Posts Tagged ‘digital divide’

The tyranny of distance: Teacher PD in rural areas

April 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Great wall of China

Image source: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

An interesting article authored by Bernadette Robinson, “Using distance education and ICT to improve access, equity and the quality in rural teachers’ professional development in western China“. Despite the focus on rural China, the issues Robinson raises are applicable elsewhere.

The abstract sums it up nicely (as you might expect :p)

The goal of ‘teacher quality for all’ is proving difficult to achieve in many countries, especially in rural areas, yet teacher quality is a key determinant of students’ participation rates and achievement levels. It also affects the attainment of social justice in terms of equity in educational quality for students. One contributor to teacher quality is professional development though limits on its availability and quality create inequity for many teachers.

Robinson’s approach surprised me, focusing on education’s status as a universal human right. This quickly gets quite murky as the students’ right to learning in convolved with teacher learning.

A case can be made for teachers’ rights to continuing professional education on two grounds: as an essential requirement for ensuring teacher quality for all (as part of children’s rights to basic education) and as a teacher’s own right to education.

As such, one could argue that limiting teacher access to PD has a flow-on effect, restricting students’ learning and in doing so, violating their right to education (or at least, causing inequity in the provision of education). Robinson however, focuses on the teacher’s right to access PD and continue their learning. I think this is a much weaker argument (this is evidenced, to Robinson’s lament, by the absence of teacher ritghts in international declarations of rights) yet the exploration of the idea is worthwhile,  if only to provide a cross-section of this issue.

I think it is more a question of student rights, with responsibility falling to governments and education administrations to ensure teachers can deliver. PD is surely of vital importance in achieving this.

Of course, ICT to the rescue! Distance education through ICT is proposed as a solution.

The use of distance education and ICT has the potential to distribute opportunities for learning more widely and equitably across the teaching force. It can also improve the quality and variety of the resources and support available to teachers, opening up new avenues to professional development. If social justice is to be achieved however, in terms of equity of educational opportunity and services, the provision needs to be planned in ways that make it available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable to all teachers and head-teachers, empowering them to make choices in what and how they learn.

Despite the possible barriers to this working, I think that the use of ICT to deliver PD is well suited to the Community of Pratice model. What better than Web 2.0 technologies to facilitate collaborative communities constructing and sharing knowledge?

  • Robinson, B. (2008). Using distance education and ICT to improve access, equity and the quality in rural teachers’ professional development in western China. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1). Retrieved from the IRRODL website:

Research Summary 2: Social Network Services

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment

social network graph

The ubiquity of social network service (SNS) usage amongst adolescent students is changing the way in which teens communicate, socialise and construct their social identity. Further, the new forms that social spaces have taken have changed the set of skills that teens develop in the course of their daily lives. This has enormous implications for educators at many levels, as students and curricula demands are both changing.

In this essay I will provide a brief overview of research into teen use of social network services.  I have also identified two areas of particular interest,  namely; the role of SNS in teen social identity formation; and informal learning opportunities through SNS.

Overview of teen SNS use in Australia

An outline of recent Australian research into teen usage of SNS is appropriate as it sets the scene for the following analysis. Further, the understanding of teen SNS use patterns portrayed in the media, web and some research is often based on perceptions and sweeping generalisations rather than solid data. The Australian Communication and Media Authority’s report (ACMA, 2009) provides a snapshot of SNS use based on survey data from 819 Australian students aged between eight and seventeen years old, and their parents. Survey data were collected during November 2008 adding timeliness to the other strengths of the research; wide scope; rigor and relevance.

The generalisation, that all teens are using SNS is defensible, as nine out of ten teens (12-17 y.o.) reporting usage. By late teens, the phenomenon is near ubiquitous with 97% of 16-17 year olds using at least one service. In this same age bracket, total site usage (a measure which incorporates both participation levels and the number of profiles per student) is 266%, indicative that teen usage is pervasive and extensive (ACMA, 2009), a statistic which demands attention from educators (and clearly, social researchers).

