The Digital Divide and screen time

Nicole Ponsford

Nicole Ponsford is founder of TechnoTeachers and co-authored TechnoTeaching (published by Harvard). She is a mum of three (including twins) and works as a freelance educational coach and writer in her 'spare' time. She is currently an achievement coach and Digital Education Specialist for educational charity Achievement for All. Previously an award-winning secondary school teacher and AST (new technologies) who worked in four secondary schools, in September 2017 Nicole was awarded the title of Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE).

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The more technology that is introduced into education, the more discussions are had regarding accessibility and usage. Edtech expert Nicole Ponsford takes a look at how the Digital Divide and issues surrounding screen-time can overlap.

What is the Digital Divide? Wikipedia describes it as: “an economic and social inequality according to categories of persons in a given population in their access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICT).” Or you could say that the social-economic or demographic differences in access to technology is creating a gap in what skills people have and therefore what opportunities they may have in the future. What we know in schools is ‘the gap’ in attainment and progress.

My interest in the ‘Digital Divide’ was introduced by my colleague, Dr. Julie M. Wood, who is an ex-Harvard Director and lives in the USA. She knows of my work in partnership with schools to narrow the gap for their lowest attaining and most vulnerable learners. She often sends me exciting American academic articles about technology in education. ’Edtech: Who Benefits?’ by Annie Murphy Paul was one that really made me think…

I’ll wait here whilst you read it.

Issues with The Digital Divide…

So, as you see, the research project was based in libraries on different sides of the tracks in Philadelphia (‘Badlands’, not leaving much to the imagination, and ‘Chestnut Hill’). Librarians and two researchers (Susan B. Neuman from New York University and Donna C. Celano, LaSalle University) watched how the patrons read printed and digital books. They were keen to see how computers might “level the playing field” across economic lines. It sounds like they used Apple devices, which make the usage both self-teaching and intuitive in my experience.

I know that the motives were good but, after years of teaching media and film in challenging (and ‘outstanding’) schools (and as an ex-English AST who redesigned a few libraries in my time), I think the idea of chucking some new tech in a room and watching the haves and have-nots use it doesn’t quite make a research project. The outcomes would be that they, the patrons, will do what they know. If you handed out pens and paper the result would be the same, surely? There will always be a divide where the knowledge / skill-set differs.

My ‘beef’ (to stick with the American theme) is that there is an argument that the wealthy patrons would have had more access and digital experiences than their poverty-stricken peers. Their use will also be impacted by their interests, ages and needs. The business demographic are more likely to login to ‘LinkedIn’, for example, and the young ‘hood rats’ might spend more of their time ‘playing’ with the effects filters in iPhoto and iMovie. So was this a means to stereotype from the outset? Wouldn’t it have been better to look at their skills or see what could be addressed to narrow this divide, rather than just as a voyeur?

OK, reader. I know that I need to say what I would do and what my view is - or stop ranting and step up. I hear you.

I think the issue is that I have seen this for years and therefore it is not new to me. I know that students must access the same digital access and opportunities to become confident, creative and innovative when using technology (whatever the medium). As I’d previously written on my blog:

“They [the students] need to be trusted to meet the same challenges, teach one another, and have the same digital foundation. There needs to be a point where the students all have the same foundation - and then they are encouraged to reach for the stars.”

That makes sense, right? That students need to have the same skills - for example, I made sure all of my students could use PC and Apple devices, as well as industry-standard programs like Photoshop and Final Cut - and then would let them create projects using both their imaginations and skill-set. I taught KS3-5, but the more I think about it… this should start as early as possible in their education. Today our idea of ICT is changing. We are coding, creating apps and learning is more of a social activity than ever. So, what can we look at first? How do we get a handle on the ‘digital divide’ and how do we get families involved?

What could we use to look at this holistically? My suggestion would be ‘Screen Time’.

What is Screen Time?

There are some interesting changes happening in how we also view technology-access. Many discussions have been had around ‘screen time’. We consider this to be time in front of any screen: television, tablets or smart phones.

We know that two hours is ‘okay’ for over two years olds, but did you know that screen time initially related to ‘television screen’ watching ONLY? That impassive viewing is very different to a child accessing an app to improve motor or memory skills. In fact, RAND have just published an extremely challenging article entitled ‘Moving Beyond Screen Time’ that recommends that more effective models of integrating technology need to be available. This is because “screen time” and “use patterns” have now changed. We now cannot use the term in the same way, as we use new technologies very differently to the ‘box’ in the corner of the room. In fact, recently the BBC released a report illustrating how children are watching less and less TV, preferring to use ‘second screens’ and tablets.

So how does Screen Time Affect the ‘Digital Divide’?

Well, part of us teaching our students to learn is to be able to model best practice and coach learning strategies for independent and home use. The six questions that the RAND academics (Lindsay Daugherty, Rafiq Dossani, Erin-Elizabeth Johnson and Cameron Wright) employ when it comes to using technology with young learners are these:

  1. Is it purposefully integrated to support learning?
  2. Is the use solitary or taking place with others?
  3. Is the activity sedentary or mobile?
  4. What are the content and features of the media?
  5. Are the device's features age-appropriate?
  6. What is the total screen time involved?

The Digital Divide in Your School: Investigating ‘Screen Time’

  1. Home: I think that screen time is a fantastic place to start bridging this as an issue. Parents are concerned that their children spend too much time in front of screens and many want guidance. This could be the focus of a student home-learning topic or a parents’ workshop. 
  2. Students: Do you have a guide for teachers about how much screen time a day students have? Do you monitor how much time they spend in front of screens? And what would you describe as a screen - a laptop, a TV, a Smart Board? 
  3. Schools: In another research paper by the same team, they go on to look at how technology in the Early Years can act to again narrow this divide. By offering students the same technology, and therefore opening out the playing field (excuse the pun) digital learning for all students is then the same. There is no gap. There is no divide. But where do young learners gain the best technology in education? In the early years, or 16+? It poses interesting questions for all educators - those helping students to start their learning journeys and those who provide the last accreditations before the young people start their careers.

For more reading on the Digital Divide, try these links:

How do you address the Digital Divide and screen time in your school? Let us know in the comments.

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