Five years ago, I read an article in The New York Times, “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era”. It had such an impact on me professionally that I refer to it even today. The more I reflect on it, the more I believe it was one of the catalysts that ultimately put me on the path to this master’s program. It raised an important issue five years ago. But reading it today it seems a bit of a broad brush. The research paints a more detailed, nuanced picture of teens’ online activities. Still, the article surfaces yet one more inequity faced by students from low-income communities and those of us who serve them. It draws attention to two concerns I have as an educator: How our most vulnerable students make use of information and communication technology (ICT) and the discrepancy between how many educators use ICT in their professional practice compared to their personal lives and how the latter impacts the former. It is these interests that influenced my reading choices this week.
…And what a selection of readings they were. The sources Nicole pointed us to are such an embarrassment of riches, I wish we had longer to pour over the research before having to blog about them. Needless to say, this week has been a bookmarks a-go-go. Eventually, though, I narrowed down my choices to:
- Trends in Digital Learning: How K-12 leaders are empowering personalize learning in American schools (Blackboard)
- NMC/CoSN Horizon Report>2016 K-12 Edition (New Media Consortium/Consortium for School Networking)
- Connection and Control: Case Studies of Media Use Among Lower-Income Minority Youth and Parents (Common Sense Research)
- How Teachers Are Using technology at Home and in Their Classrooms (Pew Research Center)
- Speak-Up-2016-OER-infographic (Project Tomorrow|Speak-Up Project)
- Speak-Up-2016-first-year-teacher-infographic (Project Tomorrow|Speak-Up Project)
The elements that stand out to me are the extent to which the dynamics described in the Times article still hold true today, five years on. The other is the extent to which the differences persist between how teachers use ICT in their personal lives and in their classrooms.
One of the benefits of consulting is that I’ve experienced more ways of “doing school” than I ever could have imagined I would in my career. And much of what these reports describe hew to what I have experienced first hand. That is, not surprisingly, “[t]eachers of the lowest income students experience the impact of digital tools in the learning environment differently than teachers whose students are from more affluent households” (“How Teachers Are Using Technology…”). Specifically, this means “low income students…[are] ‘behind the curve’ when it comes to effectively using digital tools in the learning process…, teachers of students living in low income households say their school’s use of internet filters has a major impact on their teaching…and…, teachers of lower income students say their school’s rules about classroom cell phone use by students have a major impact on their teaching” (“How Teachers Are Using Technology…”). Meanwhile, teachers of students who come from higher socio-economic households do not face the same obstacles to teaching and learning. In fact, respondents to the the “How Teachers Are Using Technology…” survey report they are likely to face the same conditions stated above only half as often as their counterparts in low-income districts.
What I find so frustrating here is what the conditions described in the survey indicate about adult mindsets and the policies that result from those mindsets. Both mindsets and policies are grounded in negative assumptions about low-income students and positive assumptions about affluent students. Namely, that poor (read also black and brown) students don’t know how to use their devices and online services responsibly; therefore they’re not allowed in class and access to the internet must be heavily firewalled. For children of affluent schools, the converse is assumed. They can be trusted to use their devices properly and not surf verboten sites, thus they are granted access. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces these inequities when it comes to digital learning.
The Common Sense report, “Connection and Control…”, debunks these negative assumptions about poor black and brown kids. It is based on 11 case studies of African-American and Latino teens and their parents from households qualifying for free and reduced lunch. The study complicates the often monolithic block into which all American “youth” are often lumped. The authors note that mediating factors such as time spent with media, socio-economic differences, the types of devices and media available to low-income youth all influence how they use devices and media and thus the type of user a young person is. Categories of users include “Light Users”, “Heavy Viewers”, “Gamers and Computer Users”, “Video Gamers only”, “Readers”, and “Social Networkers”. The authors also nuance the often-cited nine hours average amount of screen time US teens accrue, noting differences by age, income, and race. According to the study, “Tweens (8- to 12-year-olds) use an average of about six hours’ (5:55) worth of entertainment media daily. Teens from lower-income families spend more time with media than those from higher-income families (10:35 vs. 7:50 of total media use). African-American teens use an average of 11:10 worth of media a day compared with 8:51 among Latinos and 8:27 among whites.”
While the report provides a detailed analysis which offers useful insights into the different ways low-income teens and their families interact with their devices, media, and each other, one set of dynamics is particularly striking. First, low-income youth, with more access to mobile devices than desk- or laptops, use their devices for what I will call positive “coping” or “survival” applications. Children who live in high crime neighborhoods use social media to break the isolation imposed by their circumstances to maintain connections with family and friends who live at a distance from them. They will also use their devices to create distance in close living quarters and when going outside is precluded by neighborhood violence. As one student articulated a common finding, “[Using media is] fun and it’s definitely a way to keep calm and peaceful [emphasis added] when you don’t feel like doing anything else.”
When it comes to informal learning, teens use their devices and apps as problem-solving tools. In fact, problem-solving is a kind of use we would expect from a sophisticated, tech-literate, 21st century user. For instance, students with long commutes to school will use transit apps to shorten their travel times. Others will use YouTube as a sort of tutorial service for just-in-time learning according to their interests — personal grooming, learning new dance moves, and gaming hacks, to name a few. And among Social Media users, platforms such as Instagram and SnapChat become spaces to try out new personas — a normal stage of development for tweens and teens (“Connection and Control…”). This contradicts rather poignantly the characterization in the Times article of online behaviors as “time wasting” among low-income teens.
However, the second dynamic I was struck by is a significant difference between low-income teens and their middle- to upper-middle-class peers. Low income students rarely use their devices to create digital content. “On any given day, American teens spend 3% of their time on computers, tablets, and smartphones creating content” which the “Connection and Control…” report defines as “writing or creating digital art or music”. However, low-income teens spend the majority of their time consuming media and online services compared to their wealthier peers. And whereas middle- and upper-middle-class teens have resources to create digital content at home, when their low-income peers do have the opportunity, it is usually available at school or an after-school program where the devices and applications are accessible to them.
The study notes one exception, which I interpret as a function (and limitation) of the devices low-income students have the most access too. Low-income teens do “show evidence of creative practices in the digital world, taking photos and altering them with different filters and stickers before putting them on Instagram or pulling images from the internet, often manipulating them, to create their lock and home screens” (“Connection and Control…”). Here I feel I need to acknowledge a personal bias: I generally find “mashup art” just shy of plagiarism. Admittedly, my views on mashups are evolving as I come across more complex examples and recognize it as a kind of expression digital technology makes particularly easy to create and the internet makes very easy to distribute. Still, I find it a low bar creatively. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the ability to create content is strongly influenced by access to the tools of creation. Household income and school budgets are key determiners of such access.
Given the length of this post so far covering only one of my two stated areas of interest, I’ve decided to spare readers some time. I’ve created a short video compressing a few of my take-aways on teachers’ personal and professional use of ICT. Enjoy!