Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom

Posted: February 1, 2007 in Education, Educational Technology, Instructional Technology

Introduction

Barbara Monroe’s book Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom is a study of the effects of technology based writing activities in inner city and rural classrooms with culturally and socio-economically diverse students. Monroe critiques the reality of the digital divide, and outlines the deeper causes of lack of access to new technologies. Dr. Monroe provides case studies of particular computer based writing activities in predominantly African American inner city, Hispanic, and Native American rural schools and outlines their success and failures. She offers several digital writing activities that enhance learning for diverse students and warns against using computer based learning as merely an assessment or remediation tool. Dr. Monroe concludes with a hope that access to computer based learning and writing focuses on transformation rather than simple reform, and highlights the importance of putting value on diverse forms of the English language to help students build productive communication skills.
Written communication has become a key component in the digital age, and it is important to identify, analyze, select, evaluate, and utilize research based activities that build on this type of interaction between students. Enhancing written communication via computer-based technologies in the classroom enables students to gain practice, reflection, and with the aid of real world resources, authentic writing experiences to assist in their future endeavors.

Case Studies

Two particular case studies outlined the use of writing and computer based technologies in school settings, and the third identified the influence video could have on writing. The first case study concerned e-mail communication between University of Michigan undergraduate writing tutors and Detroit High School tenth grade English class students (Monroe, 2004, p. 33). The second study focused on threaded discussions between three junior level classes at Garland High School and one sophomore level class at Tribal School (Monroe, p. 72). The final case identified the influence of the “bedtime story” on writing while analyzing narratives written by two seventh grade classes that reside on an Indian reservation community called Rondo (Monroe, p. 88).

Detroit High School

The e-mail communications between the African American students at Detroit High School and the predominantly white University of Michigan undergraduates highlighted the communication challenges between people of diverse race, socio-economic, age, culture and language backgrounds. Two particular cultural aspects that the author identified as requiring particular attention were the reluctance of African American students to share their personal lives on “Front Street” and the presence of African American expressive culture that often switches between African American English (AAE) and Standard American English (SAE) (Monroe, p. 50). Monroe states, “Recognizing that African American expressive culture is neither monolithic nor static, English educators nonetheless must be aware of race-based cultural differences in information sharing and AAE use as they design their curricula, structure their pedagogical choices, and reconsider assessment issues” (Monroe, p. 61).

Garland High School and Tribal School

The threaded discussions between students from Garland High School and Tribal School focused on topics drawn from the book The Crucible. The cultural makeup of these schools presented differing social views: “At several points in the electronic transcripts, then, we see two divergent world orientations, economic, cultural, and historical at the same time. One orientation looks to the future, holding to the bootstraps notion…the other remembers and respects the past” (Monroe, p. 76). Engaging conversation between the participants was challenging. Adequate access to technology at school and home was an obvious factor in lack of engagement, but factors such as community norms, and the “tyranny of the majority” affected communication (Monroe, pp. 78-79).

Monroe shares several suggestions based on this case study that can assist productive communication: class discussion, in class or online, should be complimentary pedagogies that enhance both communication venues; teachers need to make explicit goals of critical pedagogy in general terms and specifically for the unit that will be discussed; and follow-up is essential in furthering discussion and spreading communication opportunities across the board enabling diverse views to be shared and considered in the communication process (pp. 80-81). Communication must be all-inclusive to bridge an underlying factor that contributes to the digital divide (Monroe, p. 82).

Bedtime Story

The narratives produced by the students living in Rhondo, a reservation community, were often lacking several elements based on traditional white, middle class story construction (Monroe, p 107). The implications were that students were deficient and needed strong remediation; however, Monroe points out several considerations that teachers need to be aware of and promote: early language socialization begins in the home; teachers should not prejudge a student’s narrative solely on ethnicity; teachers should recognize there is no one, or natural, way to tell a story; and teachers should reconsider the standards for judging the quality of a story (pp. 89-90). Monroe suggests that popular culture television programs, movies, and other media be used to facilitate analysis, discussion and other forms of communication to bring exposure to diverse ideas, people, and cultures (p. 109). In sum, Monroe states, “Incorporating popular culture and computer assisted communication in the classroom can burn paths between school and home, especially in ethnically diverse, impoverished communities just off the main highway” (p. 114).

The Divide

Dr. Monroe identifies the short sightedness of the digital divide and the need to see it in another view:

Instead of selling the economic benefits of connectivity, we should speak more pointedly—and could do so in much better faith—about the educational benefits of interconnectivity between students, between classes, between schools, and between schools and universities. Such connections crisscross the digital divide, bringing the underprivileged and the overprivileged in contact, not just as individuals, but as groups, communities, and institutions. (p. 29)

The digital divide is not a simple problem that can be fixed with more money and Ethernet ports in every classroom.

Conclusion

Lack of communication is a major stumbling block to bridging the digital divide. As Monroe alludes, the digital divide has been more of a thing or dehumanized condition, rather than a personal existence influenced by access, and is more deeply caused by social disconnection whether it is based on racism, social class discrimination, or simple neglect. Thoughtfully, Barbara Monroe forces the reader to recognize the effects of this neglect and consider the wider and deeper implications of what the digital divide really is, and provides real and meaningful ways to take action in the classroom and community.

Reference

Monroe, B. (2004). Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

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