Striving for Equal Digital Opportunity

kids at computersAn article by Kristin Rushowy in the Toronto Star on April 1 reported that almost 60% of Toronto schools allow students to BYOD (bring your own device). http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2014/04/01/byod_bring_your_own_device_now_in_most_ontario_schools_survey_finds.html

This indicates a trend. Not long ago the debate was whether it was “safe” for students to bring their smartphones or tablets: what if they did inappropriate things with them? Also, would students be distracted by their devices? At AERA two years ago I (Clive) attended a roundtable on just these issues.
What teachers have found (and many in our longitudinal study report this) is that, if rules are laid down and habits established, the potential problems can largely be overcome. Moreover, this process provides opportunities to teach students about digital responsibility, etiquette, etc.
The Star article focused rather on the question of equity: does BYOD increase the disparity between rich and poor students, or potentially reduce it? People for Education research director Kelly Gallagher-Mackay argues for the latter position, “as long as (boards) realize it’s not a level playing field, and consciously address that.”
While most school districts can’t afford to buy devices for everyone, they can make up the difference for students who don’t have them; and tech firms are often willing to help out. Rushowy reported: “Last year, the Peel board arranged for $55 tablets for families, and last month began a pilot project giving low-income families discounted refurbished computers.”
There will always be a stigma attached to needing help of this kind. But it seems better to tackle it head-on in the classroom rather than ignoring an inequality everyone knows about anyway. It’s also better to have devices in the classroom, provided we can find ways to make it work. The investigation continues.

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