The New Digital Divide?

I have on occasion been frustrated – dare I say critical – of the sometimes glacial pace of change in the broader educational community when it comes to embracing the use of ICT. I occasionally say things that might make me appear less compassionate than I really am. But believe it or not, I really do have a great degree of patience and time for anyone who is genuinely interested to know more about how to effectively integrate technology into the demanding job of teaching kids every day.

A week or so ago, I returned from the CEGSA (Computer Education Group of South Australia) conference in Adelaide where I had the great pleasure of giving one of the keynote addresses. I got to meet so many wonderful, dedicated educators who were there giving up two days of their holidays to come and learn more about technology and how it can be effectively used it with their students.

The people I met at CEGSA are already the “believers” however. They were attending the conference, presumably, because they already understand the important role that technology is playing in education. They are probably the people that get looked up to in their schools as the “geeks” (in a good way) and are the people that others turn to when answers about technology are needed. And yet, I can’t help but see that there is still a wide gap in skills and understanding between even the group that turned up at CEGSA. I hope that if any of them read this they don’t take it the wrong way, but I was a little surprised that even this group was so unconnected in so many ways. A quick show of hands, while hardly a scientific way to measure, indicated that there was a surprisingly small number of those who blogged, used Twitter, or understood the use of basic Web 2.0 resources like Flickr or I’m incredibly glad they were there, but I was a little surprised because I’ve come to take so many of these things for granted and sometimes find it hard to get my head around how other educators can possibly not be tapped into this stuff.

So on the one hand, I’m a little surprised that the level of connectedness -the Web 2.0ishness – was so minimal in this particular group. On the other hand, I’m unbelievably excited that so many teachers are wanting to find out more about this stuff, to move to that next level for their own personal understanding and growth in the use of ICT.

What scares me a little are those on the other side… the vast majority of the teaching profession who have never been to a conference like this. The ones that will turn up to school on Monday and either not make any real attempt to create a technology-rich environment for their students, or who still think that PowerPoint is pretty cool. Our schools are full of teachers – many of whom are outstanding educators with enormous passion and energy – but who do not understand the pivotal role that technology plays in the lives of their students.

I think what often shocks me the most about teachers who don’t take technology very seriously, is just how far behind they really are. They don’t have any idea just how out of touch they are with the kids they teach each day… kids who in most cases are far too polite to say anything about their teachers’ lack of technology understanding. But trust me, they know who you are…

Some of the classic excuses for why some teachers don’t integrate technology might include the following… how many have you heard before?

  • “Im retiring in a couple of years anyway” (yes, but your students are not)
  • “I’m too old to learn this stuff”
  • “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time”
  • “I have too much content to get through” (this one is usually followed by “you just don’t know what it’s like”… ah, yes, I do.)
  • “I don’t really like computers” (you don’t have to like them, you just have to use them)
  • “I just don’t understand technology” (as though they think no one has noticed that yet)

The scary thing is not the folk that turn up to an event like CEGSA in order to learn more to move ahead. My hat is off to them.

And the scary thing is not even those folk who resist that progress because they don’t get it or don’t want to get it..

No, the scary thing to me is not the particular characteristics of these two groups, but rather the huge divide that is being created between them and the impact it is having our profession. It is the new Digital Divide.

We used to talk a lot about a “Digital Divide”. Usually we were referring to the inequitable technology gap between the rich and the poor, the “information-haves” and the “information-have-nots”. But I think I’m getting rather more concerned about the widening gap between the “information-wills” and the “information-will-nots”.

There is a group – and a relatively small group at that – who are extremely active in the edtech community. I won’t mention names, but if you’re a blog reader you probably know who they are. The educators that ARE connected, networked and wired. The ones who really get it. They blog, they tweet, they podcast, they wiki. They store their bookmarks in and their photos in Flickr. They know their way around Second Life and belong to numerous online communities. They get excited by Flips, iPods and IWBs. They’d rather have a Flashmeeting than a staff meeting. To the rest of the world they are freakily geeky, but they are at home in the digital world inhabited by their students, regardless of whether they are native to it or not.

Then there is the other group. Those who still don’t get it. They still think that textbooks are the definitive source of learning. They never turn on the interactive whiteboard in their room. They don’t have a presence on the web, and they wouldn’t know how to Google it if they did. Their idea of technology integration is to “research it on the Internet” and the “get the kids to make a PowerPoint”. They either can’t see the point of technology at all, or they have almost no real understanding of how technology can be embedded into their classroom. They just. don’t. get it.

