- Autonomy of use
- Social support, and
- The purposes for which the technology is employed
There exists, among those with physical access, inequity in the equipment they use to access the benefits of the Internet. Rob Kling, as cited in Paul DiMaggio and Eszter Hargittai's paper, highlight the importance of "suitable equipment, including computers of adequate speed and equipped with appropriate software for a given activity”, without which, inequity will exist. These limitations can negatively impact the ways in which people can engage with the Internet and develop an digital identity and footprint. DiMaggio and Hargittai point out that with the rise in bandwidth improvements, more websites require "late-model browsers to display Java applications, sophisticated graphics, or streaming audio or video." Inevitably, users without access to updated technologies will be impacted by less access to Internet content.
This reminds me of working in community schools with students who brought wifi-enabled technology to school, but were limited in what they could access with their technology, due to it being out-of-date and unable to support certain apps and content that could enhance their learning experience. I think back to students who, as recent as last school year, were bringing first-generation iPod Touches to school; while they were happy to have a foot in the digital world, they were significantly impacted on what they could achieve with their device. For example, the first generation iPod Touch could not take pictures or video, did not have Siri (and therefore voice-to-text recognition), most apps (and certain educational sites) could not be supported on their device as well. While some students enjoyed the full benefits of BYOT, some students did not enjoy the full benefits and needed to use supplemental devices from the school. For some students, this reality made their experience with their technology less gratifying. As DiMaggio and Hargittai point out, this limited accessibility could lead to students using the internet less frequently and limit their acquisition of the "skills that enable users to derive the full benefits that [full] access can provide."
I also think of the implications this issue has on a student's digital identity. With a device, such as the first gen iPod Touch (considering it is not capable of capturing picture or video), pictures and video posted to social media would likely be what others post on their behalf. In this case, they have less control of their contributions to their digital identity. These students would likely adopt more of a passive consumer role, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram posts, as opposed to actively creating a digital identity and footprint.
The notion of individual control over Internet use also creates digital inequities among those with physical access. Location of use (home, work, school, library, etc) plays a significant factor in the amount of autonomy one has over their access to the Internet, as well as the formation of their digital identity. Particularly when Internet access occurs outside of the home, students may be limited in their access to Internet content. For example, some schools block sites such as YouTube with the intent to prevent distraction from pointless, and sometimes distasteful, videos. However, this block also creates barriers to accessing all the credible and educational content that YouTube has to offer. Some schools have opted for filtering tools, but those, too, encourage blocking over talking. I personally believe that when we block content, particularly for older students, we are missing key opportunities to teach and cultivate meaningful citizenship (both digital and non-digital). Places of employment have also been known to place blocks on certain social media sites with the intent to decrease distraction and increase productivity. However, studies have shown that a quick break to engage with social media "can help employees clear their heads and come back refreshed to tackle projects." Furthermore, it decreases the opportunity for employees to exercise professional judgement. To add to this, employers--particularly employers of teachers--also hold their employees to a higher social standard. Jason Millar illustrates this in his article about educator digital identity and participation in social media. As Millar states, "If institutions seek to prescribe appropriate and inappropriate uses of the medium, then it seems that this will prevent educators from being able to make meaningful choices regarding authentic self-expression and self-representation"; hence, impacting the digital identity and autonomy of use of teachers.
From a home perspective, I have also witnessed parents who actively ensure that their children are not online. For instance, I had a student with create a photo-sharing account to share their magnificent sketches of anime. This was a student who did not have a social network at school (at all), but found a very meaningful social network online. They found a supportive space wherein other anime enthusiasts shared constructive feedback and suggestions for future sketches. It was evident that my student had found meaningful connections and they were starting to create a legitimate digital footprint. When the parent discovered the account, the student was made to shut it down. I cannot pass judgment on parental decisions involving their children, but what I can say is that this student did not have autonomy over their internet access and, right or wrong, lost control of their emerging digital identity.
Concerning autonomy of use, DiMaggio and Hargittai hypothesize, and I concur, that "the greater the autonomy of use, the greater the benefits the user derives."
Aim Sinpeng summarizes this digital inequity very succinctly in saying, "Inequality in skill affects if and how the Internet is used." What we can learn from failed initiatives to increase access, is that physical access means nothing without the skill to operate the technology. For instance, there must be a scaleable plan when deploying hardware and software in schools. If there is an absence or lack of teacher preparation in developing human capital, the result could be a widening, as opposed to narrowing, of the digital inequity among both teachers and students. This speaks to me quite profoundly, as Jenn and I, in our roles to develop the digital skills and pedagogy of teachers, invest a lot of time in this.
