Online assignments and the digital divide

I've recently taken to using the magic of the internet to give my students access to readings, assignments, and images outside of class. It's great - if my sophomores lose their map, they can print another one. If a student misses class, there's no excuse not to do the homework anyway. If students can't draw their own pictures, they can print out images and study them on their own. And it's possible to go even further with online teaching materials - to have students prepare for class by doing online readings, or watching a video, or listening to a podcast, and then responding to online questions (which give them a grade-related reason to do the class prep work).

But even though students can get access to the files from any place with an internet connection, they don't all have equal access to the course materials. And the class prep work can impose burdens beyond required textbook reading.

To understand why, look at this map posted last February on the Daily Yonder:


The map shows the proportion of farmers who have broad-band internet access in various parts of the country. (For some reason there's a census of agriculture that collects this information. It's not a perfect picture of rural internet access, but it gives a sense of it.) My part of the country is fairly well wired - in many Colorado mountain towns, 60 to 70% of people have broadband access. My county isn't in that upper tier - it's only 30 to 40% wired, but the proportion in town (where DSL and cable internet have been available for years, and where the coffee shops have free wifi) is probably higher.

But look south and west. That pink area in eastern Arizona - only 4 to 10% of farmers have broadband there. Some of my students come from there, or from the adjacent part of New Mexico. There are wide stretches of that area with no cell phone service, let along high-speed internet. When we talk about "kids these days," with their text messaging and Facebook pages, we're talking about people who have had access to things that aren't available everywhere in the US.

And even those people who live in areas served by high-speed internet might not be able to afford it. According to an article posted in June, a third of people (with internet access) in the US don't have broadband access. Some of those people are my students, as well - only freshmen are required to live in the dorms, and when I ask how many people can't access the internet from home, there are always a few students who raise their hands. (And the single parents who have returned to school to finish their degrees can't just run down to the coffee shop like some college students can.)

I don't want to exclude students just because they haven't had the experience using Google or text messaging that their peers have had, or because they don't have internet access in their home off-campus. If I require using technology outside the classroom, I'm making an assumption that students have access to it (and the expertise necessary to use it). So I prefer to give students access to technology in class, where they have the opportunity to learn about it (from me, from their peers, from experimenting).

This wouldn't be an issue at a school where all the students live in networked dorms, have laptop computers, and are the age and social class to have played with computers since they were small. But my campus is more diverse than that. And it's important to teach to the students one has, not to someone's conception of what a 21st century college student is supposed to be.

[Side note: I've changed my commenting policy to deal with the huge amount of spam I've been getting. From now on, I'm going to moderate comments, and only let through ones that I'm sure are legitimate. Comments may take more than 8 to 10 hours to appear, because I'm not going to deal with them from work, and I might mistake some real comments for spam - one spammer posted a chunk of a Real Climate post lately! But hopefully the spam will decrease.]

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Thank you for the graphic illustration. I was reminded of the reality while on vacation (Glacier National Park, photos should be going up at my blog one of these days). Hadn't really thought about how it could apply to education, though. And that's a very big point given the presumptions about "it's all out there (internet)" equating to 'everybody can get it'.