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Educators must unplug their ideas about students’ tech abilities

Kristen Morales

August 5, 2020

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The digital divide isn’t what you may think it is.

Too often, says Tisha Lewis Ellison, an educator may create an assignment using a computer or a smartphone and already have an idea what their students may be able to create. Sometimes this idea is based on previous assignments; other times it’s on how they think a student accesses digital technologies at home.

That assumption, says Lewis Ellison, an associate professor in the University of Georgia Mary Frances Early College of Education, shortchanges the students and creates a false sense of what they’re actually capable of.

“I have been conducting research on the digital literacy practices of families and adolescents of color for over 12 years now, and I’m noticing wonderful things that are being done with these families that has not been shared,” says Lewis Ellison, whose most recent research follows stories of parents and children of color and the creative ways in which they use digital technologies and STEM practices in home and community settings. “There are many racist perspectives that I, as a researcher, have to counter about deficit views that certain families of color don’t have access to digital tools in their homes. These perspectives continue to perpetuate stereotypes about lack concerning individuals from underrepresented communities. I want to shine a light on these ‘stock stories’ and say, ‘No, these families I’ve been researching, actually do have digital tools in the home and are creating profound activities alone, as well as with their family members.

With the advent of smartphones and tablets, more and more children and youth have access to interactive devices, activities and practices—also called digital literacies—both in and out of school. For educators, the tools pose an interesting intersection of creativity and tech skills by using these tools for digital storytelling and building literacy skills.

But Lewis Ellison cautions teachers from assuming too much about a student’s digital abilities. Kids can figure it out, she says, whether or not they have access to a computer in their home.

“Today’s millennials and younger kids, if they have access to a cellphone for instance, they can not only record videos, they can create all kinds of things. They can produce a movie all on their phones,” she says. “When we’re giving these children or youth the opportunity to create and be expressive, that’s when they feel liberated.”

It’s about choice and allowing the students to drive the lesson, she adds. For example, asking students to tell the stories of their families or their communities—without any preconceived notions about the end result—can allow students to experiment and be creative on their own terms.

In her research, she encountered an African American mother and son who explored digital literacy practices together at home—they had a blog and the mother was adept at assembling and disassembling computers. At school, the son often finished his work early in computer class and his teacher said he seemed to be “playing around,” even though that wasn’t the case, his mother said—he was just bored.

At home he had liberties and access that weren’t allowed in class. For example, at home he’d made his own digital comic strip on his computer and published it online. None of these creative muscles were being flexed in his computer class at school.

That’s the challenge Lewis Ellison has for educators: Let their students teach them. Rather than assume what their technological abilities are, simply give the students access and let them become creative content producers whose activities support and transform their own learning.

In the case of the mother and son in her research study, Lewis Ellison says they are just one example of the many African American families who embrace digital technologies in their lives, expertly navigate it and weave it into the fabric of everyday life. Where at one time there might have been a discussion of a “digital divide” along racial lines, Lewis Ellison argues to consider an era of a “post-digital divide,” one that embraces all individuals’ use of digital literacies that is now so readily accessible.

And when it comes to the classroom, teachers must toss old assumptions aside and replace them with assignments that ask students to express their stories in creative ways—in whatever kind of technology they want to use.

With the influx of African American parents engaging in digital literacy practices with their children, Lewis Ellison said, “That’s where their engagement and family literacy practices and involvement take place,” she says. “And it’s not going to be in the traditional way that you’re thinking—look at it in an unconventional way. You may have certain views of these families and their digital tools, but I want to provide another view that helps us understand and support what life is like for Black and Brown lives around digital technologies.”

Read more research by Lewis Ellison