At the School Level: Signs and Approaches to Digital Divide in K-12 Education

BOLT Editorial  |  By Emily Wong


Experienced teachers(or teachers that are very observant) recognize that there are a variety of constant needs or gaps between what is required and what is available within schools. In the case of 21st century schools, the “digital divide” ˗ a gap regarding technological access, progress, equipment, tools and programs ˗ are all the more palpable as the demands of technological literacy and employability increase.

It may be easy to slide into apathy or throw up one’s hands in frustration. However, through the focus on Jennifer Dolan’s 2015 article “Splicing the divide: a review of research on the evolving digital divide among K-12 students,” I propose that there are concrete and possibly successful ways to identify and implement approaches to close these gaps. While a teacher cannot mitigate the impacts of political measures, administrative acts(or administrator ex machina), funding, pace of technology, or support of key stakeholders, a teacher does still hold the power to make key changes that may(hopefully!) lead to lessening the gap, and integrating significant changes across their school.

But wait! What is a digital divide?

As a starting point, “a digital divide is an economic and social inequality with regard to access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies” (Wikipedia, 2016). In the context of schools, often the assumption is that a digital divide references the difficulty in accessing hardware such as computers. However, as the evolution and definition of digital tools continues, the digital divide has shifted to include an “[extension] into issues of Internet connectivity and bandwidth capabilities; availability of software; students’ and teachers’ knowledge and skills to use the available technology; the influence of mobile technology; and the impacts of limiting factors such as poverty, lack of teacher training, and cultural misunderstandings between students and teachers” (Dolan, 16, 2015).

When addressing the digital divide, it is clear that one must tread carefully and avoid making assumptions that might cloud effective measures to lessen the gap. Make no mistake: digital divide cannot be solved by “[m]assive computer integration…[a]s new technological tools continue to develop, new gaps will arise”(Amiel, 235, 2006); as educators we must have the flexibility to reinvent our tools to meet learner needs, as well as have accessible resources to help mitigate and lessen the gaps over time.

Identifying Digital Divide


Even in the process of writing this piece I’m sure the definition, characteristics, and parameters of the digital divide will have changed and shifted; Dolan highlights the shifting terminology, complexity, and difficulty in narrowing down key components of digital divide, which isn’t necessarily limited to socioeconomic status, digital exclusion, or even binary references of “have” and “have nots.” In fact, as her searches continued, terms such as “digital disconnect” and “digital equity” emerged, thus reinforcing the abstract nature of defining the digital divide(Dolan, 18, 2015). Through the synthesis of a variety of studies, articles, surveys, and reviews, Dolan reveals that the previous definitions of digital divide have evolved beyond the binary definition, and that the key causes of inequality in technology access are more varied than initially anticipated. 

In knowing that we are addressing a moving target when it comes to defining and clarifying digital divide in the K-12 contexts, in this section I’ll try and provide key signs of a digital divide followed by suggested approaches to help address the divide within your own practice. While the following characteristics may not be wholly applicable to all teaching contexts, hopefully this is a starting point for educators to begin recognizing and addressing the digital divide within their schools.

Dolan’s article focuses on 2 main questions: one, in what ways has the digital divide evolved as technology is integrated into K-12 schools, and two, what factors in and out of schools support or constrain K-12 students with regard to technology use? Through her research, Dolan(2015) clearly identifies two areas that highlight the nature of digital divide in K-12 schools: the definition and factors of access, and the variety of ways in which students utilize technology within and outside of school(19).

Digital Divide Category #1: Access

REVISE THE DEFINITION: According to Dolan’s(2015) research, an initial issue is that one must “redefin[e] ‘access’ in terms other than just the physical ownership of a computer is needed…now includes the accessibility of the locations of the technology, the availability of complementary technologies(such as software), the explosion of mobile technology, and the personal skills students possess to understand and use the technology. In addition, students’ access to technology at home and the ways they use technology outside of school appear to be disconnected to their access to, and use of, technology in school”(19). In short, the multiple definitions of access are also indicative of factors that can reveal and exacerbate a digital divide.

In highlighting “access” as an initial factor of digital divide, the areas of “access” can be broken down further into the following for teacher recognition:

  • Computer/device access-within the classroom and outside of the classroom, ratio of students to computers
  • Internet connectivity(speed/bandwidth), software availability, firewall/blocking software(Dolan, 21, 2015)

CONSIDER COMPOUND FACTORS: There are also a variety of factors that can impact access beyond hardware and software that educators must be aware of. In Dolan’s (2015) article she further highlights that physical location(rural versus urban centres), family educational level, socioeconomic status and race. In fact, many students may be impacted by two or more factors, coining the term “double jeopardy”(i.e. where students who are from a low-income area may have limited access to schools with adequate technological resources, 21). In the pursuit of confirming and clarifying digital divides in schools, educators must be aware and consider that the background of their students may further exacerbate the level of technological access and adoption within student learning.

