Digital Literacy and Technology in Formal education; Addressing the Digital Divide

My first teaching experience was in 1976. Back then we did not have computers. My first classroom looked very much like this one. White chalk, coloured chalk plus an eraser, an easel and small blackboard and a larger blackboard fixed to the wall and a picture of St Domenico Savio was standard issue. All classrooms had this wired radio to which we were glued at least twice a week Friday at 10 am to listen to the explanation of the Gospel and another programme in English which was the Young Listener. We had a copying machine, usually a Gestetner, and if you were lucky, the spirit Banda copying machine with three colours.

We did not have a digital divide.

But somehow there has always been some kind of divide. 40 years ago one of the main divides that I faced as a primary school teacher was a home with access to books, encyclopaedias and a home without access to books, magazines or even newspapers. maltese classroom

We have come a long way since then and yet we face today’s divides.

The term digital divide was originally used in a story by journalist Amy Harmon in 1996 to describe the social problem that arises when a person uses technology at the expense of his or her real-life interpersonal relationships. Amy Harmon described the rift between husband and wife due to the wife feeling unloved by her husband who seemed to be more interested in his computer and the Internet. Lloyd Morrisett, founder of the Sesame Street Workshop and then president of the Markle Foundation, is also credited with inventing the term the “Digital Divide” in 1962 to describe the chasm that purportedly separates “information haves” from “information have-nots”.

Whoever it was who first came up with the term,  it was the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the US (NTIA) who adopted it quickly when talking about the issues related to unequal ownership of technology. It is through NTIA documents that the term gained its popularity whenever the agency discussed “haves” and “have-nots”. In 1998, the agency’s second report (“Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide”) included the phrase “Digital Divide” in its subtitle. It was the agency’s third report (“Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide”) that most alarmed and activated policy-makers. The report concluded that, contrary to popular opinion which held that market forces would eventually provide universal access on their own,

“The data reveal that the digital divide — the disparities in access to telephones, personal computers (PCs), and the Internet across certain demographic groups — still exists and, in many cases, has widened significantly. The gap for computers and Internet access has generally grown larger by categories of education, income, and race (NTIA 1999: 2).”

ubiquitous technologyIn spite of technology becoming more affordable and thus increasingly more ubiquitous, a digital divide between “those who have” and “those who have not” still exists. Processing power is cheaper; Storage is smaller in size but bigger in capacity;

Networking is global…

However, twenty years on, the phrase “those who and those who have not” has become more than a binary divide; identifying more than simple access to computers and the Internet alone, and thus needs to be qualified. We must understand and accept that we are in a changing landscape of the “digital divide,” if we are to improve digital access and help all students develop digital literacy competencies.

A characteristic of this split includes how these technologies are used in the classroom. This classroom use of technology varies in relation to factors that are traditionally associated with the digital divide such as age, gender and the socioeconomic background of the individual. BUT also on how technology is used in the classroom which depends on the pedagogical skills and motivation of the teacher.

The digital divide is indeed not a clear single gap which divides a society into two groups. Research shows that a divide exists: between students and their teachers, between students and their teachers, between boys and girls as well as between the young and older adults. There is also the perception that students have higher levels of digital competences and comfort with respect to technology than their teachers. There is a disconnect between students’ comfort with using technology for learning and teachers’ comfort in using technology for teaching.

young interactingwithtechThese digital gaps have been brought about by the number of shifts in the use of technology outside the classroom and also by the changes in the way students have been interacting with digital technology in their life. There has been a rapid growth in the different forms of communication which are a powerful force in young people’s lives. Thus we can no longer speak of literacy in the singular.

For curricula to be relevant we have to include new literacies that have been emerging and establishing themselves in our lives for the past years: emailing, blogging, tweeting, chat-spaces, online fora, social networking, podcasting, video-making and the like.

Technology will never replace great teachers. Despite the way these new literacies are being used outside the classroom, very often in the most creative and innovative ways, many teachers struggle with the practicalities of integrating digital technology into their teaching and learning activities. If we focus on the teacher for a moment I see two gaps here:

  1. is the lack of pedagogical preparation that some of our teachers have. And
  2. teachers who are being left behind by other teachers by not NETWORKING in the learning community. Teachers who learn together grow together. And teachers who grow together teach children in powerful ways. This silent gap, should it remain unclosed, will only widen the existing, perceptible gap in our schools. So how do we get our teachers to join others in conversation? How do we bridge the gap?


There is another gap that is worrying: parents.

  1. Some say that they cannot control the gap between the virtual and the real world. And
  2. Homes which are connected but do not have the skills to help their child.

So there is a divide between those students who have parents able to support their child’s technology use and learning at home and those who do not.

At this point, I would like you to differentiate between parents who cannot afford the technology and those parents who do afford it but do not have the necessary competences to help their children get the best from technology. We find parents who tend to be “connected” in that they have smartphones and computers, but they are often unable to supervise their children’s understanding and use of technology at home. As schools become more technologically advanced, many homes do not keep up.


Operating theatre in Rome

The possibilities that digital technology offers and which other professions, as in medicine have embraced, create yet another digital divide: that between education and other professions.

Our schools, in general, are still far away from:

  1. using digital tools to connect and engage with learners from other cultures;
  2. using collaborative technologies to examine issues from multiple viewpoints;
  3. contributing constructively to project teams to work towards a common goal;
  4. using collaborative technologies to work with others to explore and investigate solutions to local and global issues;

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