August 31, 2020

How Digital Divisions at School Impose Barriers to Connected Learning – and What We Can Do About It

Categories: Connected Learning, Critical Perspectives, Equity
Digital Divisions book cover

I am a believer in the power of connected learning. As our team articulated in Affinity Online, people really do learn a whole lot better while pursuing interest-driven projects in a supportive environment. This is why many education researchers like myself tout kids’ play in games like Minecraft as an example of how young people can learn many valuable skills – like digital production, online communication, and collaboration – while having fun, too.

But what happens when kids bring their digital interests, like Minecraft, to school? Out-of-school learning is certainly valuable, but schools are still seen as the means for young people to learn, build a record of success, and achieve a better life.

In my new book, Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era (University of Chicago Press), I find that schools serving less affluent students of color actively block opportunities for connected learning through play online. Drawing on over 600 hours of field research split evenly among three high-tech middle schools that vary by student demographics, I show that teachers treat kids’ digital interests differently depending on the race-ethnicity and social class of their student body. This is a major barrier to the learning agenda that we, as education researchers and digital literacy scholars, advocate for students.

In my study, I found that at a private school attended by mostly wealthy, white youth, teachers saw their students as future digital innovators. They linked this perception to their students’ digital interests, like Minecraft and social media use, and saw these activities as essential to learning. Some students would even be allowed to submit levels they created in Minecraft, fiction stories they wrote for online communities, and art they created and shared on Instagram in place of traditional assignments. Teachers created ways for students to make learning more connected and interest-driven by linking their digital pursuits to opportunities at school.

But teachers treated the very similar digital play of students at the two other schools I studied much differently. At a school serving mostly middle-class, Asian American students, teachers saw kids’ digital activities as threatening to learning. They’d take away their devices, send them to detention, and publicly shame them in class whenever there were signs of these digital activities at school. At another school serving working-class, Latinx students, teachers instead saw these same activities as irrelevant to learning. They wouldn’t police students, but they wouldn’t treat those digital activities seriously, dismissing their value as learning opportunities in class. These findings suggest that teachers positioned students to benefit from connected forms of learning only at the school for more privileged students.

Why did teachers believe in the power of digital play for learning at the private school with mostly wealthy and white students, but punish or dismiss  similar forms of play at the public schools serving less wealthy students of color? And what might this answer tell us about the challenges we must overcome to unlock forms of connected learning at schools that serve less advantaged students?

I turned to the teachers themselves in trying to solve this puzzle, asking them about why and how they disciplined digital play in the ways that they did. For one, testing appeared an unlikely influence on how the three schools differently treated digital play, as teachers at both public schools told me that testing was “on hold” as they were in the process of rolling out a new computerized exam. Further, each school supplied teachers and students with generous access to up-to-date digital technologies for learning, like laptops, iPads, and cutting edge learning software. This means that it’s not just digital access to hardware or software that accounts for differential treatment of kids’ digital play.

The teachers helped me figure out what factors shape school differences in their treatment of kids’ digital play. In alignment with existing research, I found that the mostly white, middle-class teachers at these schools all exhibited race- and class-based stereotypes of their different students – like “model minorities,” “Tiger Mom-raised hackers,” “future gang members” or “hard-working immigrants.” Teachers had no such stereotypes for white students, consistent with theories of the invisibility of whiteness, which enabled white students’ school performance to be seen by teachers as individual rather than a collective representation of their racial group. But I also found that teachers’ workplaces – variably as collaborative, hostile, or elite-serving – shape which of the stereotypes faculty draw on when teaching.

At the school serving mostly middle-class Asian-American students, teachers described a hostile workplace where other faculty were like the women from the movie ‘Mean Girls’. Whereas these teachers described Asian-American students they have taught elsewhere as “model minorities,” here they linked their workplace hostility to negative stereotypes of Asian-Americans as “Tiger-Mom raised hackers”. At a school serving working-class Latinx students, teachers described a collaborative workplace among faculty that felt like a family. Whereas these teachers described Latinx students they have taught elsewhere as “future gang members,” here they linked their family-like workplace to positive stereotypes of Latinx students as “hard-working immigrants.” This workplace-linked stereotyping led to teachers’ differentiated instructional approaches, finding increased discipline and less trust of students where teachers are hostile to one another. Although drawing on a “positive” stereotype of Latinx students begat less day-to-day discipline than at the other school, the stereotype still undermines the perceived value of students’ digital interests for learning.

How might schools better create an environment that treats students’ digital interests seriously, enabling forms of connected learning especially for less affluent students of color?

As educators, we need to think carefully about what counts as learning when we make curricula for students and interact with them in class. Schools must impart to teachers and administrators a philosophy that all children’s interests – not just wealthy, white students’ – bring necessary value to learning at school.

But to do this effectively requires that we provide teachers more support. Teachers do not deserve to work in hostile environments, as is likely the case at many under-resourced schools that serve already disadvantaged students. Districts need to be more committed to understanding what it’s like to work at their schools and how to provide collaborative environments for faculty. Further, when faculty workplaces are, indeed, psychologically safe, teachers must have opportunities to discuss their role in contributing to harmful racial ideologies about their students of color. They must challenge and address the ways that most white people are raised to harbor these beliefs or else they risk asserting them to students in very harmful ways.

For connected learning to be effectively adopted at schools, particularly those serving less affluent students of color, we must firmly join with anti-racism efforts in education and in our society more broadly. We must be part of an active effort to better fund public schooling and support teacher wellbeing. All children deserve for their interests and their creative selves to be treated with dignity.