Bridging the Digital Divide: Ways to Teach Technology on a Budget

Using technology in the classroom helps prepare students for future success, but it remains expensive and hard to access. As not all schools have the resources to provide digital classroom experiences, this creates a learning disparity between students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

Also known as the digital divide, this gap can have a lasting negative impact on student learning, performance and overall equity. Fortunately, the digital divide can be bridged with the right tools and resources. If you’re looking for ways to teach technology on a budget, follow these simple, affordable tips.

Addressing the Digital Divide

Incorporating more technology into the classroom has many benefits, but it’s important that teachers are mindful about how and when they adopt technology.

To begin, it’s essential that teachers understand how technology creates inequities among students. Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), explains that technology is just one more way to expand inequities between students of varying backgrounds.

For example, disparities in technology access have created a homework gap. Former FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel explains that the homework gap is when teachers assign students homework that requires internet access, and not all of those students have access to the internet at home. Citing a study from the Pew Research Center, Rosenworcel says that of 29 million households with school-aged children nationwide, five million of them lack regular access to broadband.

This gap has widened as an increasing number of schools incorporate internet-based learning into daily curriculum, so it’s important that teachers take this into account when assigning homework.

The Role of Technology in the Classroom

Because many teachers feel the pressure to use technology in order to stay ahead, it’s key to understand what role technology plays in the classroom. Citing a CompTIA study on classroom technology, Janelle Cox says, “9 out of 10 students indicated that using technology in the classroom would help prepare them for the digital future.”

And while most students understand the benefits of technology, they may not have the skills to maintain a healthy balance when using technology tools. That’s why teachers need to emphasize exactly how these tools should be used.

“Remember that the technology you use can never replace the thinking, the reading, and the writing that takes place in your classroom,” say Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, educators and founders of The Daily Cafe.It enhances those things and takes the learning to new levels, but it can never be the sole means by which you teach”

HR Dive agrees that technology is not a way to replace learning; rather, it’s a means of implementing traditional learning in more engaging and affordable ways.

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Teaching with Virtual Reality

According to Education Technology, Google Earth is a great resource for going on virtual field trips. The Street View tool helps students experience and interact with the world around them virtually. “Students can still learn everything that they need to know about a particular area or attraction, without the cost of travel and the loss of teaching time.”

To take virtual reality a step further, there are a wealth of classroom activities available — and all you need are VR glasses and a smartphone.

Dr. Monica Burns of Class Tech Tips explains that virtual reality can be used as a classroom technology tool for much cheaper than most teachers think. For example, VR glasses (like Google Cardboard) can be purchased for less than $10.

The growing popularity of virtual reality has also led to VR-based curricula, such as the program “One World, Many Stores” created by a nonprofit called Global Nomads Group. The program lets students experience the lives of young people across the globe to teach empathy. These videos are “interwoven with paper-and-pencil class activities and discussions about the mix of individual and communal identities and the importance of perspective.”

Choosing the Right Technology

When choosing new apps for your classroom, it’s important to find tools that promote a well-rounded variety of skill sets, says Andrew P. Marcinek, CIO of Worcester Academy. He also emphasises the importance of a sharing culture and adds that teachers should “reinforce the idea that learning goals and objectives — not devices or applications — still drive classroom engagement.”

Skype is an excellent, free tool that can help educators expand their teaching beyond the classroom walls. Critical literacy advocate and writer Terry Hicks says that Skype is one of the best tools for cultural engagement and collaboration.

Connecting with like-minded students and teachers from other countries can help children with languages, teach them about geography and let them experience different cultures.

To make presentations more engaging, Sarah McGuire of Venngage recommends using Prezi. The free tool allows both teachers and students to create presentations that are more creative, customizable and interactive than traditional PowerPoint productions.

Tech for Increased Engagement

Technology education expert Jacqui Murray notes that students respond better when concepts are gamified, as this makes them inherently more interesting. She recommends using free tools such as Discovery Education’s Puzzlemaker to replace traditional study guides and rubrics and reinforce topics in a more interesting way.

Michael Parker West says that as students are inevitably using social media in some way anyway, it’s important to get them to think critically about it. Teaching about internet privacy, online ethics and digital citizenship can help students adopt a healthier and more productive relationship with technology.

Tech for Student Focus

Charlie Reisinger, technology director at Penn Manor School District, notes several simple and affordable open-source software tools for teachers:

  • OwnCloud is “an open source file sharing server that helps schools take back control of their data.”
  • FocusWriter removes the temptation of social media and other online distractions to help students focus on writing tasks at hand.

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How to be Resourceful with Technology

You may not have the resources to buy a device for every student, but it’s still possible to use personal devices in the classroom. Laptops and iPads are a great way to promote collaboration, and sharing devices is proven to have a positive effect on student learning.

Courtney K. Blackwell, a research assistant professor of medical social sciences at the NU Feinberg School of Medicine, discovered that kindergarten students actually work better when they share their iPads with another student. Specifically, the study saw student scores “increase 28% when paired up with iPads, compared to 24% in a 1:1 deployment and 20% with no iPad at all.”

Such findings help create a case for sharing technology in schools, which allows teachers to make better use of existing resources.  

Former principal at Washington’s Holy Rosary School Tim Uhl says that as teachers adopt technology in the classroom, they’ll also have to rethink the spaces in which they teach. Increased technology at schools has been accompanied by an increase in class size, which means schools will need to be more resourceful when creating adaptive, collaborative classrooms.

Tools for Collaborative Learning

Jeff Dunn of Daily Genius recommends buying one powerful device to share among students. Just one iPad or Chromebook, for example, can be used to show videos, hold Skype classroom calls and engage students in a number of group activities.

This affordable headphone splitter on TeacherLists is an example of how one tool can extend the use of one iPad for up to four students.

Multi-Purpose Tools

When your budget is tight, it’s important to buy tools that extend the capabilities of your devices. If you don’t have a projector for presentations and movies, for example, Greg Limperis, supervisor of instructional technology for his district in Lawrence, Massachusetts, suggests getting a television that supports video output.

If your computer supports video output, you can project your computer’s screen onto your tv for a makeshift projector. Even if your computer doesn’t have a video output card, you can buy an adapter cable for less than $10.

When you don’t have the resources to purchase new computers or subscribe to new software, taking small steps to incorporate technology into your classroom in creative, resourceful ways can make a lasting difference.

images by: Sasin Tipchai, Jane B

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