New digital divide threatens U.S. schools

PULLMAN, Wash.—Schools across the United States are threatened by a different kind of “digital divide,” according to Dr. Eric Anctil of Washington State University.

This digital divide isn’t between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. Rather, it is between students on one side and the faculty and administration on the other. Anctil, an assistant professor at the WSU College of Education, presented a paper on the problem at this week’s American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Chicago.

“Students today are very tech savvy,” he says. “They consume huge amounts of media and they have created a completely new social networking universe. In contrast, their teachers and principals are largely ignorant of what goes on in the tech world and they are afraid to engage with it.”

This has created an incredible shift in power, Anctil contends. “At no time in our history have students been the campus experts of such a powerful tool as technology. Because of student-owned technology, information finds its way to campus no matter the barriers districts put up on school computers.”

This power shift makes schools highly vulnerable to liability for student behavior. Anctil cites several examples of schools getting into hot water because of student abuse of the Internet and other technology, including cell phones, digital cameras and camcorders. For example, a group of cheerleaders posted sexually suggestive pictures of themselves on MySpace and used their coach’s cell phone to send “dirty” text messages to her husband and another coach. The school’s principal, who was also the mother of one of the cheerleaders, ended up resigning.

The solution to the dangerous digital disparity is making media education a priority in training principals and superintendents, Anctil says. “School leaders must be educated about the digital world before they are forced to confront it when a scandal breaks.”

Anctil blames the increased attention on accountability and testing for this issue flying below the radar.  “As technology gets cheaper and smaller, controlling its use is going to continue to confound school leaders. Unfortunately, these same school leaders have a lot of pressure on them to deal with test scores and being ‘accountable’ for student testing performance.  They just don’t have time to tackle this issue right now.”

They must make the time, he adds. “Media and technology cut across every aspect of school life. Education law, policy, and the curriculum are all affected by media and technology; it’s not simply going to go away. Unless we start getting our principals and others on board, we face a frightening future.” 

Dr. Anctil’s faculty profile is posted at http://www.educ.wsu.edu/faculty_staff/showone.asp?iId=511 

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