Digital Divide Category #2: Technological Use

Although the increase of technological tools and school access are commendable attempts to address the digital divide, Dolan clarifies that the type of student use, socioeconomic level of students and their schools, teacher beliefs of the use and training of technology within their classrooms, and attempts to integrate BYOD(bring your own device)/BYOT(bring your own technology) or 1 to 1 technology tools could also highlight symptoms of digital divide within schools(21-23, 2015).

  • Student technology use: Dolan clarifies that student use(once learners have physical access) can be determined by being a producer(a learner who actively creates a product or communicates their ideas) versus a consumer(the passive use of technology for tasks such as memorization, drills, or word processing-26, 2015). Educators must be aware that providing access to tools, or students’ possession of technology is not enough to mitigate the divide; rather, key planning for meaningful use, communication, and employment of the technology must be in place as well.
  • Socioeconomic divide: the socioeconomic status of a student’s family and also the status of the school can significantly determine the divide in student learning. Dolan’s research highlights that socioeconomic factors can impact the ratio of students to computers, as well as dictate the type of technological use: “teachers at low-income schools used technology in traditional ways or ways designed for behavior management…[a]t low income schools, students were almost never allowed to touch the technology. In contrast, teachers at the mid-or high-income schools used the interactive whiteboard in dynamic ways” (Dolan, 21, 2015).
  • Teacher beliefs and use of tools: as educators we are the main observers and key change agents within our classrooms. A theme that recurs in Dolan’s article is that, regardless of the amount, quality, or access to technology students had, teachers are the key influence to develop the depth and engagement with technology: “[b]oth teachers and students have rich outside of school technology experience, but their technology experiences were not replicated in the classroom…[teachers] found difficulty transferring [their] knowledge to student learning; and finding the time to investigate how to implement technology into pedagogical practices”(Dolan, 25, 2015).
  • BYOD/BYOT/1:1: while the move to allow students to either bring their own device or technology, or have school-provided tools(1 to 1 computer, for instance) are all positive steps towards lessening the divide, these movements can still highlight gaps. Questions of what devices should be permitted, training for teachers for these devices, and continuing issues of affluence as an advantage are all considerations that must be addressed in these measures to close the digital divide. Something that should be at the forefront of educators’ minds is that the success of these tools should be based on curricular goals, teacher training, and providing adequate software and network support to help implement these tools into student learning(Dolan, 22, 2015). 

Approaches and Solutions for Digital Divide  

e003The different signs, factors, and reasons why digital divide might exist in schools and classrooms might be overwhelming and make a teacher want to go and lay down for a nap(or is that just me?) However, I’m here to propose suggestions that there are a few areas where an educator can actually make a difference!

AVOID MAKING ASSUMPTIONS: while there are trends, research, and groups that perhaps are more likely to be impacted by digital divide than others, the best evidence are the learners’ habits, behaviours with technology at the school level, and even anecdotal responses from students and their families. In my experience, even bringing together students with a variety of backgrounds to a common goal(i.e. learning a new program to produce creative projects, in-class tutorials to integrate multimedia into self-expression) can create an atmosphere of peer-supported learning based on key learning outcomes.

AVOID FREAKING OUT: what I mean by a “freak out” are those reactionary responses that might not take into account learner skills, teacher training, current hardware or software access, or technological support in the schools.  Consider using an organizer such as the SECTIONS document to help clarify, define, and implement technology access based on the needs of the students, and available school resources; in other words, use the planner to help “facilitate decisions with regard to choice of technology at both the strategic and the tactical level, and also to help decide within a particular technology the most appropriate balance between different media”(Underhill, 1, 2010). The key is to avoid becoming lost in the “no’s”(the naysayers, obstacles presented with hardware/software or tech support, negative attitudes, or other conflicts), and instead, focus on what key goals or outcomes students should achieve, then choose the best technological supports for these goals.

YOU ARE THE KEY: “[t]eachers’ intrinsic motivation to use technology and their pedagogical beliefs with regard to instruction were found in the research to be the leading factors as either inhibiting or supporting students’ use of technology” (Dolan, 28, 2015). In the article, Dolan points out that teachers’ meaningful engagement with technology both within and outside the classroom, the longevity of technological experience, willingness to shift or change practice, and participation in professional learning communities can all contribute to the teacher’s ability to integrate technology within the classroom, thus helping to bridge the gap in the digital divide.  According to Dolan(2015), “success did not lie in the hands of the technology or the students, but the ‘poor implementation [was due] to lack of teacher knowledge and buy-in(the willingness to adopt the technology’”(22).