The motivations for teen (12-17 y.o.) SNS usage found by ACMA (2009), are revealing. Teens cite their principal reason for using social network services to be to socialising with friends they already know (85% cite reasons explicitly mentioning known friends). A small fraction of teens (4%) report that ‘making new friends’ is their primary motivation (with a further 13% citing this as a secondary or tertiary motive)(ACMA, 2009). This finding is clear yet runs against the common perception of SNS, particular the emotive ‘stranger danger’ fear-mongering employed by certain media outlets. This is a misconception of SNS. As Danah Boyd put it, SNS is about

“marking and relating to the people you already knew. They weren’t about social network-ing, (and that’s actually where I think the media’s confused a lot of things). They are social network sites. They are a place where you actually build and model your social network, not where you engage in  network-ing. The goal isn’t meeting people: The goal is socialising.” (punctuation and italics added to reflect emphasis in oral delivery) (Boyd, 2007a)

A further result of note is the rate of uptake of privacy settings amongst teens (12-17y.o.).  A majority (69%) of teens make use of private settings on social network services, leaving 24% who do not and 7% who are unsure (ACMA, 2009). Whether this warrants the 77% of parents (ACMA, 2009) who claim to worry about their children’s information being in the public domain is a question for parents, yet the disparity between these statistics is interesting and perhaps indicative of a lack of clear communication and guidance on these issues (though this is merely speculation, the report offers no explanation).

Social Identity Construction

So why is hanging out with friends (that you already see at school all day) so important? Danah Boyd is a key researcher in the field and I (along with many other researchers) will follow her lead on this issue. Boyd’s argument centres on the development of social skills, clearly a hugely important domain of learning, yet one that is not always prominent in curricula.

“Helping children develop social skills is viewed as a reasonable educational endeavor in elementary school, but by high school, educators switch to more “serious” subjects. Yet, youth aren’t done learning about the social world.” (Boyd, 2009).

Further, argues Boyd, the level of structure imposed on modern teen life precludes any unstructured socialising and this has seen the death of public spaces where teens can simply ‘hang-out’. Teens are using social network services to provide an important public social space where much informal learning is done. As such, SNS are hugely important, providing an environment where teens can experiement, make social mistakes and learn from those of others; ultimately playing an importnat role in teen social identity formation.

Social researchers (such as Boyd) and those in advertising (eg. Gangadharbatla, 2008) have realised the importance of SNS in teen identity formation. Advertisers use this knowledge when marketing to teens, as they will readily uptake products if they can help teens work out who they are and proclaim their identity (MacPhearson, 2007). Educators could learn valuable lessons when attempting a foray into SNS for formal learning. Tasks should be designed to align with existing teen SNS usage such that they encourage self expression, social collaboration and strengthening self identity, motivating students to engage with the task.

A brief aside. It was a comment in a recent Australian report on ICT access for marginalised youth (Blanchard, Metcalf, & Burns, 2007) that first got me interested in this topic (whilst researching for my previous summary – see relevant post). Whilst SNS is important in social identity formation for the majority of teens, those without access at home (an thus subject to filtered internet access at school) are further marginalised and do not have this opportunity: Yet another manifestation of the digital divide. Perhaps schools should reconsider their motives for filtering internet content.

Informal learning and pedagogical implications of SNS

Teens develop valuable skills through their online experiences (just as with those offline), an example of informal learning. That these skills are valuable and highly relevant to contemporary society is indubitable. Skills that digital natives bring to school include collaborative problem solving, collaborative research and authoring, advanced communication skills and teamwork skills. These skills are brought to school, yet they may not be used within the confines of a traditional classroom or curriculum.

In her recent monograph, Kathryn Moyle (2010) states that;

“the ubiquity of several technologies, and the robustness of young people’s abilities to communicate and collaborate, presents challenges for educators and stakeholders about how they conceive of schools. Indeed, it is time to reconsider what is a school and in what ways it can best fulfil its roles.” (p.39)

Moyle argues that the challenge for educators is to design formal learning tasks such that students can further develop and apply web-learnt skills in new settings. This is no small feat, yet the problem is not entirely new. The presence of general, interdisciplinary skills in modern curricula such as the ACT’s Every Chance to Learn curriculum framework (ACT Government, 2007), require teachers to design tasks and content to facilitate the transfer of general capabilities across discipline boundaries (Moyle, 2010). How, for example, can we expect students to apply their informal learning of collaborative, project-based problem solving skills learned from playing MMOG in the classroom? Boyd (2007b) suggest that a bi-directional approach to learning is required in this context and that teachers should not be afraid to learn from students such that we can better support them.

In my opinion, this problem demands a democratic approach to curriculum implementation such that students have input into how and what they learn. This must be coupled with an increased focus on meta-cognition, affording a reflective insight into the skills teens are using in their infromal, online learning. The rich task model (Education Queensland, 2001) could be used in this context to engage students to extend their interdisciplinary skills, whilst meeting disciplinary requirements.


