affected by disparities in technology. As Gorski reports,” although 70% of whites in the United States use the Internet, only 57% of African Americans are online” (353). In addition, almost twice as many white families have computers at home. This means that from the moment they step into a tech-equipped classroom, Black students are at a disadvantage, simply because they are less experienced with using these resources. These disadvantages expand past the classroom, affecting students grades even after class has let out. In 2018, a federal study found that 90 percent of high schoolers reported having to do online homework, yet there are more than 5 million households with school-aged children that do not have internet access, and as aforementioned, these households are more often Black ones. One quarter of Black teens reported struggling to complete homework because of access to technology. This so-called “homework gap” means that in order to complete assignments, students must stay after school to work or utilize the public library, tasks that may be increasingly difficult for economically challenged students who need to work extra jobs or take care of siblings after school. While wealthy schools can afford to equip all their students with laptops or tablets, under-resourced schools, who serve the most vulnerable populations, often cannot. This means that already privileged students continue to be supported while those with nothing remain in the same place.
The digital divide is an incredibly complicated issue because it must be looked at from many different lenses. Its implications cannot be separated from questions of race, class, and socioeconomic status, and while technology is clearly part of the problem for disadvantaged students, it can also be part of the solution. Before it can become a solution, however, teachers, policy-makers, and scholars alike must recognize the inequalities associated with the use of technology in schools. It is vital to remember that the playing field is not level–every child who comes into a classroom does not come in with the same amount of knowledge regarding technology and does not go home to equal access to resources relating to digital media. Instead, curricula must work to accommodate the differences in access. Teachers must work to fight the homework gap, and ensure that students who do not have access to the internet can complete their assignments without having to work twice as hard. Policy-makers must take into account the digital divide, and work to find funding for technology not just in schools that serve wealthy students, but also schools that serve children who may never otherwise have access to a personal computer, and need it the most. Technology can be a force for positive change in schools–it can open doors and grant opportunities that can change the lives of all students, but it will not do so without an enourmous effort to rethink almost all of the ways we use it.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (30th-anniversary ed.). New York:
Gorski, Paul C. (2009). “Insisting on Digital Equity Reframing the Dominant Discourse on
Multicultural Education and Technology” Urban Education. Vol. 44 No. 3.
& those linked.