MEANINGFUL ENGAGEMENT: a misnomer of the digital divide is that once schools provide the technology, the gap somehow diminishes. However, as Dolan’s research clearly indicates the tools are merely the vehicles in which learning outcomes and content can be delivered, but it is not conclusive that students associate meaning with tools and software. Educators are aware that the activities and manner in which students engage with technology within a school context tends to be different than the use outside of school. Rather than restricting students to information processing or limited academic content, there is “a vital need for educators(as well as students) to critical engage with media and popular culture that are central to adolescents’ lives and to recognize how such symbolic, cultural, and semiotic materials shape the literacies, worlds, and narrative possibilities that youth identify with and envision for themselves”(Dolan, 25, 2015). By planning out key learning outcomes, teachers should then research the tools or software that best upholds these outcomes, but also to allow students to create their own meaning and bridge between their technological use outside of school, and within their own learning.

FOCUS ON A FEW TOOLS: try to avoid doing too much; after all, there are limitations in time to research and implement technology within the classroom. Consider integrating student feedback of what they’re currently using or would like to access in the classroom, or going to professional development that specifically integrates software or learning platforms that could be relevant to your teaching context. When I began learning how to edit and upload Youtube content for my classroom, students were quick to be on board through suggestions of relevant software and platforms for peers to access that would enrich their learning. Try to avoid making decisions based on the tools first, then learning outcomes; educators must take into account curricular standards, and then choose tools that can evolve alongside learners: “[e]ducators should not pace education at the same pace at which technology moves…[t]echnology is old when you buy it; however, content and skills sets have been thriving, although evolving, for years” (Dolan, 23, 2015).

Consider that more might not be better. For instance, while the rationale for BYOD/BYOT/1:1 is seemingly a step forward in that smaller devices can still be useful resources to address issues in digital divide, measures such as these can still contribute to “an unfair advantage over classmates…particularly problematic in a society with growing economic disparity”(Dolan, 22, 2015).

KEY PARTNERSHIPS: when addressing partnerships, do not only pursue opportunities to pair with software/hardware companies for actual equipment. Consider service providers such as local libraries, special interest clubs(i.e. robotics, coding clubs, computer repair), post-secondary institutions for speakers and community outreach, and local community centres that can help bridge gaps in digital divide. For instance, Dolan suggests school-based training programs for parents and families to familiarize everyone with school processes around technology, and creating relationships with public libraries to foster “wrap-around services(integrated student supports that connect schools with home life, such as computer training for parents and financial assistance for purchasing materials) [that] can help close the gap between home use and school use”(Dolan, 24, 2015). In Doug Johnson’s article “Helping to Close the Digital Divide” he suggests measures such as contacting one’s local internet or cell phone service providers for subsidized or low-cost internet access, or creating a resource list for connectivity outside of schools(Johnson, 82, 2015).

The suggestions and approaches above are definitely not a comprehensive collection of factors that contribute to digital divide, or the end of approaches and solutions to try and address the divide within schools and classrooms, However, by being aware of the shifting definition of digital divide, the myriad of factors impacting access, limit use, and determine depth of learning, and approaching concrete solutions that encourage equality of student learning, educators can lessen the digital divide at the classroom level and continue to enrich learning through purposeful and meaning technological engagement.

What assumptions have you made within your practice, school, or amongst your learners regarding digital divide? What concrete and realistic measures will you take to lessen the divide?


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Dolan, J. E. (2015). Splicing the divide: a review of research on the evolving digital divide among K-12 students. Journal O\of Research on Technology In Education, (1), 16. doi:10.1080/15391523.2015.1103147

Johnson, D. (2015). Helping to Close the Digital Divide. Educational Leadership, 72(5), 81-82

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About the Contributor


Emily Wong has been teaching English Language Arts to high school students for 10 years. She graduated from University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Education degree, specializing in English Language Arts and a minor in Social Studies. Her past experiences include working with students in credit recovery, adult learners in an upgrading school setting, sheltered English Language Learners(ELL) achieving diploma exam outcomes, and at-risk/high-risk students. She currently teaches Social 20-2 at the Alberta Distance Learning Centre, a fully online, asynchronous classroom service delivery organization, and is a winner of the ASCD Innovative Practice Award and a semi-finalist for the Alberta Excellence in Teaching Awards.

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