Friday, April 25, 2008

Pondering the Digital Divide and e-Learning

Writing this book chapter on the digital divide made me consider my university’s current push for offering increased online learning opportunities. Because we serve students who generally come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, I’m wondering if administration isn’t going about this the wrong way.

Is it really about offering more online classes and more online-only degrees and gen-eds? Or would it be more useful to decrease the digital divide that exists within our student body, between the higher-income kids who grew up with computers and gadgetry and those who may have had to make-do with less access? Many of our students still don’t own computers and make constant use of those available in our student labs and library. Many of our students – at least, the ones I see in our library – are not terribly comfortable navigating technologies used in learning environments, including BlackBoard and the library databases they are expected to use to conduct their research. These are the students you are encouraging to sign up for newly developed online classes, often taught by professors with no prior online teaching experience?

The cynic in me wonders if this isn’t simply a ploy to look ‘up-to-date’ and simply schlep folks into online courses so we can open up our cramped classrooms a bit. We already have severe retention problems. Throwing students into an online learning environment, or giving them the impression that they already have the skills and understanding they need to operate successfully in such an environment when that is not true is worse than foolishness. My other concern is that students already have a difficult time asking for help. (Do you remember how much pride you had at 18?) We already know from various studies (and from librarian observation) that students tend to overestimate their tech-savvy when it comes to deal with judging and finding information. Knowing this, how can you in good conscience encourage these kids to jump into online learning when they may well not have the requisite skills? In an online classroom, there are few ways for a professor to see the “Hunh?” look on a student’s face. Knowing that you are dealing with an environment populated largely by students coming from underprivileged or low-access backgrounds, moving classes online should not be the first step in a successful push to rectify the digital divide. Ensuring that students develop core technology competencies early in their academic careers – even if that’s once they start college – would help.

I am not suggesting that online courses are *bad*. They are useful, and a great option for students who require more flexible schedules. However, there seems to be little acceptance at the administrative level that offering more online classes is not a panacea. It will not necessarily help retention (and may well harm it), and it may not even help the divide in digital skills if the students in the course don’t have the required skills to succeed in the first place. There seems to be a lot of assuming going on in higher education (or at least at my institution) with regards to bigger pushes for online course availability. And we all know what happens when you assume…

Given that there still exist severe divisions based on income level, class, and gender when discussing access to computer technology and digital learning, I have to say that I remain unconvinced that throwing kids into an online learning environment because you assume that’s what they want more of is not the answer. Getting them some basic technology and information literacy core competencies may be a start, though.


Jared said...

When I got my AAS in accounting (1999) the small school in Rock Spring GA was starting to offer online classes and I think they were well received. However, it was a lot more of a hand holding type of environment than UTC. Many of the students were also older, and perhaps more willing to ask for help.

So many of the classes I have taken at UTC in the pursuit of my degree in economics, don't seem like the type of class that would be as successful online. It seems to me that there majority of students are well versed in all things digital but that might just be because most of the people I talk to have been students for more than two years or are already very technically inclined.

Basically I don't know what my opinion is but I wanted to chime in anyway. My very last final at UTC was today, so I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to talk about my school.

Colleen said...

Jared -

Congratulations on being done! You could be right, and perhaps the average UTC student is more tech savvy than I'm thinking. I suppose I am biased because I do a lot of database and info lit training with the freshmen.

Best of luck after graduation, make sure you come back and let us know how you're doing!

David said...

I'm a public librarian with no particular credentials in education, but I see kids like that almost everyday. We usually end up meeting them after they're at the end of their intellectual ropes. It really amazes me how little High Schools are teaching them about serious online research. I can only hope my reference staff can impart just a little information literacy.