How Educators are Narrowing The Great Digital Divide in Education

By the time the first computer was rolled into an unsuspecting classroom, the digital divide in education had already begun. We just didn’t know it. 

While some students marveled at the grayish block and its glowing black and green screen, others declared, “It’s like the one we have at home!”

As internet connectivity became commonplace for some families, others would not connect for many more years, if ever. Suddenly, the students with internet connection had an easier time researching their projects, unburdened by the need to lug heavy books home from the library. 

Every corner of the world unfurled itself to those with access to the internet. The world remained a mystery to those unable to hear the modem’s mighty roar in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Fast forward to the present-day. Information is everywhere. It’s readily available to anyone with the privilege to access it. In fact, the ability to Google “what’s their name” from “that one movie” has become so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine life without immediate answers to your basic questions. 

What about the classroom? While some schools have enabled laptop or tablet-based learning, where each student has 24/7 access to their own device, other schools might have access to a single dinosaur of a computer with little more than a flickering internet signal. 

If digital learning is the way of the future, then how can we provide our young students with their own ticket to ride?

Kai XR is a digital learning company comprised of educators, dreamers, and technologists who are taking new approaches to learning into their own hands. These new approaches, including virtual field trips, are designed to bridge the digital divide in every classroom. 

As education remains the most important pillar of an empathetic, open-minded future, the digital divide needs to be addressed and closed for good. 

Here’s how educators are working to bridge the digital divide in education: 

  1. Identifying the cause of the digital divide. 
  2. Working to eliminate outdated thinking and enhance digital literacy.
  3. Listening to the ways students want to learn. 
  4. Creating new (and exciting!) ways of educating.
  5. Watching the world open up, while the digital divide narrows. 

The longer we wait, the deeper the divide becomes. While there are different starting points and struggles for every human and, by extension, every student, access to digital information is one variable we can level. This can help solve digital inequity problems, including:

  • Low performance at school, due to inaccessible digital resources and information
  • Decreased competitive edge when it comes to secondary education
  • Reduced marketable job skills, due to minimal proficiencies in computing
  • Social anxiety, due to an inability to relate to others. 
  • Stifled empathy, without experience getting familiar with other cultures, customs, and historical inequities 

By bringing the future of education to the present-day classroom with immersive VR and AR educational experiences, Kai XR aims to bridge the education gap—and empower all students with the skills of tomorrow. 

We strive to empower students to build the future they want to see—a future that includes them and all they hold important. Part of that process is recognizing that no two classrooms are identical and no two students learn the same way.

In this article, we’ll discuss the history of the digital divide, the most common misconceptions about digital learning, and how we can continue to bridge the gaps between digital learning for some and access for all. 

Let’s explore! 

What is a Digital Divide in Education? 

The digital divide in education is the rift that exists between students with reliable access to technology and those without that same access. 

The Fletcher School at Tufts University sought to answer many of the toughest questions about these deepening divides in their research initiative, IDEA 2030. Researchers outlined the main root causes of the digital divide throughout the 50 states. They are:

  1. Infrastructure: Where is reliable internet accessible? Which areas have access to reliable, broadband speeds? 
  2. Inclusivity: How affordable is internet access? How affordable are the devices needed to download information? 
  3. Institutions: How does the government provide information and access to information in a given area? Are institutions funded enough to provide reliable access to all?
  4. Digital Proficiency: When is information made available? Is it accessible for all education levels? Are common misconceptions or feelings of distrust adequately quelled? 

When these four pillars are thoughtfully addressed and prioritized, the result is a reduced divide and an overall increased digital proficiency for all. 

Examples of the Digital Divide in Classrooms

When technology feels so commonplace, imagine then how it feels to be without it in your home. 

The digital divide happens for a variety of reasons, but there are ways that educators can close the gap by zeroing in on their students’ access once they leave the classroom. The digital divide manifests in a few ways. 

Two Students in the Same Classroom

  • A very bright student cannot provide an in-depth report because they don’t have access to the internet at home.
  • Another student in the same class has access to high-speed internet, which enables them to keep on top of every project and every assignment. 