The issue of inequity in skill goes beyond the ability to log onto a computer and do a Google search. iMaggio and Hargittai cite that Dell Hymes refers to this issue as "Internet competence", which is the "capacity to respond pragmatically and intuitively to challenges and opportunities in a manner that exploits the Internet's potential." It goes without saying, as I have also personally witnessed, that a lack of Internet and technological competence has the potential to lead to a great deal of frustration with technology; even an avoidance or abandoning of it. A common explanation I hear from teachers not using certain technology is that they tried it once, and it didn't work. I believe that this heavily weighs on their likihood to attempt again. This Internet competence, as iMaggio and Hargittai state, is "related to the satisfaction users derive from the experience, the extent to which they find it stressful or rewarding, and therefore, the extent to which they persist in Internet use and acquire additional skills."
Again, this inequity in skill has an impact on the digital footprint of both teachers and students. What I am particularly concerned about is the impact that a lack of teacher technological and Internet competence can have on their students. A teacher's comfort-level with technology, more often than not, determines the amount and level of integration in teaching and learning. Therefore, if in a group of 60 students, 30 are in a classroom wherein the teacher has a high level of technological and Internet competence, and 30 are in a classroom wherein the other teacher has a low level of this competence, a digital divide will ultimately emerge between these two groups of students. This is concerning and is why Jenn and I are focusing our project on building the capacity of teachers (and ultimately, students) in the essential skills of 21st century learning.
The digital inequity of social support is closely linked to the inequity of digital skills. While skillful users continue to develop their skills and reap further benefits from technology and the Internet, those who lack skills grow more frustrated and intimidated (and likely avoid it altogether), unless they have adequate social support. Those who lack the essential skills to meaningfully reap the benefits of technology and the Internet need to be able to draw upon the skills and support of more proficient users when they reach the limits of their current ability.
Technology has impacted the educational landscape in a big way; yet there are educators that remain uncertain about how to effectively infuse it in teaching and learning, and require both technical and pedagogical support. This is a significant part of my role with Regina Catholic Schools as a Teacher Technology Coach. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills asserts, “Today’s education system faces irrelevance unless we bridge the gap between how students live and how they learn”; as a coach, I hope to provide teachers with effective and valuable social support to keep education relevant, meaningful, and practical in an increasingly digital world. I very much believe that coaches can be change-agents to cultivate this desired transformation; in order to address the inequity of social support, I believe that more school divisions should be employing this model.
"The Internet prophets who foresaw that the Web would empower citizens, increase social capital, and enhance equality of opportunity probably did not have gambling or pornography sites in mind when they made these predictions." I believe that the project Jenn and I are working on is addressing the issue of moving users beyond consumption of the Internet and its content. Our project is aiming to build the capacity of students to curate, connect, critically think, communicate, collaborate, create, and demonstrate citizenship in a digital landscape. In an educational context, where physical access is less of a concern, we need to ensure that all the hardware and software we provide is utilized beyond surface-level means (i.e. consumption and passive drill-and practice), to leverage the 7 C's of 21st century learning; for if we do not, we will never realize technology's full potential in educational enhancement, and we will end up further away from closing the gap of digital inequity.
"As access diffuses to parts of the public who were initially excluded, dimensions related to quality of use become important bases by which the benefits of the technology are stratified." We need to be cognizant of the barriers certain users face in accessing the Internet. Joanne Weber has blogged extensively on this topic in regards to the digital inequity experienced by people who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH). As a DHH educator, and a person who is deaf herself, this is a topic of tremendous passion and she writes very eloquently on the significant issues (I recommend reading her blog). Kirsten Hansen explores digital inequity within a gender context in her blog post this week. In the video below, you will see the inequity racial minorities face in terms of digital opportunities. Aim Sinpeng, in her article, mentions the digital inequity that non-English speakers face, as she states, "Knowledge of English (the de facto language of the Internet) can determine one’s likelihood of being part of the digital world. Empirical studies across non-English-speaking countries find that a lack of English knowledge can impair an individual’s online experience." I have personally witnessed this among my Spanish-speaking family members. I also think of members of the LGBTQ2 community and the digital inequity they may experience when accessing digital spaces. In the past, people seeking same-sex partners online were limited to fetish or sex sites. Digital space for understanding and engaging in supportive discourse concerning gender dysmorphia was even less accessible. It is no doubt that the offline world, while progress has been made, remains inequitable for people of the LGBTQ2 community, and this bleeds into the online world as well. That being said, I came across a good article last week that explored the positive affordances digital connections can have on identity. The article explored how social media and other apps for digital connections have potential for providing positive virtual spaces to explore and develop sexual identities in a world where their identities remain victim to stigmatization.
Can you think of other dimensions that should be considered when exploring digital inequity?
Do you have ideas about how we can continue to narrow the gap of digital inequity?