The Haves and Have Nots of the Digital Divide

by Sandra Feldman

As we move into the 21st century, access to and use of technology have become ever more critical for students and teachers in a standards-based environment. The new economy demands a certain level of technological competence, and our nation's schools must prepare students accordingly.

Of concern to all those who care about education and equity is the "digital divide" that has developed between those with and without access to technology. Research by the U.S. Department of Education shows that minority and low-income students are less likely than white and higher-income students to use computers at home. For this reason, ensuring that such students have technological resources available to them at school is crucial.

Although great strides have been made in increasing access to and use of technology, the digital divide has only been exacerbated within the schools. Those schools with more minority and low-income students continue to have more limited access to technology.

The American Federation of Teachers is troubled by the digital divide, as we are by other inequities within our school systems like the poor condition of school buildings in lower-income communities. Although dedicating resources to technology always must be weighed against the need for other resources in this information age, technological resources must be a high priority.

The union may not be able to take measures to ensure that technological resources are available within every home, but we certainly can advocate that all students and all teachers have the necessary technological resources that are part and parcel of a high-quality public education system.

Disconcerting Status

A 1999 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 99 percent of public school teachers have access to computers in their school and 84 percent have at least one computer in their classroom. However, disparities arise between schools when you examine the data on access to technology within the classroom in more detail.

Teachers in schools with more minority students are less likely to have computers in their classroom or access to the Internet in their classroom than those with fewer minority students, the NCES survey reported. Teachers with more low-income students are less likely to have access to the Internet in their classroom. In addition, teachers in schools with more minority students also have more limited access to e-mail.

These findings are disconcerting. If we know that for many minority and low-income children the school is the only place where they use computers, then it is only common sense to insist that all teachers have access to the technology that will help all of our children succeed. To eliminate the digital divide, we need to make sure adequate technological resources are available to all schools and that they are deployed among and within schools in a way that is systematic and fair to teachers and students.

Feeling Prepared

But access to technological resources in the classroom is only part of the solution. Schools also must take steps to encourage teachers to integrate technology into the curriculum. The research shows that teachers who feel more prepared to use technology are more likely to use it in instructional activities. It stands to reason, therefore, that increasing teachers' comfort level with technology will result in greater use of technology in the classroom.

According to the NCES survey, only one-third of teachers reported feeling well or very well prepared to use computers and the Internet for classroom instruction, indicating that more professional development is needed. The survey also showed that beginning teachers felt more prepared to use technology than veteran teachers.

Given the rapid developments in technology since veteran teachers began their teaching careers some 20 or 30 years earlier, this finding is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is important for veteran teachers to have access to the training that will bring them up to speed in the information age.

Professional Development

The good news is that all teachers who spend more than a day in professional development centered on technology report feeling more prepared, and feeling prepared translates into more use of computers and the Internet in the classroom. Veteran teachers are more likely to spend time in professional development activities on technology than their colleagues with less experience. They recognize their deficiencies and want the training so that they can help their students perform to standards.

Schools are doing a good job making professional development on technology available to teachers, but they need to provide more incentives to teachers to encourage their participation.

Groups like the CEO Forum on Education and Technology, which was created to follow up on the work of the President's National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council in the area of education technology, have examined the issue of professional development for teachers and technology.

The CEO Forum issues an annual assessment of the nation's progress toward integrating technology into the classroom, and made four recommendations in its 1999 report, "Professional Development: A Link to Better Learning:"

  • Schools of education should prepare new teachers to integrate technology effectively into the curriculum;
  • Current teachers and administrators should be proficient in integrating technology into the curriculum;
  • Education policymakers and school administrators should create systems that reward the integration of technology into the curriculum; and
  • Corporations and local businesses should collaborate with the education community to help ensure that today's students will graduate with 21st century workplace skills.

While broad in scope, these recommendations highlight the work that needs to be done across sectors in preparing all teachers to use technology more effectively to help students achieve high academic standards. The AFT will continue to advocate for equitable access to resources, including technology, for teachers and students in our schools because we believe in a high-quality public education system for all children. Professional development opportunities for teachers must also be a priority to educational leaders so that all teachers have the resources and skills they need to help all children achieve to today's standards.


Sandra Feldman is president of the American Federation of Teachers, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. E-mail: sfeldman@aft.org