Monday, January 9, 2017

Student Literacy and the Digital Divide

Late June 2016's Teaching Resistance is written by Brian Moss, who teaches at a public Junior High School in San Francisco. From his personal teaching experience and careful research, he has reached some strong conclusions about the relationships between perceptions of student literacy, the infamous “digital divide” stemming from unequal access to resources, and overall inequity in education that can severely impact student success. Brian can be reached directly at
While it may be a philosophical foundation of the country, the existence of true and thorough equal opportunity in the United States is a mere myth. It is used as a fabricated defense of greed and ironically, our greatest divides. Belief in it perpetuates false hope – bread and circus. In a society that is built around and encourages extreme competition and economic individualism, inequality is inherent. Children are born into our world as subjects of their parents’ circumstance, with the odds inevitably stacked to varying degrees for or against them.
Sadly, public schools often further exasperate these differences. Whether it’s a matter of resources, the quality of teachers, technology, community support, or familial/guardian support, all too often, the education system aides in keeping obstacles in place for the unlucky, disadvantaged, and marginalized, while making sure the upper hand stays with those who were born with it. As educators, we see an array of these disparities on a daily basis and must strive to narrow or eliminate them, no matter how difficult or insurmountable the task may seem.
The value and power of technology in the workplace and society at large is undeniable, and its place in schools has created new equity issues and perpetuated preexisting polarizations. It has become apparent that there are vast differences in both students’ and schools’ levels of access to and uses of computers. This phenomenon, in schools and society at large, is often referred to as the digital divide. The following is an excerpt and summarization of a field research project I conducted during the 2014/’15 school year:
Following a growing trend to utilize technology in the administering of testing, the now implemented Common Core Standards involve computerized testing of students. During the Language Arts test, students are required to both navigate a basic operating system and type timed writing responses. Thus far, public research on the new test/s, their effects, and what factors influence student performance, has been minimal.
For students who lack prior experience with computers, either at home or in their educational histories, test scores may not be indicative of a lack of comprehension of the curriculum that they have been taught. One potential factor that could affect scores is that based on their prior experience with technology and/or their access to it, students simply do not have the skills required to convey their knowledge in the medium of computerized assessment. Since the inception of computerized testing, both educators and social scientists have shared concerns regarding differences between paper-and-pencil and computerized administration modes. Essentially, a test that is designed to strictly measure content area mastery in English Language Arts could simultaneously be unfairly measuring students’ basic computing abilities.
As many students with limited or no access to computers come from socioeconomically challenged backgrounds, this issue could additionally perpetuate preexisting gaps in public education. In Technology and Equity in Schooling: Deconstructing the Digital Divide, Warschauer, Knobel, & Stone (2004) address this threat. They suggest that there are “a host of complex factors that shape technology use in ways that serve to exacerbate existing education inequalities.” Perhaps computer-administered testing is an example of this phenomenon. Technology in schools with low socioeconomic majorities often is not functioning properly, is not up-to-date, or is not used in educationally enriching manners (Warschauer, Knobel, & Stone, 2004). Conversely, students attending schools with a high socioeconomic status majority had a significantly higher rate of access to both computers and the internet at home (Warschauer, Knobel, & Stone, 2004). Furthermore, in a country with a vast population of residents for whom English is not their native language, studies that draw correlations between English fluency and computer literacy present the possibility that computerized assessment could increase divides in education along ethnic and cultural lines (Ono & Zavodny, 2008).
My research situates itself in studies that have uncovered the presence of the digital divide. The digital divide, as previously mentioned, is defined as an unequal distribution of technology based on varying factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geographic location, and language ability. The growing trend of moving from paper-and-pencil assessment to computer-administered modes presents a new set of concerns. Considering that in public education, standardized test scores weigh heavily on the judgment and direction of students, teachers, administrators, schools, and entire districts, ensuring fairness and equity in terms of assessment and analysis of data plays a crucial role in narrowing the achievement gap.
My study sought to answer the following question: What is the relationship, if any, between sixth grade students’ access to and prior experience with computers and their short written response scores on computer-administered practice test items? As of yet, research on relevant material has not provided students with much of a voice. It is my belief that in order to truly understand the topic, they must be heard. Thus, my study also delved into the following subquestion: What are students’ thoughts and opinions regarding computerized testing and its relationship to their own experiences with technology?
The study commenced by giving sixty 6th grade English Language Arts students a questionnaire survey. The survey included seven questions with four point answer scales regarding access to computers at home and in school, extent and length of experience with computers, and frequency and type of computer use. Following the survey, students were grouped into groups of high, medium, and low prior computer experience based on their responses. Thirty five participants were female, and twenty five were male. This number was a result of certain students failing to provide individual and/or parental/guardian consent. The sample groups consisted of fifteen students in the low survey range, twenty nine in the medium survey range, and sixteen in the high survey range. The survey administration process, gaining consent, and grouping students took roughly one month. No students were made aware of their groupings.
