(Tina Barseghian)
(Tina Barseghian)

The local name for the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington is “the Badlands,” and with good reason. Pockmarked with empty lots and burned-out row houses, the area has an unemployment rate of 29 percent and a poverty rate of 90 percent. Just a few miles to the northwest, the genteel neighborhood of Chestnut Hill seems to belong to a different universe. Here, educated professionals shop the boutiques along Germantown Avenue and return home to gracious stone and brick houses, the average price of which hovers above $400,000.

Within these very different communities, however, are two places remarkably similar in the resources they provide: the local public libraries. Each has been retooled with banks of new computers, the latest software and speedy Internet access. Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at New York University, and Donna C. Celano, an assistant professor of communication at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, spent hundreds of hours in the Chestnut Hill and Badlands libraries, watching how patrons used the books and computers on offer.

The two were especially interested in how the introduction of computers might “level the playing field” for the neighborhoods’ young people, children of “concentrated affluence” and “concentrated poverty.” They undertook their observations in a hopeful frame of mind: “Given the wizardry of these machines and their ability to support children’s self-teaching,” they wondered, “might we begin to see a closing of the opportunity gap?”

Many hours of observation and analysis later, Neuman and Celanano were forced to acknowledge a radically different outcome: “The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it,” they wrote in a 2012 book based on their Philadelphia library study. With the spread of educational technology, they predicted, “the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”

Neuman and Celano are not the only researchers to reach this surprising and distressing conclusion. While technology has often been hailed as the great equalizer of educational opportunity, a growing body of evidence indicates that in many cases, tech is actually having the opposite effect: it is increasing the gap between rich and poor, between whites and minorities, and between the school-ready and the less-prepared.

This is not a story of the familiar “digital divide” — a lack of access to technology for poor and minority children. This has to do, rather, with a phenomenon Neuman and Celano observed again and again in the two libraries: granted access to technology, affluent kids and poor kids use tech differently. They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience.

The un-leveling impact of technology also has to do with a phenomenon known as the “Matthew Effect”: the tendency for early advantages to multiply over time. Sociologist Robert Merton coined the term in 1968, making reference to a line in the gospel of Matthew (“for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”).

“The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it. The not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”

In a paper published in 1986, psychologists Keith E. Stanovich and Anne E. Cunningham applied the Matthew Effect to reading. They showed that children who get off to a strong early start with reading acquire more vocabulary words and more background knowledge, which in turn makes reading easier and more enjoyable, leading them to read still more: a virtuous cycle of achievement. Children who struggle early on with reading fail to acquire vocabulary and knowledge, find reading even more difficult as a result, and consequently do it less: a dispiriting downward spiral.

Now researchers are beginning to document a digital Matthew Effect, in which the already advantaged gain more from technology than do the less fortunate. As with books and reading, the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and most supported students are those best positioned to use computers to leap further ahead. For example: In Texas’s Technology Immersion Pilot, a $20 million project carried out there beginning in 2003, laptops were randomly assigned to public middle school students. The benefit of owning one of these computers, researchers later determined, was significantly greater for those students whose test scores were high to begin with.

This may stem in part from the influence of adults on children’s computer activities, as Susan Neuman and Donna Celano observed in the libraries they monitored. At the Chestnut Hill library, they found, young visitors to the computer area were almost always accompanied by a parent or grandparent. Adults positioned themselves close to the children and close to the screen, offering a stream of questions and suggestions. Kids were steered away from games and toward educational programs emphasizing letters, numbers and shapes. When the children became confused or frustrated, the grownups guided them to a solution.

The Badlands library boasted computers and software identical to Chestnut Hill’s, but here, children manipulated the computers on their own, while accompanying adults watched silently or remained in other areas of the library altogether. Lacking the “scaffolding” provided by the Chestnut Hill parents, the Badlands kids clicked around frenetically, rarely staying with one program for long. Older children figured out how to use the programs as games; younger children became discouraged and banged on the keyboard or wandered away.

These different patterns of use had quantifiable effects on the children’s learning, Neuman and Celano showed. Chestnut Hill preschoolers encountered twice as many written words on computer screens as did Badlands children; the more affluent toddlers received 17 times as much adult attention while using the library’s computers as did their less privileged counterparts. The researchers documented differences among older kids as well: Chestnut Hill “tweens,” or 10- to 13-year-olds, spent five times as long reading informational text on computers as did Badlands tweens, who tended to gravitate toward online games and entertainment. When Badlands tweens did seek out information on the web, it was related to their homework only 9 percent of the time, while 39 percent of the Chestnut Hill tweens’ information searches were homework-related.