Australian teens are heavy users of social network services. Through their online interactions, teens are not only learning in ways they currently do not at school but further, shaping their identities. To dismiss SNS as trivial or a passing fad would be both ignorant and a missed opportunity of enormous proportions. As educators, we must at the very least, give this media the respect and thought it deserves: At best, this is an opportunity to learn from our students, to rethink curriculum, and launch into a new pedagogy which re-engages our youth.


(ACMA, 2009)

Revisiting the digital divide: identity formation

March 28, 2010 Leave a comment


I’m revisiting an Australian report I read as part of my first research topic (see relevant post here). It wasn’t that relevant to the topic (open source textbooks), but it got me thinking in a way I hadn’t before (which is a good thing 🙂 ). I doubt I would have attached great value to this without having heard Danah Boyd talk on social identity.

The report gives a rather standard account of teen identity formation using social media. What is really interesting is how access issues relate to this phenomenon. Schools, library and other places where students can use internet for free, frequently block content including social network sites.  “This has particular implications for young people’s identity formation and social relationships if school is their only internet access point” (p.19).

So whilst teen social identity formation through social networks sites is an interesting topic of study, it is important to remember that some teens are excluded from this process. Unfortunately, as summed up by Danah Boyd, ” if you’re not on my space, you don’t exist”. The extent to which this is true in different social settings is debatable, yet the message is clear and the divide very real.

Blanchard, M., Metcalf, A., Burns, J.M. (2007) Bridging the digital divide: creating opportunities for marginalised young people to get connected’ Report for the Inspire Foundation and OrygenYouth Health Research Centre, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Research summary 1 : Open source textbooks

March 11, 2010 5 comments

book shelf

Open source textbooks.

The problems in the textbook industry are manifold and well documented (Rube 2005, Harley et al. 2010). Aggressive pricing strategies, and short edition cycles are keeping an industry afloat using an old world business model. Enabled by advances in ICT, the concept of open source textbooks has arisen (or so it may appear on surface value) as a response to the financial pressure on students and their communities (eg. The student PIRGS, n.d.; California Open Source Textbook Project, 2002).

The term ‘open source’, refers to the way in which content can be legally used. The advent of legal structures such as the Creative Commons licence allow users to legally reproduce, alter, remix and redistribute content at no cost (Baraniuk 2006, Creative Commons Australia, n.d.), however the benefits of open source extend beyond that of price. Open source refers to free content, where the free is;

a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer” (Free Software Foundation, 2010).

In terms of open source textbooks, this liberty (to copy, modify and redistribute) has the potential to make huge impacts not just on costs, but on how we teach and how students are given access to knowledge.

Open textbooks take many forms, from simple digital replications of traditional textbook formats, to highly modular, flexible and interactive repositories of knowledge (Baraniuk 2006, Frith 2009). Connexions, a market leader (Frith 2009) features content from respected, commissioned authors, presented in modular ‘chunks’, allowing users to create custom made textbooks to support their own courses (Baraniuk 2006).

Quality assurance.

One of the greatest concerns about open source textbooks amongst teachers, administrators and the greater community is the the issue of quality control (Harley et al. 2010, De Koenigsberg 2010). Truly opening access to authorship leads to the situation where ‘anyone can contribute anything’ (Baraniuk 2006). Though this has huge potential, it also raises the issue of quality assurance. In my opinion, how well this issue is dealt with will ultimately define the success of the movement, and whether the move to open source is viewed as a economic imperative, or a truly pedagogical imperative.

Various platforms use different quality assurance mechanisms (Frith 2009) usually limited to the following (or some combination thereof) ; reputation and endorsement; centralised peer review; and user review (Hylén 2006). The most successful platforms such as Connexions use a combination of approaches which assure high quality resources without compromising the open ideology (Connexions 2007, Frith 2009).

Further to their role as quality assurance mechanisms, aspects such as authorial attribution and user feedback have positve effects in other realms. Authorial attribution acts as a strong motivation for creating content (Stewart 2009, Seidel 2009) perhaps to offset the diminished financial gain from publication. I believe that user feedback has the potential to become much more than a QA measure as teachers are able to share ideas on how they used a resource effectively. In this sense, such a system would provide another powerful community based tool for knowledge sharing (in this case, pedagogical).