A new Digital Divide is emerging as the connected educators find each other. A few years ago, these bleeding edge edutechies were the exception. They were isolated in their schools. They did great things with kids but worked mostly in a vacuum because they were so rare that there was usually no one in the school to share their craziness with. But the rise of networked intelligence has changed that. These people are finding each other and forming alliances. They are conversing and sharing with each other. Their networks are amplifying their voices, and allowing them to connect in ways that their less connected colleagues don’t really understand, and through this connected amplification, they are starting to have a real voice. There has been a lot of talk for a long time about the need for schools to shift their thinking, to bring themselves into the 21st century where their students live. But that talk has been largely dispersed across disconnected individuals who were unable to have any collective voice.

In the last 18 months or so, I’ve been noticing that these disconnected individuals are starting to band together, connect much more strongly with each other through the social networks Their voices are getting louder and they are encouraging each other with their sense of community, sharing and openness, and as they bring their collective voices together it is throwing the gap between them and the laggards into sharp relief. This widening void between the “wills” and the “will-nots” is, I think, changing the game a little.

Paradoxically, the “will-nots” main fear is usually expressed as a concern that they will lose control over their students. A fear that if they even consider dipping their toes into the waters of educational technology that their students might realise they really don’t have all the answers. They resist technology because they think that to try (and fail) will expose this weaknesses to their students, but they fail to understand that by NOT trying it they are doing far more to expose their weaknesses anyway. It must be hard for a 21st century student to respect a teacher who steadfastly refuses to get with the program.

That’s not to say that these people are bad teachers. Sometimes they are exceptionally good teachers who relate to the kids in lots of other ways that have nothing to do with technology at all. But as long as they refuse to come to terms with technology in any sort of meaningful way they will always have this digital divide between them and the natives that makes them just that little bit less effective than they could be.

If you’re in the middle of this divide and trying to cross it, you know how much work it takes. But it has to be crossed eventually, and the best time to do it is before it becomes uncrossably wide.

Image: ‘Slam: I <3 Public Libraries – The+internet+is+closed

CC BY-SA 4.0 The New Digital Divide? by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

25 Replies to “The New Digital Divide?”

  1. Great post Chris, I agree that a lot of the reluctance and resistance is down to fear. But I’m a bit worried… I still think that PowerPoint is pretty cool.

  2. Chris, this post gave me that chill down spine feeling when I read, “These people are finding each other and forming alliances. They are conversing and sharing with each other. Their networks are amplifying their voices…they are starting to have a real voice. There has been a lot of talk for a long time…But that talk has been largely dispersed across disconnected individuals who were unable to have any collective voice.” I agree that recently the voices clamouring for real change are growing noisier – and hopefully, more impactful! Geeat stuff! Will I send it out on the staff email – or too provocative? ;O)

  3. I agree. Great post. it really concerns me about this divide and that teachers refuse to recognise the importance of technology in our lives and particularly its significant impact on education. How long can they go on ignoring it?

  4. Wonderful post Chris,
    My concern is that because the divide is becoming bigger it is also becoming the norm in schools. I was at a principals conference last week and spoke to all of these principals who are now in a situation where they are being forced to integrate some iCT into their schools and they have no understanding as to why they have to. So these people are on the search for someone who can answer their problems instead of looking back to the reason they are at school and go to the students. The digital divide starts and ends with them, it is their education not the teachers, principals, or system and we are forgetting this.

    I will find it interesting to follow the comments here from frustrated teachers within their schools. People who are annoyed that others do not see the importance of ICT. I ask them (because I love being the devils advocate) if you are an English teacher and someone asked you to integrate senior woodwork into your class how would you go? Most people in our area would probably do just fine, they would go and learn the new skill and move forward. This is at the heart of the problem, it is not about teachers who refuse to integrate technology it is about teachers who refuse to learn. This is a cultural issue and requires extensive change management, I believe sometimes us ICT people put the horse before the cart. We are worrying about the technology when really it doesnt have much to do with that, it has to do with the teaching.

  5. Yes, yes YES!! Spot on, Chris. The “new divide” problem is endemic in HEd. Often in PD workshops we have a small group of early adopters and a large group of interested but wary Web 2.0 newbies, so the real challenge is how to re-purpose the already converted as guides and mentors for the rest?

    Eventually, ideas embodied in Web 2.0 will attain the critical mass needed for a paradigm shift to occur and the whole shebang becomes mainstream.

    Hopefully, by then we will be too busy encouraging the adoption of the next wave of learning-centred environments to give the old-fashioned Web 2.0 a second thought.