Research is finding other differences in how economically disadvantaged children use technology. Some evidence suggests, for example, that schools in low-income neighborhoods are more apt to employ computers for drill and practice sessions than for creative or innovative projects. Poor children also bring less knowledge to their encounters with computers. Crucially, the comparatively rich background knowledge possessed by high-income students is not only about technology itself, but about everything in the wide world beyond one’s neighborhood. Not only are affluent kids more likely to know how to Google; they’re more likely to know what to Google for.

Slogans like “one laptop per child” and “one-to-one computing” evoke an appealingly egalitarian vision: If every child has a computer, every child is starting off on equal footing. But though the sameness of the hardware may feel satisfyingly fair, it is superficial. A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege.

The focus of educators, politicians, and philanthropists on differences in access to technology has obscured another problem: what some call “the second digital divide,” or differences in the use of technology. Access to adequate equipment and reliable high-speed connections remains a concern, of course. But improving the way that technology is employed in learning is an even bigger and more important issue. Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks. And it would require a focus on knowledge: background knowledge that is both broad and deep. (The Common Core Standards, which do not so much as mention technology, may be education’s most significant contribution to true computer literacy.)

It would take all this to begin to “level the playing field” for America’s students—far more than a bank of computers in a library, or even one laptop per child.

This article originally appeared on the Hechinger Report and Slate.

Is Technology Widening Opportunity Gaps Between Rich And Poor Kids? 27 June,2014Annie Murphy Paul
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  • MJTeach

    “The common core standards do not so much as mention technology” ?? Have you seen the CCS?

    • Karlana Jester Kulseth

      There is a major component in each of the strands for ELA that require some use of technology to produce a final product to show mastery of the standards being taught. Yet, that alone is never “assessed” in the standardized assessments being pushed out. Pretty odd considering final products in some technological form (MS Word, Excel, PPT, collaborative efforts, etc.) are almost always necessary in the real working world.

      • AnnMontag

        Actually, digital literacy is a big component of the PARCC test, one of the two Common Core testing consortiums. What “standardized test” are you referring to?

  • Susan Jones

    Finally… an article that suggests that kids just left to their own devices don’t do as well as kids who get “scaffolding” and help. I’ve heard too many descriptions of “just let the students explore” in the name of constructivism, and suspected that the kiddos who actually had some support besides school would do fine, but the kiddos who *would* do fine with support in school get discouraged and wander off, literally or figuratively… or end up playing games…


    Great article. I am disappointed so many of you seem to feel ‘a level playing field’ should mean all our kids should be able to start ‘life’ or ‘school’ or ‘job hunting’ with an equal chance at success! Of course this is impossible. Whether it’s good genes, good parents, a culture that values education or the Mathew Effect, some kids will get a lot more out of school than others. Although fast, compact interconnected ‘hardware’ can’t do it alone, it does give us a unique opportunity to help the disadvantaged kids catch up with their more fortunate peers. An opportunity to make the playing field a little more level! In my opinion, a lot more level as we develop intuitive, interactive software able to continuously assess and address each child’s individual learning preferences. Software that can ‘sense’ when a child is tired or disinterested or not ready for an quiz scheduled for ‘tomorrow morning’. I’m disappointed learning software hasn’t progressed at the same rate as hardware. I’m disappointed we can’t establish a unified and well funded ‘Manhattan Project” that forces all proprietary interests to cooperate in the search for an algorithm that permits computers to act like interactive, caring tutors. Any chance of that?

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  • Anne Jenks

    As the principal of a Title I school with 98% minority students and 84% English Learners, I read this article with great interest. We have had a 1:1 program for three years now, and the results we see have been overwhelmingly positive.

    Technology is a tool, a means to an end. Like most tools, instruction on the most effective use is required in order to achieve the desired outcome. We began with students using devices during class and have evolved into students having 24 hour access to mobile devices. By starting in a highly structured environment, students were taught the necessary skills to use the technology effectively. Both our site and the district have supported parents with classes to explain the basic workings of the devices and how they can support their students.

    The end result has been increased student achievement in reading, math, vocabulary development and creativity. In our case, the use of technology has had a very definite positive effect. The problem highlighted in the study had little to do with the technology but spoke volumes to the importance of a well-designed implementation plan.