Digital divide

A common perception of the open source movement, is that it will lead to the reduction, or removal, of price-barriers to knowledge and may close the knowledge divide (Kurshan 2007), gaps between access to quality education of different groups in society. Despite the successes in closing the traditional digital divide (access to computer hardware), a new digital divide is opening for a small minority, in terms of their ability to access knowledge (Green & Hannon 2007) . With respect to open textbooks, the issue of access to computers and high-speed Internet in the home are crucial when considering a truer picture of access to knowledge. In California, where an open textbook project is currently being rolled out, there are real fears that poor students will be at a disadvantage (Lewin 2009) in the move to open textbooks.

This problem can be alleviated to some extent as the move towards one-to-one computing is actualised. In Australia for example, the federal government has committed to having a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio by the end of 2011 (Gillard 2008, Rudd 2009). In my opinion, Australia would provide near-ideal conditions for trialling open source texts as students should not be limited by access to hardware (though others have made the link between one-to-one computing and open source textbooks (Platoni 2009)). Further, the realisation of the national curriculum will bring about a necessity for publishers to revise existing textbooks, and has created a genuine opportunity for change in current curriculum implementation and pedagogy.

Other issues in relation to the digital divide go beyond that of our western perspective. The ability of open textbooks to provide quality content to the developing world has been lauded (Foster 2008). Open licensing allows texts to be freely translated, or for examples to be edited to include culturally relevant material (Baraniuk 2006). Though this appears to be a great solution, it is difficult to gauge the impact, and scale of this movement. The appearance and growth of a number of open text platforms specifically for the developing world (for example, Free High School Science Texts n.d.) is simultaneously encouraging and disturbing. Access to knowledge in the developing world is increasing, however the existence of specific platforms to serve only the developing world may create a two-tier system, perpetuating inequity in access to knowledge.

Implications for educators

Beyond the social dimension, there are some huge implications for educators. Moving to open textbooks whilst maintaining the dominant teacher-centric model will have little effect on digital literacy, and represents a missed opportunity (Geser 2007). Arguably the greatest value in the open textbook movement is that it signals a move away from traditional textbooks, creating an opportunity for highly interactive and customisable education resources which promote a collaborative and creative approach to learning (Geser 2007, Kenney 2009, Frith 2009). Further, the complete open access to authorship in some platforms allow for a constructivist approach to learning (Frith 2009) and a democratic approach to curriculum as students can engage in course design and the construction and editing of textbook materials.

Yet, to realise this opportunity to step away from the limitations of traditional textbooks requires structural change. In his decade-old paper on the use of computers in education, Robert Tinker comments on the nature of technological revolutions.

Every revolutionary technology starts with a whimper. Its full revolutionary bang is realized only later after fundamental structural changes are made to accommodate the new technology. (Tinker 2000)

and specifically with reference to computers in education

We are, nevertheless, overdue for a surge in education performance driven by the technology, as soon as we are willing to make the necessary structural changes. This will profoundly improve education.(Tinker 2000)

These comments are still highly relevant today, especially with reference to the open source movement. In my mind, the changes which are required to fully embrace open source texts, not just as a cheap alternative, but as the basis of a revolution in how teaching and learning resources are constructed, shared and used, are yet to come but will radically change the education landscape.

What I have described in this brief report is Tinker’s ‘whimper’. I look forward to the ‘bang’.