  6. Hello Chris,
    Whilst I agree with much of what you say…I feel like there is a sense of bias running through your post…..I think it is not particularly helpful to encourage the notion that it is “older” teachers who are the reluctant technologists…..
    There is a digital divide….and the globalisation of knowledge means that we cannot allow this divide to get any wider however, the Emile project in Europe found that this divide is not a generational thing….some young teachers are no more incorporating technology into their practice than some of their older colleagues.
    As a former ICT co ordinator and now as a literacy co ordinator I find the greatest obstacle to implementing technology is knowing how the dam thing works!!!! …..not using it to enhance the learning. I have set up many constructivist partnerships between teachers who will and teachers who don’t know how and it is amazing how quickly, with this support, they develop into tech savvy teachers. My aim is to bridge the divide in my setting I am not a product of the E Generation so i struggle with my own technology but as far as I can I try to assist, and on a daily basis….and this brings its own rewards when I see my colleagues embedding ICT into their practice…regardless of age…
    I went on too long oh what the hell you can edit (You know how right? haha)

  7. Silvana, thanks for your comments. I went back and re-read the post, trying to figure out exactly what was making you think I was directing the post at “older” teachers. At first I couldn’t find any reference to it, but finally noticed the 2 bullet points you are talking about. Let me just say that when I wrote the post I was not thinking of age as a factor at all. (the two bullets points are obviously excuses one would hear from people in the older age bracket, but the others are completely age-independent!) Aside from the mention of age in those two bullets, I wasn’t taking aim at older teachers at all… so sorry if it did come across that way.

    I certainly agree that age has nothing whatsoever to do with it! I know of many older teachers around my own age and many who are older again, that are complete whizzes with technology and how to make use of it. Conversely, I can point to MANY examples of younger teachers, including those in their 20s or straight out of teachers college, who are completely clueless with this stuff. I am actually often astounded by the lack of technological awareness of those in their early years… food for another blog I think!

    So no, I’m not singling out older teachers at all. This problem is one of mindset and attitude, not age.

  8. Hi Leo,

    It’s not that there is anything wrong with PowerPoint per se… it’s a great tool and one that I really like to see used when it’s used well. A good set of PowerPoint slides can be an awesome tool for persuading and presenting to an audience. The problem I DO have with PowerPoint is the way it tends to get used… too much text, not visual enough, lacking creativity, use of default settings. If one can break all of these, then PowerPoint is wonderful.

    I’ve written about PowerPoint before, but I think you’ve prompted me to write a post on why I dislike bad PowerPoints and to offer some strategies for making them work much better, thanks.

  9. Darcy1968, Feel free to share it with others. This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons BY NC SA license. As long as you respect the basic terms of that CC license you are more than welcome to share it with whomever you choose.

    🙂 How can anything be too provocative? It’s good to start an argument sometimes… it gets people thinking. Let me know how you go with it! Tell them to leave a comment here… I’d be interested to read their thoughts.

  10. Lauren,

    Principals who are “forced” to integrate ICT with no idea about why they need to do so are, IMHO, unfit to be principals.

    You’re absolutely right though, it’s a cultural issue. It’s not that some people can’t do this, it’s that they won’t. If they got through teachers college they probably have enough intelligence to learn what they need. If they turn the TV off for a half hour each night they would find enough time to learn what they need. If they used Open Source/Web2.0 software, they would have free access to the tools to learn what they need. If they took advantage of the very helpful communities and networks they would have all the assistance required to learn what they need.

    This is NOT about physical resources. It is about meeting the needs of our students, regardless of whether we find that comfortable or not.

    People already have everything they need to get their heads around technology use in their classrooms… except for one thing. The desire to do so. That culture – the one that says it’s OK not to take this seriously – is the real problem.

  11. Chris,
    I am one of those teachers from the CEGSA conference. I teach at Open Access College in SA (School of distance education) and we are conducting on line LAP sessions. We have recruited several schools in SA to help us – mainly year 11 students and it is contributing to their IB schooling and pastoral care studies. It involves working with students who are from remote and isolated situations in South Australia. We are currently working with teachers and schools all over the world. (the nature of LAP is to talk with students – so we are also getting adults to work with students). This is a way of including the community, schools and teachers in a meaningful, exciting way of learning for students whom the internet is the best way to form social interactions. We use CENTRA which is a bit like skype but different. Do you know it? I was wondering if you would like to join up with us? I would love to hear from you. If we could use your school as a contact it would be very exciting!
    I look forward to hearing back from you.

  12. Chris, at the risk of raising the ire of my own local edtech community, I think you have it nailed when it comes to the poor showing of connectedness within the assembled educators at the CEGSA conference. Quite a few that I spoke to said they found your content intimidating – I found it confirming. On the other hand, I did drag a few of my regular classroom based colleagues along to the conference so they do come from that non-geeky sector who don’t normally seek out professional associations like CEGSA. The power is shifting for sure – and the people sitting in department offices writing grand visions without actually experiencing the reality of connecting online are no better than the clueless principals that Lauren alludes to. Web 2.0 is grassroots empowerment – which is exactly why our students can leverage it so readily as part of their lives. I agree with Al Upton when he states that teachers who ignore technology as part of their teaching are in fact practicing a form of negligence.

