* Can teachers provide equal access to the digital world to all students?
Realistically, teachers cannot provide equal access to the digital world for students because education extends beyond the classroom. Unfortunately, student academic achievement is as much a product of socio-economic status and how education is valued in the home as it is the efforts of even the most successful educators. In this country in our lifetime, and likely indefinitely, there will always be a population of students who have unlimited access to computers outside of school, and those with little or no accessibility. There will always be wealthy school districts (ex. Windham, NH) that fund a 1-to-1 student/laptop ratio, and others like many inner-city public schools that can barely afford the electricity, water and heat required to remain operational. Truly “equal” access to the digital world is a Utopian dream.
However, teachers can strive to maximize access in any environment. A class such as EDU-533 should be mandated as professional development for teachers in a school system such as Windham’s where there is equal access in the classroom. In a more typical school system where a school might have a computer lab, or one computer per classroom, equal access is far more challenging. I am a substitute teacher at Pinkerton Academy, a high school recognized for its outstanding facilities. Even at PA, teachers must sign-out the computer cart for a given date/time or sign-up for computer lab access, and there is often a waiting list for both. In the average American school, it is less likely that students have direct, individual access to digital learning. A SMARTBoard is an excellent compromise. Costing $3000-5000, a SMARTBoard is on average half (or less) the cost of outfitting an entire classroom of students with laptops. At least in a classroom with a SMARTBoard, a teacher could integrate technology in the classroom regularly. The better educated the teacher on how to leverage a SMARTBoard effectively, the more equalized the access.
Most challenged for equal access are the impoverished school systems with no computer lab, perhaps one computer for every classroom at best, and an oppressed student population with no computer/internet access outside of school. I recently observed at such a school, Boston English High School in Jamaica Plain, MA. In that school, neither teachers nor students are required to use an online grading system, but a population of the teachers use Engrade (free online gradebook) and allow students to check grades at will. Most teachers allow students to use the classroom computer at lunch or during study periods for typing word documents or online research. Unfortunately, the opportunity for direct access for students like those at Boston English ends there. The only other option for granting students access is indirectly, with the onus on the teacher to utilize the Web as a resource for alternative or unique lesson planning and for articles or tools (games, puzzles, worksheets) that can be printed as a master and photocopied for students.
True “equal access” is not a reality in our society today. As free and open software becomes more prevalent and its usage more widespread, the number of desktop computers or laptops allotted for purchase in a given budget will increase without the need to budget for the additional costs of licenses for operating systems such as Microsoft Windows. Courses such as EDU-533 will continue to expose pre-service teachers such as we are to the many educational resources available digitally. The burden will then be us as working teachers to push beyond the limitations of school facilities to do our best to maximize access for our students.