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  • Karlana Jester Kulseth

    While it appears almost every child has some sort of mobile device, this does not mean they have access to the core technology that are becoming part of the real world. They do not have the technology to work with in order to build computer literacy skills that they will need to fall back on routinely and without thought once they emerge into the real world, whether it is through vocation/career or to further their education in college.

    As a high school teacher who has pushed for more technology trainings for teachers in her district, who has worked with her own local union to help develop and facilitate these trainings, I not only come across many teachers who know that the technology and skills are not being instilled within the students, but I have also found many teachers are not prepared with the same skills and use of technology. Teachers are required to use various web-based applications and software to complete non-instructional duties, yet are not given the proper training to ensure they are completing these duties correctly or with ease for their positions in their districts. Many teachers are very hesitant to even attempt to integrate technology and web-based applications into their instruction because if their own districts cannot even supply them with basic trainings for the programs and technology that is required to perform non-instructional duties successfully, why would teachers become fearless and attempt on their own to integrate technology into their instruction to ensure students receive ample access to technology and build computer literacy?

    Across the country, not only are performing arts and athletics being cut from different districts to help meet budget demands, but now computer literacy classes and specialists are being cut down dramatically in order to meet those same budget demands.

    Teachers know they are the first line of defense in ensuring their students build mastery in skills and concepts that build upon each other year after year, to connect and make reconnections each year, yet can we really accomplish this without consistent testing?

    Let’s not forget that most of the high-stakes testing, our “faithful” standardized testing,” is now finding its way into computerized form. If a student doesn’t know how to use a computer properly, how will they take these required tests properly? If a teacher is not given much training to understand the testing process and program, let alone do not receive training or up to date technology to implement proctoring of these tests, how can they expect teachers to proctor and “teach” to the tests properly? (I will go on the record and verbalize I am AGAINST teaching to a test and would much prefer to implement project- and inquiry-based learning, two forms of critical thinking to complete work that are often required in the real working world.)

    Notice that this problem is bigger than just lower-income families not having access to technology and consistent use of it, but it spreads to even teachers. Look at the bigger picture. For a first world country that boasts advancement, our education system is so 20th century. We cannot expect students to build skills if the teachers do not have the skills. We cannot expect teachers to give students the skills if they do not have up to date technology or proper and consistent training to utilize such technology.

    FYI: Students DO NOT have all the basic AND proper computer literacy skills no matter what socioeconomic class they are within. Teachers do not have enough time to teach them or have the correct training to do so within their own instructional content areas.

    As a last thought, it is disheartening to see I am the only who has left a comment for this specific topic on the nation’s largest union within education. I already know the answer to the question, but why does anyone think that is?

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    Why hasn’t a discrimination suit been filed claiming public schools are knowingly permitting minority kids to graduate without “mastery” of skills specifically required by state mandated standards?

  • Johnrr6

    This article misses the boat entirely and doesn’t even address the mobile age. It is quoting 1986 and 2003 research for crying out loud! It is basing everything on dead or dying PC-based technology. And some of it’s wonderful conclusions such as scaffolding is needed within any type of 1-1 initiative is just common sense.

    The good news is that mobile devices, digital content and increased access are cheaper and more prevalent than ever. But if anyone thinks that children simply learn by throwing a device of any type their way and letting them “explore.” They are sadly mistaken.

    And schools are the perfect place to get proper guidance, scaffolding and training on how to make the most of these new mobile digital devices. I’m excited about the future and how this new mobile digital technology can actually level the playing field as much as possible.

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  • Catherine

    I’ve been finding the same type of results in my research with PreK students and technology; the addition of a knowledgeable adult makes a difference in the quality and content students engage with technology.

    One minor correction: while there is no college-ready strand devoted to technology in the common core, the use of technology is explicitly described in every grade (K-12) for the ELA standards.

    For example. ELA SL 7.5 (presentation of knowledge and ideas): “Include multimedia components and visual displays in presentations and clarify claims and findings and emphasize salient points.”

    New technologies have broadened and expanded the role that speaking and listening play in acquiring and sharing knowledge and have tightened their link to other forms of communication. The internet has accelerated the speed at which connections between speaking, listening, reading, and writing can be made, requiring students to be ready to use these modalities nearly simultaneously. Technology itself is changing quickly, requiring students to be adaptable in response to change.”

    It is easy to overlook these key details about technology integration when we focus on the reading or writing strands of the standards.

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