Keith Oelrich argues that teacher preparation and curriculum design are the keys to closing the digital technological opportunity gap
A Gap Emerges
In the mid-’90s, as personal computer and internet access was becoming more available to many in the U.S., a correlation could be observed between access to technology and socioeconomic status. Scholars, policy makers, and advocacy groups referred to this as the “ digital divide,” and many school districts began investing in both broadband internet and classroom technology to combat this issue.
Today, more than 99% of U.S. public schools are connected to the internet, in large part thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s congressionally mandated E-Rate program, which went into effect in 1998. School districts continue to spend billions each year on hardware, broadband, maintenance, and other instructional-technology software and tools. During the 2015–16 year alone, 46% of districts increased their spending on hardware, which included tablets, laptops, and desktop computers.
More than Access
Though broadband use and school hardware availability are at an all-time high, a new digital divide has appeared. Today’s students carry cell phones in their pockets that are more powerful than the NASA command center that landed men on the moon in 1969, but many still do not have the basic technology skills they need for success in school and in life.
This skills gap is apparent in the recent analysis of scores earned by students on online versus paper-and-pencil versions of assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). For example, students who took the 2014–15 PARCC exam on a computer tended to score lower than those who took the same test using paper and pencil. In 2016, a district in Arizona did a study among its students that showed those with strong digital literacy skills scored higher than those with marginal or low digital literacy skills on their state’s online assessment. This suggests that lower online test scores can be linked to insufficient digital literacy skills.
If students do not develop a strong foundation of digital literacy starting in elementary school, the digital divide will only widen as they continue in school. If students enter high school or college without the proper digital literacy skills, they will not be able to meet the expectations of their classes, including the use of word processing and spreadsheet programs, or effectively conduct research to identify credible online sources.
The impact of this technology skills gap is also significant for individuals entering the workforce. By 2020, it is estimated that nearly 80% of jobs will require some level of technology proficiency. Productivity lost due to low technology skills is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $1.3 trillion each year. Additionally, time wasted as a result of inadequate digital skills is estimated to consume 21% of a worker’s time, costing businesses roughly $10,000 per employee per year.
Obstacles to Preparing Students
Two barriers to providing students with quality digital-literacy instruction are inadequate teacher training and the lack of a standardized curriculum at most schools. Core-area teachers take many college classes on their chosen subjects and are typically provided with a district-approved curriculum. On the other hand, many teachers across the U.S. are expected to teach students technology skills but do not receive specific training on how to teach these skills and are not provided with any sort of curriculum to follow.
When this happens, teachers are essentially required to create their own curriculums by sifting through thousands of online resources. Vetting the quality and grade appropriateness of these items and creating lessons from scratch can be difficult and time-consuming. As a result, students may encounter uneven quality of instruction from classroom to classroom and school to school.
Digital Literacy Instruction for All
In an effort to tackle this technology skills gap, many states have adopted national standards, or created their own state standards, that require specific technology skills to be demonstrated within core subject areas. For this to be effective, districts need to provide teachers with training that includes best practices for using technology in the classroom, models to follow, and clear guidelines, together with a curriculum for use across the district and ongoing support. When teachers feel included in the discussion about the role of technology in their schools and are provided with the right support, they will feel empowered to introduce new concepts to their students.
It is clear that this new digital divide will not be bridged simply by providing students with more access to technology. By addressing the issues of teacher preparation and a standardized curriculum, districts can make great strides toward ensuring that all students—no matter which classes they are in or what schools they attend—will be given an equal opportunity to develop the digital literacy skills they need to succeed in the classroom, in online assessments, and later in life.
International Data Corporation (IDC). “Bridging the Information Worker Productivity Gap: New Challenges and Opportunities for IT.”
Keith Oelrich, CEO of Learning.com, has been a pioneer in the K–12 online-education market for the past 17 years. During that time, he has served as CEO of several companies which have collectively provided K–12 online-education programs to thousands of districts, tens of thousands of schools, and millions of students and their families. Keith was previously the founder and CEO of Insight Schools.
Insight Schools operates one of the nation’s leading networks of full-time, diploma-granting online public high schools and is now a subsidiary of K12, Inc. Prior to founding Insight Schools, Keith was the president and CEO of KC Distance Learning (KCDL), where he operated the largest private online high school in the U.S. Before joining KCDL, Keith was the president and CEO of Apex Learning, a leading virtual high school company founded by Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen.
Founded in 1999, Learning.com serves 6.7 million students each year in more than 20 countries. Their digital literacy curriculum for grades K–8 provides grade-appropriate lessons with embedded instruction to engage students as they develop critical digital-literacy skills such as keyboarding, online safety, and coding.