Over Your Head: Digital Barriers in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, Digital Citizenship Special Issue, 2020
By Chris Kruger
It is widely accepted that digital tools and resources are vital to students’ success in the modern world. It is also widely believed that the only barrier to access is money. “If only,” I lamented as a first-year teacher, “there were enough devices to go around, all students would be able to become full-fledged digital citizens!”
While this may be true for some students, for others, access is more complex and can’t be achieved through simply receiving a grant or donation of devices. Often, other factors are at play. It’s important to develop a nuanced understanding of access so that we can better help our students.
To start, we need only look to ourselves for one potential barrier to access. There is no grant that can overcome a teacher who is unable or unprepared to use a digital resource. Last year, I was lucky enough to win a grant for a 3D printer for my school, but the rollout was far from easy.
I was so excited, but had no idea how to share it with my students. I attended webinars, read articles, followed the steps, did everything I could, but it was still so daunting. There it sat, gathering dust. It wasn’t until I admitted I was in over my head that I could actually start moving forward.
If you find yourself in this kind of situation, there are some simple steps that can help. Find real people to help you; break it into manageable chunks; and look for entry level projects to attempt first. But, above all, don’t let a late start contribute to an even later implementation. Starting late is better than not starting at all.
Another barrier students may face is the level of digital infrastructure. In Chicago where I teach, high speed Internet is available almost everywhere. Outside of the classroom, there are public libraries, cafes, schools—a whole host of options. Furthermore, some urban areas are proposing to classify the Internet as a utility and making it available to all.
Even so, just because broadband seems to be everywhere, doesn’t mean all our students can easily access it. And for those in rural or remote areas, the situation may be even worse, as the cost of Internet access is higher, or the speed is much slower. Khan Academy may be one of my favourite classroom resources, but it isn’t useful if a video takes fifteen minutes to load.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to help students facing these barriers is by compiling an honest inventory of the resources available to them. Do they have Internet access via cell phones? Or access only on weekends? Can you provide resources that can be downloaded at school and then worked on at home? For example, Google Docs and many coding platforms can be used offline and the work is then synced once students gain Internet access again.
Another potential barrier to access is parental acceptance of technology. A parent might generally dislike devices and are hesitant to have their child play any game, even if it is educational. Another parent might not allow their child to use technology unless the child is fully proficient with it. Or, they may be suspicious of social media and resist having their child use it in class without their supervision.
These issues cannot be simply overcome. Instead, it is important to work with parents to find out what makes them uncomfortable while finding solutions that work for everyone. If parents are concerned about privacy or security, highlighting the relevant features of the app, allowing students to have pseudonymous accounts, or establishing a contract for all parties to follow can help ease those fears.
If parents are concerned about screen time, finding ways to trim down the time a student needs to work on a project, limiting curricula to a single digital component at a time, and finding different ways to present information may make technology less overwhelming. Both teachers and parents want students to be successful, so let’s work together to define the skills we all think are important and how they can be achieved.
Similarly, even if there are parents who do not take issue with technology in the classroom, they may not provide support. For example, it might be out of their comfort zone, they’re intimidated by apps or programs they don’t understand, or they lack the time to provide support.
I’ve found that the key to making digital materials less intimidating for parents is by providing resources. For example, finding YouTube videos that explain the purpose and function of an app while providing explanations in parent newsletters may demystify class activities.
Another surprisingly easy way is maintaining an open line of communication with parents and helping them feel comfortable approaching you with questions. This is critical because it can be hard to predict which piece of technology will be challenging for parents. When introducing Khan Academy, I spent a long time preparing supportive materials for parents and, although it was a lot of work, it was very successful.
Then, there is the most obvious barrier to access—money. Financial barriers have always been an issue for teachers and students. Fortunately, there are numerous scholarship and grant opportunities available if you do your research. For me, the key to obtaining resources, like the grant I received from the 3D printer, is diligence.
I have dedicated an hour a week to look for grants, newsletters, or professional development. Then there are websites that collect and post financial resources for teachers, like Teacher.org and Teach.com—two of my favourite sites to browse for opportunities. It may seem daunting but setting aside a dedicated time can make it far less intimidating.
Technology is constantly evolving. Our young students are becoming increasingly comfortable with each technology release. So, it’s tempting to think that if we can just get enough devices in front of them, that would suffice—they’re digital natives after all. As any teacher knows, however, it’s only just the beginning.
The goal shouldn’t be simply providing technology, it’s understanding all the potential barriers, formulating plans to overcome them, reaching out to our colleagues for assistance, and involving parents. It’s only when students understand everything that’s involved just to give them access to their favourite educational games that they’ll appreciate what it takes to be a digital citizen.
Chris Kruger is a teacher at Plato Academy in Des Plaines, Illinois. He has taught pre-kindergarten through middle school and loves all of them. Chris founded the Chicago Progressive Educator’s Forum to give teachers a place to connect and talk about education from a progressive perspective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.