Once the sample was been obtained, students were assigned numbers to ensure confidentiality and then randomly selected to complete either a paper or computer-administered version of one question from the Common Core 6th Grade English Language Arts Practice Test. The question was identical on both tests and asked participants to make an inference in paragraph form with textual evidence based on a short reading sample. Both the paper and computer tests were administered in a randomized order. Two weeks was provided as a resting period. The group that initially took the paper version of the test was given the computer version and vice versa.
Six students were then selected for interviews. They were selected based on the principle of ensuring an equitable sample of gender, ethnicity, and computer grouping. Students were interviewed individually for roughly ten minutes after school in my classroom. The interviews sought to gather information regarding their feelings and experiences with prior technological use and education, both at home and in school, as well the computer and paper-and-pencil assessment administered in the study.
The numerical data gathered supported the study’s hypothesis. Participants in the high computer skills and exposure group showed less of a difference between testing modes than those in the low and medium groups. Additionally, a somewhat significant percentage of participants in the high group also scored higher on the paper test. Data collected from the medium group showcased a substantial increase in lower scores on the computer-administered test question. The low group, as expected, contained a large number of participants that scored substantially lower on the computerized version of the assessment tool. Additionally, score differences favoring the paper assessment showed greater point variances in the low group.
In a localized context, the findings of the study showcase a highly problematic disparity between paper and pencil and computerized assessments based on students prior exposure to and experience with computers. As made evident by a steady increase in higher paper scores within the medium and low groups, it is clear that within the sample group, computer access and experience affects consistency in scores between paper-and-pencil and computer-administered testing modes. Furthermore, given that the high group also had 19% of its participants scoring higher on the paper test, with none scoring higher on the computer test, the findings also foster additional questions about computer testing in general. This is further supported by the fact that when examining the entire sample without grouping, the majority was equally split at 46% each for no score difference and lower computer scores, with only eight percent scoring higher on the computer test. In consideration of the findings of existing research, and the percentages from this study being so heavily weighted in favor of paper-and-pencil testing, a strong case is made against potential flaws of computerized testing.
Additionally, based on follow-up interviews, it is apparent that many students in the sample group who come from backgrounds lacking in computer familiarity and education feel as though they have not received adequate computer education and experience increased anxiety and lack confidence when asked to carry out academic tasks, specifically testing, on computers. Furthermore, many of these students may go into computer tests believing that they could score higher on a paper version. Even students who have had a fair amount of exposure to technology in terms of access and education often feel unprepared when it comes to computer testing. Much of the anxiety, lacking confidence, and feelings of being underprepared can be attributed to a lack of typing skills and having to type a test within an allocated time frame. The findings showcased a broad desire amongst participants to increase their computer skills, specifically typing, regardless of prior exposure and education. The data suggests that exposure to computers, computer education, and computer access needs to be increased, not only for students who lack experience and education, but for those who have had it.
Ultimately, on account of the relationship between computer experience and access and score differences, and students’ recurring expressions of anxiety and lacking confidence when it comes to computerized test-taking, the validity of Common Core computerized assessments comes into question again: Are these tests simply measuring the content areas they claim to, or are they additionally measuring students’ ability to effectively use technology, and therefore placing students who have had more exposure, access, and education at an advantage? Are these tests equitable?
In order to narrow the digital divide and foster equity in technological education, more computer access and instruction needs to be provided in schools where the student population comes from backgrounds lacking in access and prior education. Additionally, perhaps even for students who feel as though they have had ample technological access and education, more is still needed. Without it, technological disparity is inevitable and students may continue to experience feelings of anxiety and lack confidence when asked to take tests on computers. They may also feel and be unprepared for the modern world’s workplaces and educational institutions that rely so heavily on technological proficiency.
In order to meet the technological demands set by Common Core computerized testing, typing and fundamental computer navigation skills must be taught. If we are going to ask students to take computer-administered tests that to some extent factor in computer proficiency, we must provide them with the skills needed to take them or allow for an option in the form of a paper test. If not, some students may be facing unjust obstacles. Given correlations between primary language, ethnicity, and class to computer access, we must additionally consider what populations are being marginalized by these obstacles and what the resulting effects could be. Furthermore, results suggest that even those with experience could also be judged unfairly, as computerized testing may still be a rather unfamiliar process for many students.
Educators, administrators, policy-makers, and students face countless and immense challenges in the push to overcome the obstacles that lead to and perpetuate polarization and imbalance. Technological access, education, and assessment is now situated at the forefront of these challenges. Common Core computerized assessment, a tool by which all students, teachers, districts, and states are evaluated by, must be diligently studied and scrutinized to ensure that students have a fair chance to express their knowledge without being judged according to extraneous factors. --Brian Moss

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