Education technology — “Edtech” — has become an area of intense innovation and debate — with topics like Massive Open Online Courses, coding for kids, and tablets constantly attracting attention and sparking debate every day.

But how are teachers and students responding to the constant influx of new digital tools?

The latest Pew Research Center Internet and American Life survey of 2,500 Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers from 6th to 12th grade suggests that while edtech is infiltrating classrooms, key disparities are affecting how teachers teach and how their students learn.

Digital Divides Governed by Income Differences

“Digital divide” describes differences in the population’s access to and knowledge of digital technologies, and the Pew survey results identified a variety of factors driving the digital divide in schools. First, there are generational differences — compared with teachers age 55 or older, teachers under age 35 are more likely to describe themselves as “very confident” in using new digital technologies. Not surprisingly, more teachers under 35 reported using websites, wikis or blogs than teachers ages 55 and older. There are also subject area differences. Science teachers are more likely to remix content found online while English teachers are more likely to run a blog. And there are subtle differences in geography. Teachers in urban areas are the least likely to report sufficient access to digital tools in school, while rural teachers are the least likely to report sufficient access at home.

However, income-based differences were the most pronounced.

“The most consistent finding throughout the survey were fairly stark differences in the experiences and perceptions of teachers of lower-income versus higher-income students,” Kristen Purcell, the report’s lead author, said in an email interview.

While 70 percent of teachers working in the highest income areas say their school does a “good job” providing teachers the resources and support to implement digital tools in the classroom, 50 percent of teachers working in the lowest income areas say so.

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When it comes to income gaps, what starts out as a simple disparity in access to technology spirals into more nuanced effects. For one, there is a correlation between income and openness to digital technology in school. The number of teachers of low-income students who say their teaching is majorly impacted by their schools’ Internet filters and rules about classroom cell phone use is double that of teachers of higher-income students.

Addressing these various forms of digital divides is a pressing issue for teachers. Of the teachers surveyed, 84 percent agree with this statement: “Today’s digital technologies are leading to greater disparities between affluent and disadvantaged schools and school districts.”

Surprising Findings Highlight Trends

A few results in the survey came as a surprise to researchers at Pew and are signalling areas of rapid or consistent change in the education landscape.

“We were a bit surprised by the extent to which mobile tools have become part of the learning process,” Purcell said. In fact, 73 percent of the teachers surveyed report using, or having their students use, mobile phones — either in the classroom or to complete assignments. Forty-five percent report the same for tablets. And whereas distraction from cell phones and digital tools seemed like an undebatable fact in the previous decade, the mobile revolution has swept in forcibly, changing school policies across the country.

John Robinson, a longtime language arts educator and currently a principal in the Newton Conover City Schools system in North Carolina, confirmed that schools’ mobile device policies are indeed changing.

“Our district had a complete ban — now students in our high schools are allowed to use them in designated areas at designated times, such as before school, during lunch, or after school,” Robinson wrote via email. His students can also use mobile devices anytime if given authorization by a teacher, if they are in office areas, or when devices are a part of teachers’ instruction.

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Survey results also reiterate the long-time debate over whether today’s students are more well-versed in technology than their teachers. Forty-two percent of surveyed teachers say their students usually know more about how to use new digital tools. This trend is especially representative of 11th-12th grade teachers, those teaching higher-income students, and teachers age 55 and older.

Robinson’s district has also made a conscious effort to address this student-teacher divide through ongoing training on classroom technology tools. This reinforces the expectation for teachers to be more tech-savvy and make technology use a classroom routine. But Robinson concedes that it’s extremely difficult for older teachers to catch up — except for those with “the right kind of adventurous attitude and a willingness to risk.”

Findings To Inform EdTech

A few findings in the survey underline interesting and discussion-worthy topics for the edtech ecosystem to consider:

  • Sphere of use: More than half of the surveyed teachers say all or almost all of their students have sufficient access to digital tools at school, but only a fifth of these teachers say all or almost all of their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.
  • Ease-of-access vs. validity: 60 percent of those surveyed agree with the statement, “Today’s digital technologies make it harder for students to find and use credible sources of information,” yet 99 percent use the Internet on their job. (While students are commonly discouraged to use Wikipedia, the AP and NWP teachers surveyed use the online encyclopedia at much higher rates than U.S. adult Internet users as a whole.)
  • Subject-specific interactives: Tools like Wikis, online discussion boards, and collaborative platforms like Google Docs are used by less than half of surveyed teachers. Those who do use these tools are largely English and social studies teachers.

Moving forward, Robinson also identifies another big obstacle in schools trying to embrace edtech.

“There are so many options with so many companies pushing their wares, that being able to effectively discern what works for our classrooms at this time is a challenge,” he said. “There is money there. There are plenty of companies vying for that money, but what is often the issue is finding a level of expertise in finding the right tech for our needs.”

He explained that when decisions on acquiring edtech are made from the top, the technology arrives only to sit unused because it doesn’t exactly meet the instructional needs of teachers or students.

This observation is consistent with Pew Research Center’s past focus group studies of teachers using technology.

“Focus group participants stressed that they were not in favor of the use of technology in the classroom just for the sake of using technology — they are more than enthusiastic to test new methods to see if there are benefits, but are also happy to stick with more traditional methods if they prove most effective,” Purcell said.

If neglected smart boards and iPads across the schools want more action, technology, curriculum goals, and the learning environment must further inform each other.

More Reading

Bridging the Digital Divide in Rural Schools by Sarah Butrymowicz

Your Guide to the Digital Divide by Mark Glaser

The Digital Divide Was Supposed to Be Closing. But Is It? at EdTech magazine

Jenny Xie is the PBS MediaShift editorial intern. Jenny is a senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying architecture and management. She is a digital-media junkie fascinated by the intersection of media, design, and technology. Jenny can be found blogging for MIT Admissions, tweeting @canonind, and sharing her latest work and interests here.

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