Bridging Digital Divides – Our Biggest Tech Challenge?

(Flickr image courtesy of: KaCey97007)

It’s been a frenetic start to the school year as always, with precious little time to reflect and even less time to write. Nonetheless, working with such a diverse range of students and teachers to support their use of technology never leaves me without something to write about – so sometimes the biggest challenge is just letting go of perfectionism and airing my thoughts. It’s also heartening to read in so many of my favourite blogs that education bloggers the world over struggle with finding time to say what they need to say.

Taking control of what matters most

I had a really rewarding session earlier last week teaching some of the teacher leaders in my school about the value of RSS feeds accessed via the Google Reader accounts available to us through our school’s partnership with Google Apps for Education. What I enjoy most about teaching RSS feeds is the concept of intelligently controlling our access to information: by essentially selecting on the sources of frequently updated web-enabled content we want to access, we depart from the happen-stance nature of an over-reliance on traditional web search engines. I think for many this departure is a very necessary one and represents, for me, one of the main pillars in overcoming the digital divide.

The good news is that regardless of whether or not the teachers with whom I work actually adopt RSS as a regular-use technology (in reality, probably very few will and RSS generally remains somewhat of a niche technology), at least they will understand that the web is about much more than simply searching for information and such information being largely subject to a simple search string and Google’s algorithms rather than independent, critical thinking.

The same kind of control can be exercised in many other ways, including the people we follow on Twitter, the time we take to learn how to do an advanced search, the system of tagging we adopt to catalogue our research and the like. While Web 3.0 promises much in terms of intelligent semantic linking of concepts, I think the need for users to master many of the Web 2.0 tools that enable better organisation of one’s own learning and thought processes will still very much be there.

Exploring the ‘Digital Divide’

I’ve come to believe that any discussion on mastery of tools like RSS, Twitter and the like brings into question the true nature of what is commonly termed the ‘digital divide.’ Such a term is usually explained, at best, anecdotally, along the lines of Aunty Mavis doesn’t really know how to use Microsoft Word, whereas little Jane does. There is a digital divide between the two.

What are the problems with this kind of thinking? Over-simplification of concepts like this one risk misconceptions occurring where they can ill-afford to occur: in the classroom, where students have the opportunity to really delve into what it means – ethically, practically, economically and so on – to be a digital citizen in the twenty-first century. At the same time, too many of us are happy to latch onto anecdotes and analogies as a way of explaining away these concepts without properly engaging with them and thinking through the implications of our actions on the internet.

So, in the end, what exactly is the digital divide and how can we better understand it? Perhaps the best answer to this question is to think as broadly as possible and be aware of all the implications. This is a divide that is separated not only by age (as in the Aunty Mavis/Jane example), but also class, national boundaries, language, demographics, access to the internet, literacy (in the broadest sense of the term), parenting, lifestyle and anything else that separates two or more groups of people in society.

Inasmuch as these dividers sound esoteric or at least very theoretical, there are plenty of hard examples that illustrate just how big the divide is in many different contexts. In countries like India, for example, the killer combination of IT skills plus an international language has meant, for many, the difference between abject poverty and a livelihood. While examples in the west are not so extreme, there is now enough evidence to suggest that the digital divide is growing, and happening to be on the wrong side of it really limits one’s opportunities in life.

I like thinking in these terms, not because I feel as if I’m ever going to redress the divide in any large, meaningful way (there are plenty of others that already do a brilliant job at this). But I like to know that, at the end of the day, I do make some small difference in bridging things over. Hopefully I can start to challenge others to do the same.

About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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