The Learning Accelerator Blog/A Growing Danger of the Digital Use Divide: A Media Illiterate Generation

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A Growing Danger of the Digital Use Divide: A Media Illiterate Generation

by Beth Holland and Michael Ham on August 22 2022

Since the introduction of computers into classrooms, the premise has been that increased access to technology would result in more creative, rigorous, personalized, and meaningful learning than what was possible in an analog world. However, despite decades of progress toward equitable access to devices and the internet, this promise has not been universally realized.

A well-documented pattern began to emerge in the early 2000s when scholars started evaluating disparities in how students actually use technology. As researchers at the Metropolitan Education Research Consortium argue, even when students have access to the same technologies, their experiences may vary from school to school depending on systemic barriers, as well as from classroom to classroom depending on individual teachers’ instructional practices and/or biases. Further, they assert that differences in the quantity and quality of students’ technology use directly impacts their potential academic and employment outcomes.

The 2017 National Education Technology Plan defines this inequity as the digital use divide, or “[T]he disparity between students who use technology to create, design, build, explore, and collaborate and those who simply use technology to consume media passively.” Recognizing the implications of the digital use divide, educators and leaders have spent the past two decades creating and adopting media creation tools, curricula, standards, and technology integration frameworks to guide instruction.

Dangerous Framing: Creation vs. Consumption

The binary framing of the digital use divide as creation versus consumption may be further exacerbating other problems related to digital equity. Its definition presumes that one end of the dichotomy (creation) is either better or neutral, while the other (consumption) is inherently worse. This leads to the false assumption that any use of classroom technology that focuses on creation is essentially better without considering quality or intent. Of particular concern, this framing of the digital use divide regularly leaves critical media literacy skills on the sidelines. Even when the focus of student technology use is on creation, these lessons often ignore media literacy issues such as ascertaining the credibility of sources, understanding copyright, or recognizing media manipulation.

Because media literacy is often relegated to a single unit or lesson, solutions offered to close the digital use divide continuously fail to acknowledge how Americans increasingly rely on technology: to source, filter, and evaluate information. A 2021 Pew research study found that roughly one-third of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook and one-fifth from YouTube. This is troublesome given the scarcity of checks on the quality or reliability of the information posted to these sites. Even more worrisome, a 2018 MIT-Sloan study found that false news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth” on these platforms. The lack of nuance in the current definition of the digital use divide and associated failure to address how individuals actually use technology is creating an even more nefarious problem.

The Importance of Media Literacy in Education

In today’s climate, an inability to navigate the online information landscape has dire consequences.

National security leaders have declared online mis- and dis-information a major threat to our domestic national security. The surgeon general has declared misinformation to be a serious public health threat. Articles from the past several months continue to illustrate the impact of this pernicious component of the digital use divide:

Left unchecked, this neglect of media literacy in education has the potential to create even more disparity between those equipped with the skills needed to productively participate in a democracy and navigate an increasingly digitized world and those left vulnerable to propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation.

The digital use divide is typically associated with disparities in opportunity based on a student’s race or socioeconomic status, but the issue of media literacy bucks this trend. A study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group between January 2015 and June 2016 revealed that across demographics, students from middle school to college showed a lack of reliable capacity to evaluate information online. Even among groups where we would expect students to have better access to higher quality learning experiences with technology, researchers continued to observe huge disparities between those who could and could not navigate online media.

The National Education Association continues to insist that the best way to address this issue is in the classroom, but instead of presenting students with another checklist, it's time to reevaluate the role that every educator plays in addressing this growing crisis. This is not to say that media and information literacy are new concepts. Lessons such as the dangers of “Dihydrogen Monoxide” or hoax advocacy campaigns to save the “Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus” have been cornerstones of middle and high school classrooms for years, but today’s students need more than a lesson about better or worse citations, a single unit in a technology class, or a version of the CRAAP test.

Resources for Addressing the Media Literacy Challenge

Various conversations about media literacy and technology use have been occurring for years, making it feel a bit like Groundhog Day. However, until we meaningfully address the digital use divide as more than just a false dichotomy between consumption and creation, the consequences will only continue to grow. As educators and leaders begin to plan for the coming school year, we recommend this list as a first step towards addressing this challenge:

Centering media literacy within attempts to bridge the digital use divide may feel like another daunting task, but with the right resources and strategies, a path forward does exist.

This blog is part of a series on digital equity. Read the first blog on digital privacy here.

About the Author

Michael Ham is an Associate Partner at the Learning Accelerator, a former instructional leader, and an alumnus of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

Beth Holland is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator and leads the organization's work in research and measurement. She brings both a rigorous academic background and practical experience to the team’s research efforts.