Two Classrooms in the Same Geographic Area 

  • A classroom in Mountain View, California receives free MacBooks as part of a partnership with Apple. As a result, their digital proficiency soars. 
  • A classroom directly across the Bay in Oakland has no access to computers at their school. As a result, their computer skills fall far behind their across-the-Bay neighbors. 

Similar Students Living in Different Geographic Areas

  • A bright student living in a suburban area is able to access the internet and devices at school, at home, and at their local library
  • A similarly bright student living in a rural area has limited access to the internet and devices at school. At home, they have no access to the internet nor nearby places to access it. 

The digital divide can manifest in a variety of ways. Digital divides are present in classrooms, within school districts, and across the country. In our next section, we’ll dive deeper into the far-reaching ramifications of the digital divide. 

How Education is Affected by The Digital Divide

Let’s start with a quick history lesson. 

Technology’s deep integration with the classroom began in line with the space race. When the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space, the U.S. government began a huge effort to push and embrace STEM education.

Let’s watch the history of technology integration in the classroom unfold:

  • 1963 - The Vocational Education Act begins its funding of technology in schools. 
  • Early 1980s - Mathematician and professor Seymour Papert introduces microcomputers and teaches basic programming. 
  • 1984 - The Apple Macintosh is introduced to the world. 
  • 1985 - The Oregon Trail, an educational strategy video game, is released. This allows students to control a group of pioneers from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. 
  • 1988 - Laptops are introduced and utilized as portable computer devices. 
  • 1991 - SMART boards are introduced in schools. 
  • 2012 - 1.5 million iPads are being used in U.S. schools 
  • 2019 - 30 million students and educators use Google Chromebooks 
  • 2020 - The COVID-19 pandemic shutters in-person classrooms and takes students online. 

Each point of this timeline feeds directly into the next. As technology expands, so does the myriad of applications for learning. As students return to the classroom, it doesn’t mean that the screens need to be powered down forever. 

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Covid-19’s Impact on The Digital Divide in Education 

Like any lessons, the ones we all learned during the earliest days of March 2020 have their place in the future. Every educator knows that valuable lessons should not go wasted. 

When the world emptied their desks and lugged their backpacks home, educators and parents were tasked with balancing everyone’s lives for an undefined length of time. 

Many students were given digital devices to access their virtual learning experience. It was a challenging hurdle, but—as you know well—educators are no strangers to new challenges.  You all  pushed through. 

The New York City Department of Education distributed 300,000 internet-enabled iPads and announced plans to build out broadband internet for lower-income students. 

Ms. Deirdre Kehayas, an educator from a New York City school, hopes to keep growing the skills and digital-based learning:“Incorporating these digital resources and skills we learned during Covid would be beneficial for both students and teachers alike. If we continue incorporating digital learning into our daily “normal” school days we will set our students up for success in their high school, college and graduate school years.”

Alongside NYC, other cities and states reacted swiftly to make digital learning more accessible:

  • Chicago Connected, a public, private, and philanthropic partnership, was formed to provide 100,000 students with internet access. 
  • Detroit Public Schools received a $23 million donation to invest in 51,000 LTE-enabled tablets for students in need. 
  • Oklahoma held a competitive grant process to award 50,000 devices and unlimited LTE data plans to 175 school districts. 
  • Vermont established the Line Extension Customer Assistance Program (LECAP) to provide each household $3,000 to offset internet line extensions. 

While these actions, among others, did not close the digital divide, they showed what was possible. 

When educators and schools receive support from federal, state, and private resources, anything is possible in education. 

Debunking Common Misconceptions About the Digital Divide

Beyond problematic infrastructure and budget constraints, there are also common misconceptions about what digital learning entails. 

As with any problem that seems insurmountable, we can start working on the parts that we can fix. From there, we fight to gather support and funding to take it further. 

Understandably, many parents look back at the pandemic with a shudder. It was difficult for many and impossible for others. In fact, working mothers took a huge blow, as 3.5 million women had to leave the workforce in the Spring of 2020 to ensure that their children’s care and education remained undisturbed. 

