Considering the “new” Digital Divide



As a First Year Writing teacher at an urban, research one institution, it is an understatement to say that I teach a diverse population of students. I happen to love it–interacting with lots of different people each day teaches me about life and the world in ways that I find personally enriching. The tricky part comes when I have to buckle down and teach a cross section of those diverse people. Teach them to write. Oh, yeah–make sure they’re writing with technology, too.

Integrating technology into the composition classroom is not difficult. For some, it’s laughably simple. There are myriad technologies that facilitate writing, drafting, revising, reading…basically if you want to bring in digital tools to your classroom, you simply have to run a couple of Google searches, and you’re in business.

The tricky part comes in when I make assumptions about my students as I craft assignments that integrate digital tools. “Oh, my students will love this–it (fill in the blank with tech-y thing I think students will think is cool)!” The assumption is that my students, diverse as they are, are homogenous in their experience with and penchant for using digital technologies. And, of course, that assumption is wrong.

Lee Bessette’s blog on Hybrid Pedagogy highlights a “new digital divide.” Teaching in Appalachia, Bessette is working with a (potentially less diverse) population that fails to see the value in using technology for anything besides strict, tool-based tasks. Bessette outlines reasons for this: low-tech jobs that students are preparing for, the cultural value of other kinds of “making,” prohibitively high costs of hardware and software, fear of failure. While Bessette wants students to “play” with technology, students are just not interested.

I think this lack of interest and cloud of fears surrounding technology is very present in my urban university students as well. Though we don’t live in Appalachia, there are still very real cultural and familial patterns that keep my some of my students from growing proficient at navigating digital spaces and interacting confidently with technology. There is another aspect to my pedagogical assumptions, though, that surprises me fairly consistently for different reasons.

Bessette states, “I have no doubt that many of my students are simply using technology in the same way they ‘use’ television…: passively consuming content.” Here is another aspect to students use of technology that surprises me when I try to craft digital-based assignments that are designed to help students engage in making, communicating, and otherwise taking advantage of the network. This is why, I am learning, it is imperative to expose students to theories that contextualize the use of digital media around the classroom. Just like Bessette’s students, who need to be persuaded of the value–monetary and otherwise–of playing with technology in order to critically engage with the tools, my students need to be persuaded as well. They need to be persuaded that the cell phone they keep tapping with an index finger, half-listening to class goings-on, half scrolling though tweets, is more than just their access to texting and Instagram. It can be a springboard into important cultural conversations that directly effect their lives, and that, if they’re wise, they can join.


4 thoughts on “Considering the “new” Digital Divide

  1. As one of the more anti-technology people in our practicum (or so it seems, anyway), I’m wondering how you “expose students to theories that contextualize the use of digital media around the classroom.” Do you have them read texts on these theories or do you provide the information for them (via lecture, for instance)? What texts and/or theories do you use? This may prove useful not only for my students but for me (as both a student and instructor) as well!

    • oh, Shandi, you have hit on the very question I ask myself about this! We should talk more in class about potential ideas…cause I’m a bit lost on this issue myself!

  2. Hi Nicole. I agree with your statement about it being “imperative to expose students to the theories that contextualize the use of digital media in the classroom.” I think we lose students when they are not made aware of how to use virtual elements actively. At the same time, teaching the use of these materials becomes challenging when encountering challenges related to accessibility.

    • Right on, Joseph! (Joe? Joseph?) The sticking point for me is quickly/effectively assessing the population of any given class–how much access (or lack of access) am I working with? How much contextualizing do I need to do–or CAN I do? With FYW, every class is different, and could be any mix of experiences (with technology, or with writing in general).

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