Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The digital divide and education

I've been mulling over a few things I've heard recently while at two conferences (ACEC2014 and Ulearn14). The first was in Adelaide, South Australia, and the second was in Rotorua, New Zealand, a week apart. The two conferences have similarities in that they are predominantly designed with school teachers in mind. During both of those conferences, I heard, in passing, comments from teachers that position students in particular ways in relation to digital technologies.

The most common is that they (students) already know how to use almost any device, as if it's an appendage, and so it's all sorted. In other words, because these young people are growing up digital, they can transfer what they know about using them from one device to another with ease. The misunderstanding about Prensky's (2001) initial metaphor to describe those born into a digital world compared with those who weren't (digital natives vs digital immigrants), is still alive and well, unfortunately. The Baffler's post captured this misunderstanding succinctly. In other words, people have attributed much more to the metaphor than was intended, and Prensky himself has examined what's happened to it in a chapter of Michael Thomas's (2011) edited book Deconstructing Digital Natives: Young people, technology and the new literacies.

This broad and misunderstood assumption about digital natives and digital divides is understood to mean that 'digital natives' know how to think in subject disciplinary ways when they use digital devices. This view is mistaken because the skills of using a device to do things with are not the same as applying critical thinking - making inferences, seeing patterns, analysing ideas, seeing contradictions, gaps and silences - to the information available through them and making sense of what might be highly political and agenda-driven (the kind of stuff I've alluded to in previous posts). Dianne, in two of her posts, has alluded to similar ideas about teachers' responsibilities and roles, as well as the hype round digital technologies in education in Professional Learning: Passive Development VS Active Access and Is there hope (and depth) beyond the bandwagon?

The OECD for example, discusses relevant issues when they say that:
      ...a second digital divide has emerged between individuals who moved to embrace a technology-rich world and those who have been left behind.
      Part of this divide is generational: the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) shows that on average 16-24 year olds are much more competent at solving problems in technology-rich environments than their older counterparts. Further, in many countries large parts of the adult population have insufficient ICT problem-solving skills - meaning that they either failed the assessment or were unable to take part because they had never used a computer. Between 30% and 50% of the adult population in Ireland, Poland and the Slovak Republic fall into this category.       However, the digital divide is not only generational. Eight percent of young adults aged 16-24 also had insufficient ICT skills on the PIAAC assessment. Unfortunately, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be less confident and less proficient at using new technologies. There is also a gender gap. Girls use ICTs less intensively and for fewer tasks on average than boys.
These findings, coupled with the comments overheard at the conferences, really bother me because the assumptions people hold mean students are not being deliberately and systematically taught to think independently with fully functioning crap detectors when they use these digital technologies - leaving aside the class, gender and economic barriers already at work for some students. For adults to reach a point where they cannot easily problem-solve either using or not using technological tools, is a worry. And doing us no favours is the OECD's comment about "insufficient ICT problem-solving skills".  It is a bit ambiguous - does it mean their ICT skills are insufficient for them to solve problems when they use ICTs, or does it mean they have problems solving ICT problems (eg learning how to use them or trouble-shooting)? I'm not sure, so you may not be either.

Of course teaching purposefully with the aim of equipping all students to think deeply about their own and others' contexts and solve problems with digital technologies is really hard - deep thinking is strenuous and difficult - and students will do their best to avoid flexing these thinking muscles because of this. They'd much rather teachers talk at them so they can slump in their chairs and mentally drift off. Teachers will sometimes avoid thinking too hard too - it's exhausting and their days are busy and enervating. I've also been known to skive off mentally when things get hard. It's human nature.

BUT - we are charged with teaching our learners (whether they are our own children, in ECE or are school aged students, or are tertiary learners) to inherit the earth. We can't do that if we continue to avoid teaching them to think, to question, to argue. Some teachers, however, would prefer nice, compliant students who just 'get on with their work' - as if compliance in all things is a good thing. Argumentative, divergent thinkers and inquiring students mean more work!

We know that multi corporations (think alcohol, 'food' producers, tobacco and other manufacturers) are quite likely to prefer to have a compliant and dulled populace to sell stuff to. Governments would like a compliant and dull populace too - a citizenry that doesn't think for itself, but takes at face value what they are told. They are much easier to manipulate that way, to achieve political agendas. We can see it now, for example, in how our Prime Minister is softening us up to agree/be compliant about 'terrorist' legislation - aka more spying on citizens - to make us more fearful and therefore trust that governments have our best interests at heart. Orwell's book 1984 is entirely coming to fruition in the growth of doublethink (using the language and ideas of one side by the other to undermine it) and half truths. The agendas are not laid out for us to see, but hidden. We must teach our learners to dig deep into these words and ideas.

 Supporting our learners to know how to come to thoughtful, well researched and balanced decisions and views is our job. It requires a concerted effort to teach them to think, question, interrogate, create... We need them to be feisty thinkers - and the world needs them. This is what we owe them. If we don't help them leverage the affordances of digital technologies to search out opposing and divergent views about issues in this world, to be courageous in their thinking, and to inherit the earth as well-prepared citizens, then we have failed. Consider Liam Dann's comment about business readiness to cope with technological reliance implications. He notes with some alarm, that "This gulf in technological knowledge is a business problem and ultimately a wider social problem. It threatens to create a new layer of class inequality - if we let it".

So, what does this mean for education? We need to show students how to use readily available digital tools to search wisely, to curate sources, to sift ideas, to question, and to create new thinking and perspectives. We need to show them, for example, what giving up online privacy actually means, what their digital footprint looks like, and what social networking can do both for and to them.

We need to show our students (whoever they are) that thinking deeply and strenuously is hard, but a necessary part of being a full and independent citizen. Let's do this together.

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