In this next section, we’ll explore—and debunk—some of the most common myths around digital learning. 

“I Don’t Want My Students or Children Playing Video Games at School”

We’ve heard this one before, and we understand it. If a kid’s exposure to “video games” is limited to knowledge of single-shooter games, it’s unappealing, to say the least. 

Rest assured, VR in school does not resemble your students’ console home systems or internet-based video games. 

The Solution: Digital Literacy for All 

Digital literacy is tough to acquire because the digital landscape changes at unimaginable speeds. However, that’s exactly the reason we all need to keep up—and dispel common misconceptions that VR is little more than “another screen”. 

One of the main obstacles to digital adoption in the classroom is inadequate digital literacy. 

Digital learning in the classroom is a great opportunity for students to learn about the benefits and the pitfalls of digital media. 

Educators and parents can work together to warn students about some of these common concerns:

  • Exposure to violent content
  • Interacting with strangers or experiencing bullying behavior on the internet
  • The intent behind ads and the importance of user privacy 
  • Differentiating between education and entertainment

“Distanced Digital Learning Damages a Student’s Social Skills.”

Distanced learning was an enormous struggle for so many, but digital learning allows classmates to relate to one another more than a paper-based lesson plan. 

Digital learning enhances a child’s viewpoints and their relationship to the entire world, far outside of the classroom. 

When used by thoughtful educators, VR learning can work to enhance commonalities between students. After a virtual field trip to the Martin Luither King Jr. memorial, students can describe their own experiences with racism, race relations, and discuss their reactions to it. 

Digital learning also helps capture students in ways that traditional education methods did not. 

NYC educator Ms. Kehayas explains the surprising outcomes from switching to digital learning in 2020:

“It may be hard to believe, but many students blossomed during online learning. Students who were quiet and shy in January 2020 were facilitating online discussions or sharing their screen to show their creations to the class. They were engaged in lessons and activities.”

Digital learning allows students to see the world through a variety of lenses. 

  • Imagine the class “bully” seeing a Stegosaurus in the wild and finally letting down their wall of “school is for nerds”.
  • Imagine the “shy” student turning to their classmate to say, “Look at how big the sun is!” as they gape at the marvels of space, together. 
  • Imagine the student, often underestimated for her femininity, declaring, “I need to work in jet propulsion” after a virtual field trip to NASA. 

Just like a real field trip takes students out of their “normal” mode, these virtual trips allow students to tap into their wonder and awe. This is something we should all try to recapture as often as possible, no matter how long ago we left the fourth grade. 

Students can even bring these lessons home and participate in family field trips, where the whole family can experience shared histories, create new memories, and maybe plan a future trip to see these virtual sights IRL. 

“VR Isn’t ‘Real’ Learning.”

If this one sounds familiar to your thinking, you’re right. VR learning takes learning to the next level, making it hyper-real. 

The VR classroom is a way to expand the four walls into an endless opportunity and to enhance the learning experience for every type of learner. Let’s explore three types of learning that VR launches to the next level: 

  • Immersive learning
  • Assistive learning
  • STEM and STEAM education

Immersive Learning 

Immersive learning uses VR, AR, and XR technologies to add sight, color, sounds, and experience to learning. With environment simulations, students learn through sensory experiences. 

It’s the difference between memorizing the names of our Solar System’s planets using mnemonic devices (My Very Educated Mother…) and describing how it felt to float by Saturn—on a Tuesday! 

Assistive Learning

For students requiring assistive learning, the VR classroom helps to increase focus by eliminating distractions. It also allows children to explore soft skills like problem-solving and teamwork, all while exploring the world around them—together. 

With VR learning and virtual field trips, any educator can give every student, regardless of needs or income level, the chance to explore with their senses. 

Photo by Billetto Editorial on Unsplash

STEM and STEAM Education

STEM and STEAM education, which focus on science, technology, engineering, art (in STEAM’s case), and mathematics, are crucial to closing another divide in the classroom and the future workforce. 

