Leveling the Playing Field

Tina Walker sees the closing of the digital divide as key to overcoming the achievement gap

President Obama’s ConnectED Initiative calls for 99% of America’s students to be connected to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within five years, and this fall, an increasing number of students are returning to schools taking large strides toward achieving that goal.

“In 2013 and going forward, digital literacy is an essential subject that must be taught,” says Leo Gómez, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education. “If we don’t start to recognize the true importance of digital literacy in the school setting, we’re setting up our kids for many problems and conflicts in their futures.” Preparing our students with the digital skills they need to compete for jobs globally and locally is essential.

But do English language learners (ELLs) and their native English-speaking counterparts approach technology on a level playing field? There are more than 4.5 million ELLs enrolled in public schools — roughly 10% of the student population in K-12 schools — and that percentage is increasing annually. The number of English learners has grown by 50% in the last decade. The notion of literacy has expanded beyond language proficiency to the digital world. Where does the “digital divide” lie between ELLs and native English-speaking students?

When it comes to access, the main challenge is found on the home front, says Gómez. “From my experience, the ELL students I work with do not have the same level of resources or access to them in their homes,” he says. “Many of our families come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and they have just the basic necessities at home. Having a wireless network… is not as common as in the homes of native English speakers.”

Deanna Belden Palmer, a teacher on assignment with the Apple Valley Unified School District in Southern California, agrees. “In my opinion, the digital divide is due more to the economic status of families, [which limits] accessibility,” she says.

Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) — a fully accredited online public school with 14,000 students — addresses the home access challenge by providing every student with a computer and Internet access at home. “Most of our students are disadvantaged in some way,” says Sarah Hanka, ECOT’s director of curriculum. “We provide access, even though we are a public charter school.”

A 2011 Pew Internet Project survey found that while minorities and adults living in households with lower incomes are less likely to be online, there is progress being made: the internet-access gap closest to disappearing is that between whites and minorities. “Differences in access persist,” the survey states, “but they have become significantly less prominent over the years — and have completely disappeared when other demographic factors (including language proficiency) are controlled for.”

A growing number of schools are going beyond computer workstations in the classroom or lab. They’re assigning each student a laptop or tablet that stays with the student for the term, the year, or longer — at school and at home. As access to digital technologies becomes ubiquitous and more homes come online, will the so-called digital divide begin to shrink?

Professional Development
Many educators feel that the digital divide exists not solely between ELLs and native English speakers, but between all students and their teachers. “The digital natives — students — are being taught by the digital immigrants — teachers,” says Gómez. “In order to promote digital literacy for ELL students, we have to promote digital literacy for their teachers. The students will learn anything relating to digital literacy… faster than the teachers will. It’s a matter of teaching the teachers effectively if we want to get it into the classroom.”

The key, says Gómez, is providing teachers with the training and support they need to fully integrate technology into their classrooms. “If our teachers don’t know what blogs, Twitter feeds, and RSS feeds are, it makes it very difficult to teach digital literacy to students.

The ConnectED Initiative promises to invest in training, “ensuring that every educator in America receives support and training to use technology to help improve student outcomes.”

“Training is essential,” echoes Hanka. “We provide professional development about five times a year. Technology is ingrained in everything we do [at ECOT]. We of course offer training related to Common Core and assessments and all the things that brick-and-mortar teachers are facing.” But ECOT also adds a significant focus on training teachers for the digital environment. “Our teachers’ technology experience runs the gamut, so we provide a range of training designed to fit their varying levels [of experience],” says Hanka.

New Opportunities
As teacher training and accessibility improve, digital learning could offer dynamic new ways for ELLs to become proficient in English.

Margarete Ronnette, director of Classroom Products at Follett School Solutions, says “ebooks with narration are of tremendous value to ELL students. Because of their interactivity, these books can help improve pronunciation, fluency, and language skills… our customers find this kind of engagement to be very powerful. For instance, we have read-alongs that allow students to hear what they’re seeing in print form — all things that support reading, speaking, and hearing the language. Educators tell us that ELL students find this kind of engagement to be very powerful.”

“We didn’t have a way to get books into the hands of our students — that’s how FollettShelf came to us,” says Hanka. The online FollettShelf allows ECOT students to take a book off of the virtual shelf and have instant access to its material. “For our ELL students, we also have translation and software programs, so they can have their text easily translated within the lesson,” adds Hanka.

“What’s great for ELL students, and all students, is that these digital resources are available around the clock,” says Ronnette. “This opens the opportunity for students to access educational content and to be engaged… and for those students to engage with their families as well.”

As digital-learning technologies and students’ access improve, the digital divide will evolve for all students and their teachers. “I believe teaching digital literacy is something that is not limited to only ELLs,” says Gómez. “The Internet and technology are universal and understood in all languages. Our digital natives [students] are early adopters and quick to learn.”

Tina Walker is a freelance writer who has held various positions in education and literacy for more than 15 years. A previous independent bookstore owner and television news reporter, she writes for regional and trade publications while focusing on her two children and husband, a public school teacher. 

Illustration by Devin Slatas.