Navigating the Digital Divide

The “digital divide” refers to the difference in opportunities between those who have access to digital technologies like the internet and those who do not. In the classroom, it comes down to the difference in  school preparation between kids who have computers and those who do not. In the 21st century, not having access to modern digital technologies is a lot like not having access to books.

An organization in Reading, Pennsylvania is doing something about it. Opportunity House started out as a homeless shelter for men. Soon they had women and children staying as well. The children had supervised play time while their parents worked on life skills, but it occurred to the staff at Opportunity House that the kids could use an educational boost. They also learned that there were needs in the community for subsidized child care. With government funding, Opportunity House began providing childcare and after school programs. The funding helps all the programs at Opportunity House.

Opportunity House recently built a LEED certified (ecologically sound) building, and part of the process is a charette, a meeting among all the stakeholders for intensive planning and decisions making. At their charette, Opportunity House learned more about the needs in their community and about the opportunities. They became more aware of the digital divide in their community, where computer access in the schools is limited.

For lower income kids who don’t have computers with internet access at home, this lack of computers at school means a spot firmly on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“They do their homework differently,” says Lorri Oziri, Vice President of Development for Opportunity House. “Everything is different for them.”

They also grow up without the tech skills that employers assume young people will have. People with limited digital experience are less likely to be skilled at using online search,  more likely to accept the default set ups on computers even if they are inappropriate for their needs, and much less likely to participate online rather than just consuming.

Opportunity House has 12 laptop computers for each of their six school age classrooms. For kids accustomed to having one computer per class — or none — this is a game changer.  A green furniture company donated $30,000 worth of office furniture, including seating, filing cabinets, and places to put the computers. The staff is creating a curriculum that will help the kids get comfortable with the computers, as well as keeping up with their schoolwork when in many cases they have limited resources at home.

Oziri expressed concern not only about the question of access to computers and the internet, but also about the appropriateness of technology training in the classroom. Most teachers can relate to this concern: even in schools with a high level of computer access, there may be hardware but no appropriate software, teachers face stiff regulations about how and when they can access the internet, or technology isn’t integrated into the curriculum in a productive way. Opportunity House is planning a curriculum that will address these problems as well as the simpler issue of access.

What steps are being taken in your school or your community to address the digital divide?


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