  13. Professional learning seems to be a crucial element that is happening in a rather ineffective manner, if at all at present.

    We all know by now that we need to assess to determine the needs of individual learners, then teach to meet those needs, don’t we? Then why is it so hard to do it with teachers?

    Yet the attitudes you (any many of us) face, Chris, also remind us that teachers should love learning. Not just love seeing others learn, but love being learners themselves. I wonder whether some of us teachers, for whatever reason, may have lost some of that passion?

    Schools are improving in seeing the need to equip their classrooms with hardware. What is done with it, however, tends to be left to the whim of those who work within it.

    And yes, the digital divide is not age related! I too am amazed by student teachers and recent graduates who think Flickr is a sign that they need to call the maintenance man to replace a fluoro tube. I was just thinking this week that I’d like to talk to some of my lecturers at my old uni and find out what’s going on.

  14. Chris,

    I have been trying to discuss ‘the elephant in the room’ at my school often:

    The list of excuses you published reverberated around the room in response to the above post. Many teachers are intimidated but the ostrich approach will not serve them for too much longer. Our proposal for the first 233 of Rudd’d laptops:
    is being debated at work and for the first time, the Luddites, are realising change is soon – and real. I believe that it doesn’t matter what level you’re at but quite simply all teachers must be learners, especially about ICT and in refining their craft.

  15. Chris
    This post is awesomely usable, I love it. I’m going to set the cat amongst and viral this to all and sundry in the ‘I don’t get it camp’. “Ready, fire, aim” a valuable leader of mine used to say. So many of your points resonate strongly with our workplace and NSW DET system, especially about those who are trying to load the ‘digital monkey’ onto other peoples backs. ie those who lead? by saying ‘we know we have to do it, but I have N-I so I’ll dump it on them’ That feeling of isolation is damaging and explains why those who get it are banding together so strongly.
    Even some of our techeds dont get it. I am so frustrated, not being able to use or load or install or get someone to install BASIC web2.0 programs to use at work. No wonder kids power down and disconnect. Your age comments are spot on too, I did not see that implication at all. My ramble ceases now, thank you Chris.

  16. You’re a regular Martin Luther King with the emotive language. I’m not sure I feel as strongly about it as all that. Still I was glad to be able to tick most of the connected boxes. I’d hate to be one of “them”. Working in an environment where everyone is worrying about what everyone else is not doing can’t be healthy. It takes time, but if what you are doing can be demonstrated to have merit, it will be taken up eventually. A lot of people are already listening to you, and as you have noted, the number continues to grow. Patience grasshopper.

  17. Chris, well delivered. There is the divide. It’s out there. I ‘bump’ into it each day at work. Inroads are gradually being made. I have acquired a new tool that is helping to bridge that divide. Posterous. Blogged about it a few times already. As others have blogged, the one techie skill that many teachers possess (not all*) is the ability to compose via email. Posterous allows blogging, gallery creation, podcasting, Twittering and more, all via email. Easy, elegant, efficient. If you have managed email you can manage Posterous. I do not have shares in Posterous. It is just good and the teachers that I have shared it with like it. As simple as that. Cheers, John.

  18. Neglected to qualify the asterisk* in my previous comment. I have one rather likeable colleague who still likes to note that they are yet to send a single email yet they often use technology in the classroom and they are legends with music and audio on the mac. Curious.

  19. Found your blog via Google Reader’s “recommended for you” feature. A little scary to have the spiders reading my mind… but your post is dead-on. The thing that concerns me most as someone who tries to cajole, lure, support, validate…and do everything necessary to help teachers dive into the scary, dark waters of technology is the fact that the gap is widening so very quickly. And, in some cases, the lack of essential conditions of support and reliability (some of your 11 thoughts that make a difference) erode any ground an adventurous teacher might find after diving in. Meanwhile, the network of Those Who Do (get it) is strengthening and forging ahead. The network has jumped into the river, navigated the rapids, found the ocean, and sailed around the world in a beautiful regatta of brightly-colored sails. And Those Who Don’t did not even know there was a river. How do we get Those Who Do to go all the way back to dry land to bring in a buddy, and how do we overcome the fear of the water? The problem is global (I am in the U.S.). Teachers everywhere are following these divided patterns. Is there something deeper in the make-up of some who go into teaching that makes them so afraid?

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