  • Baraniuk, R. (2006). Richard Baraniuk on open-source learning [Video file]. Retrieved from OR
  • California Open Source Textbook Project. (2002). Retrieved from
  • Connexions. (2007). Introducing Content Reviewing with Lenses. Retrieved from
  • Creative Commons Australia. (n.d.). Creative Commons Licences, Retrieved from
  • De Koenigsberg, G. (2010). Open source textbooks a “threat” to Texas education?, Retrieved from
  • Foster, A.L. (2008). Providing Online Textbooks to the Developing World Education Digest, vol. 73, no. 7, pp 14-16
  • Free High School Science Texts. (n.d.). Welcome to the FHSST Workspace, Retrieved from
  • Free Software Foundation. (2010). The GNU operating system, Retrieved from
  • Frith, J. (2009). The Open Revolution: An Environmental Scan of the Open Textbook Landscape. Commisioned by North Carolina State University, NSCU Libraries Digital Scholarship & Publishing Center, Retrieved from
  • Geser, G. (Ed.). (2007). Open Educational Practices and Resources: The OLCOS Roadmap 2012 Salzburg Research, EduMedia Group. Salzburg
  • Gillard, J. (2008, March 5) National Secondary School Computer Fund: Round One, Media Release, Canberra, Australia
  • Green, H. and Hannon, C. (2007). Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation, Commissioned by Demos, London
  • Harley, D., Lawrence, S., Acord, S.K. and Dixson, J. (2010). ‘Affordable and Open Textbooks: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Attitudes’, Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley
  • Hylén, J. (2006). Open Educational Resources: Opportunities and Challenges. Commissioned by OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation,Paris, France. Retrieved from
  • Kenney, B. (2009, September). As Goes California: A flawed initiative could become a fabulous opportunity, School Library Journal
  • Kurshan, B. (2007). How Open-Source Curricula Could Bridge the Education Divide, Connection: The Journal of the New England Board of Higher Education, Winter ed.
  • Lewin,T. (2009, August 8 ). In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History, NY Times
  • Platoni, K. (2009, Dec/Jan). California Embraces Open Source Digital Textbooks, Edutopia, Retrieved from
  • Rube, K. (2005). Ripoff 101: How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs – A National Survey of Textbook Prices (2nd ed.), State Public Interest Research Groups
  • Rudd, K. (2009). Digital Education Revolution National Partnership, Canberra, Australia
  • Seidel, K. (2009). Online Textbooks Deliver Timely, Real-World Content, EDUCAUSE Reviw, vol 44., no.1
  • Stewart, R. (2009). Some Thoughts on Free Textbooks, EDUCAUSE Reviw, vol 44., no.1
  • The Student PIRGs (Public Research Interest Groups). (n.d.). Make Textbooks Affordable, Retrieved from
  • Tinker, R. (2000). Ice Machines, Steamboats, and Education: Structural Change and Educational Technologies. In proceedings: The Secretary’s Conference on Educational Technology, Alexandria, VA

Digital divide in California

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

'Divide' text

The following quote and information are from an NY times article Lewin,T.  ‘In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History‘, NY Times

I will include a quick quote from Tim Ward, a senior education administrator in California.

A large portion of our kids don’t have computers at home, and it would be way too costly to print out the digital textbooks

This statement encapsulates the issues of the ‘new digital divide’ described by Green, H. & Hannon, C. 2007, ‘Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation‘ (see my previous post on this report).

Australia as laboratory?

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Syndey Harbour night panorama

Rudd’s laptop policy may make Australia an ideal place to test out opensource textbooks. If every grade 9-12 has their own laptop then the ‘old’ digital divide (access to hardware) won’t be such an issue. With the national curriculum coming in, this might be our chance to try something radical.

Just when I thought I’d had an original idea, see the link below for another link between the relevance of 1:1 computing and the open source movement

“There’s desperation with the budget in California right now,” Bridges says. “The digital textbook initiative would merge well with a one-to-one model, but there aren’t any funds to make that happen.”

Platoni, K. (2009, Dec/Jan). California Embraces Open Source Digital Textbooks, Edutopia, Retrieved from

An open source text : on the digital divide

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Wire fence

How appropriate,

I read a chpater from the fairly comprehensive (though slightly dated) text;

Poole, J.B., Sky-McIlvain, E., Jackson, L. and Singer, Y., 2006 ‘Education for an Information Age: Teaching in the Computerized Classroom’, 6th Edition

the text is freely available online as part of The Global Text Project.

This text cites Pillar’s two decade old work;

“Computer-based education in poor schools is in deep trouble. Not only did these schools lack the funds and skills to finance the maintenance of their computer hardware. They also lacked the training to make the best use of the machines. “In most cases,” Pillar concluded, “computers simply perpetuate a two-tier system of education for rich and poor.”

Times have changed, and the issue has shifted from a hardware to a knowledge domain yet perhaps we are perpetuating societal divide

Read on for tangent / rant:

Strangely, the GTP website states that all material will be released under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution licence (sharing and remixing are legal provided the author is attributed) yet examining the legal disclaimer of the text, this is not the case. It is a DIY style ‘conditions of use’ statement which allows free use but no remixing. Further, the familiar Copyright © Bernard John Poole, Betsy Sky-McIlvain, Lorrie Jackson, Yvonne Singer, 2006, all rights reserved appears on each page. Make up your mind; either you are or you aren’t!

Education for an Information Age
Teaching in the Computerized Classroom
6th Edition