The gender gap in STEM and STEAM has existed since education’s inception. As women began participating in secondary education, they were still discouraged from pursuing any serious studies in STEM. As a result, women are vastly underrepresented in STEM careers

Even before entering a classroom, young children and toddlers are ushered into different directions by something as innocuous as their toys. 

  • “Boy Toys” like cars and building blocks, emphasize the understanding of engineering and mathematics.
  • “Girl Toys” like baby dolls and kitchen sets, emphasize caretaking and gentility.  

VR learning breaks the gendered divide down, too. Educators can use VR lessons to burst open the worlds of biology, mathematics, engineering, and art. 

Lastly, Ms. Kehayas shares that many of these misconceptions about digital learning come from the adults, not the students. 

She explains, “Show today’s students a rotary phone or a cordless phone with an antenna. That will confuse them more than an iPad. Many adults are simply projecting their own fears of technology onto their students.”

Why It’s Crucial to Bridge the Digital Divide in Education

The digital divide is a large one, but the solutions to bridge it are, in fact, ready to go. 

Let’s reconnect the dots on why it’s so crucial to close this divide so that every student has a chance to make their own difference in this world. We’re closing the divide to:

  • Bring educational equity to classrooms
  • Foster social-emotional learning
  • Create meaningful inclusivity

To Bring Education Equity to Class

Education equity is achieved when each student receives what they need to develop their full academic and social potential. 

Digital learning empowers every student to learn to the best of their ability by providing creative, experiential entry points for every type of learner. 

For some students, the unique entry point is in learning that history and mathematics are deeply intertwined after Kai XR’s virtual field trip to the Great Pyramids. Suddenly, math doesn’t seem so boring anymore. 

For other students, the entry point is the awe-inspiring realization of the magnitude and the limitless expanse of outer space, after Kai XR’s virtual field trip through our solar system

Finally, an extremely important entry point is understanding the resiliency of the human spirit—and how it  can make anything possible—after an eye-opening virtual field trip to a Syrian refugee camp

Digital learning, VR, and alternative methods of immersive learning allow all students to explore, to find their own way of learning, and to enthusiastically engage in learning. This empowers every human learner to cultivate their unique gifts, talents, and interests. 

To Foster Social-Emotional Learning 

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is how students develop the skills they need to manage their emotions, relate to others, and form meaningful relationships. 

Virtual learning is a great way to teach SEL through active exploration. Here are a few examples of soft skills brought to life by virtual learning: 

  • Empathy: Students can work on emotional intelligence and empathy as they navigate an experience through someone else’s perspective. 
  • Teamwork and Problem-Solving: A group of students can plan a virtual field trip to explore, problem-solve, and work together to save South Africa’s endangered penguins. 

One of the arguably dangerous drawbacks to digital technology is the lack of human interaction. However, the early adoption of best practices in digital learning enhances one’s ability to connect to others through exploration, curiosity, and thoughtful reflection. 

To Create Meaningful Inclusivity 

There are countless studies on inclusivity in the workplace and they all draw the same conclusion. Real, meaningful inclusivity leads to success. 

Digital learning empowers real inclusivity by breaking down physical, socioeconomic, emotional, and mental barriers. It allows students and educators to experience places, moments in history, and obscure topics through exploration and participation. 

When every student is empowered and excited to learn in a manner that suits them, then every student has the formative framework for realizing their dreams. From there, they can create, innovate, and eventually, save the world. 

Today, educational technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and extended reality are allowing students to test the limits of their curious imaginations.

Lastly, Ms. Kehayas shares, “If we continue incorporating digital learning into our daily “normal” school days we will set our students up for success in their high school, college and graduate school years.”

We hope to give them that gift. 

Bridge the Digital Divide in Education With Kai XR

Kai XR uses cutting-edge 360-degree technology to take students anywhere. Educators can use Kai XR to prioritize experiential learning for students of all learning abilities. 

Understanding and respect for all is crucial to real innovation, true inclusivity, and opportunity for all within our interconnected world. 

Kai XR offers the tools our students need to grow, learn, and lead into the future. Ready to get started? Contact us to learn more or jump right in and schedule a demo.

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