Cloud Computing and the Digital Divide

Technologies that were previously expensive or unavailable to most students are often now free to any person who has a web browser and an internet connection. Applications in the cloud—including websites, video and music sharing tools, blogs, social networks, collaborative software and other platforms—are already popular among the younger, school-aged population for use outside the classroom. Now these tools may also be of value inside the classroom. Not only can the move to cloud technologies help bridge the digital divide, but it can also reduce costs while having no negative bearing on students, and can enrich students’ education by increasing communication among and between teachers and students. There remains however some concern of whether the digital divide in public schools will be too wide as we progress toward this era of education in the cloud.

Despite all the advantages cloud computing offers a public school system, there remains great debate over whether it will truly benefit all students. Additionally, a lack of demographic and statistical evidence about the Illinois public school community prevents a decision from being made. Without verification that all students have equal access to technology inside as well as outside the classroom, movement toward implementation of cloud technologies in the school is halted.

This most recent data on public school libraries and media centers in Illinois is from the 2007/2008 school year:

  • For every 100 students in Illinois, there are 2.9 computer workstations within the school and available for students to use.
  • 92.2% of public schools K-12 in Illinois provide either a wired or wireless internet connection.
  • 32.2% of public schools K-12 in Illinois provide laptops for student use outside of the library or media center.
Selected statistics on public school libraries/media centers: 2007-08

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS).

In looking at the above figures, we can tell a little more about how Illinois is situated in comparison to neighboring states in the Midwest with regards to technological access. Although the statistics do not vary widely between Illinois and the other states, one can still assume that these numbers are too low for any new technology to be very widely implemented. We can assume, for example, that in Illinois nearly 8% of all public schools will not be able to implement cloud technology in the classroom since these schools do not provide an internet connection. Additionally, for every 100 students, there are only 2.9 workstations. This is very low if we assume 100/100 students require access to a computer or networked device.

But within the districts and even the schools themselves there is another digital divide—a divide caused by an inequality between students in terms of access to or use of information technology. These divides occur most commonly between demographic levels. Students from low-income families have less access to the internet and information, and students from higher-income families have high levels of access to internet as well as more advanced technologies like personal computers, tablets, and smartphones. This creates a great problem:

Where universal access and use of the latest, most recently produced, technology are assumed, there is a danger of distributing learning only to the elite, leaving behind the very people who were supposed to benefit from anywhere, anytime access to the people and resources that are part of the e-learning enterprise (Haythornthwaite, 2007).

It is vital in implementing cloud technologies in Illinois public schools that the skills and differences between students are not overlooked. 2001 population surveys [pdf] from the U.S. Census Bureau offer some indication—though outdated—of what computer use in the home and in the school has recently looked like. These statistics compare the rates of use by income level and race, showing that 85% of US children (10-17 years) in the highest income level use the internet at school, 89% at home; in the lowest income level 75% use the internet at school and only 31% from home. Low-income and minority races are far more likely to use the internet from school rather than home.

School and home computer use by family income: 2001

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, September 2001.

School and home computer use by race: 2001

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, September 2001.

Having access to personal computers and an internet connection are required for participation in the age of information. Students at a school that implements cloud technology in the classroom and for community interaction should have access to this cloud at all times.

Homework is assigned for the student to do in their free time—to build their independent critical thinking and other skills. Outside the surveillance of a teacher or staff member, however, there is a great population within the public school system that does not have access to the technologies required to take part in cloud computing. Whether this be a personal computer, sufficient software or hardware, or an internet connection, the schools or districts must see this as their responsibility in order to approach the issue. Additionally, schools are an important location to raise students’ information literacy skills as well as their knowledge about computing and the internet. Students who do not have the privilege of a personal computer or internet access in the home may not receive the same quality of education as those higher-income students (89%) who have access in the home. Technology cannot be seen as a privilege, or a luxury available only to children in higher-income families; “it should form an essential part of the world of education today” (Le Roux & Evans, 2011).

But incorporating these technologies into daily life is not an option for all; access to information is expensive. Not only are computers and wireless networks costly to purchase, assemble and maintain, but it also requires a great deal of specialized knowledge and time to become familiar with the products, or to become ‘computer literate’.

While keeping the student’s limited budget in mind, one must also keep in mind the variation in budgets at schools across a district or the state. Implementing one technology framework for multiple schools or districts may not be feasible if IT budgets are not constant. For example, one school may have an IT budget that affords them netbooks for every student to use outside the classroom. Other schools may only be able to provide a computer lab, or one or two in-classroom computers for use before and after school.

Ideally, in implementing cloud technology across the public school system in Illinois, students should have access to district-owned computers, as well as netbooks/laptops to use outside the classroom. As is an increasing trend across the country, these would be devices lent out to students and maintained by IT staff at the individual schools. Additionally, there should be an increase in computer workstations available to students at the school. 2.9 computers for every 100 students are not enough if teachers begin to implement cloud technologies into their daily curriculum. This number should increase, and workstations should be available to students in a lab or classroom for use before and after school hours. The number of computers offered, as well as the applications they support, will vary from school to school and district to district, depending on size, need, and budget. Further studies into these demands will have to take place before a cloud-computing model can be finalized.

Perhaps by resolving this digital divide before introducing new computing tools in the schools will make implementation of cloud technologies a success. Students will be able to reap the benefits of these technologies. They can potentially improve their skills in every subject. Students may conduct research online—a vast improvement over costly physical resources. Additionally, collaborating with classmates online and browsing the web offers students an even stronger learning environment. A 2006 study on the academic performance of low-income children in Michigan showed that children who browse the web for information about personal interests and hobbies in addition to school-related web browsing were also “reading more, and more time spent reading may account for improved performance on standardized tests of reading and for higher GPAs, which depend heavily on reading skills” (Jackson et al., 2006). Students with access perform better on tests and potentially have increased reading skills and cognitive functioning (Subrahmanyam et al., 2001). There is great benefit to closing the divide in public schools. And a subsequent implementation of cloud technologies for all students regardless of income level or race will be the most beneficial to our students, their families, and our Illinois public school community as a whole.

References:

DeBell, M., & Chapman, C. (2003). Computer and internet use by children and adolescents in 2001 (No. NCES 2004-014). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2007). Digital divide and e-learning. In The handbook of e-learning research (pp. 97–118).

Jackson, L. A., von Eye, A., Biocca, F. A., Barbatsis, G., Zhao, Y., & Fitzgerald, H. E. (2006). Does home internet use influence the academic performance of low-income children? Developmental Psychology42(3), 429–435.

Le Roux, C. J. B., & Evans, N. (2011). Can cloud computing bridge the digital divide in South African secondary education? Information Development27(2), 109–116.

Subrahmanyam, K., Greenfield, P., Kraut, R., & Gross, E. (2001). The impact of computer use on children’s and adolescents’ development. Applied Developmental Psychology22, 7–30.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). (2009). Public school library media center questionnaire. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_433.asp

Wong, W. (2011, April 15). IlliniCloud: A look at how Illinois schools are sharing resources in the cloud. EdTech Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2011/04/land-of-leverage

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