Technically Digital Native: The Growing Technology Gap in Gen Z

Imagine you are doing your math homework on your iPad, plodding along, and suddenly – unprompted and as if coming from some unseen Math Fairy – writing appears on the screen.  “Check your work…” it says and then magically circles an area of the problem where there is an issue.  You go back, look at your calculations, and see an error that you are able to correct.  This is how homework is done in the school system I currently live in, a district ranked at the top of the state.  Teachers can log into the system and see data and writing being input live by their students from home.  Students are able to ‘raise their hand’ virtually and get answers to questions, or teachers can quietly monitor and pop in to help as they see fit (which resulted in some funny stories such as the teacher who typed “Boo!” testing out the new system while a child was doing homework side-by-side with an unsuspecting parent).

Contrast that amazing and interactive technology to the school system in a city such as Fall River which, while improving, remains in the bottom 15% of the state.  Resources are nowhere near as abundant and many kids do not have access to, or knowledge of, the technology they must master in order to keep pace with peers. Even tasks which we don’t think of as requiring technology, such as writing, are evolving to a point where a certain comfort level with technology is mandatory.  I spoke with a grammar school teacher in the district who was lamenting the fact that the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System standardized testing) long composition essays for 4th graders this year must be written on a computer.  “These kids are working hard to gather their thoughts, structure an essay, think about grammar and spelling…..and now they will have the added stress of having to type.”  I hadn’t considered that point before, but learning to efficiently use a keyboard takes practice, and practice takes access.  She goes on to say that “keyboarding should be taught right along with printing” in kindergarten.  Given that we live in a world where comfort with technology is increasingly required not just to compete but to simply stay afloat, her logic seems sound.

Spending more per student doesn’t automatically guarantee a higher ranked school district.  In Massachusetts for example, two districts with some of the lowest spend per pupil (East Bridgewater at $10,400 and Grafton at $11,043) last year have dramatically different rankings this year (#178 and #65 respectively).  Similarly, Lexington is the school system ranked #1 and yet the average spend per pupil of $17,867 is significantly lower than some of the highest districts such as Martha’s Vineyard at $27,614 and Cambridge $27,569 (ranked #76 and #13 respectively).  While there are multiple factors affecting student performance that go beyond spending (including, importantly, parental involvement), spending that varies significantly (by 10% in my rough analysis) between the top and bottom quartile schools affects a district’s ability to keep pace with technology.

Earlier this year the New York Times wrote an article speaking to the growing digital divide, citing that one-third of kindergarteners through twelfth graders in in the United States from low-income and rural households are unable to go online from home.  That presents enormous learning challenges but is only part of the problem. “These kids are not even in school yet and they are already at a disadvantage,” said Chris, a 20-year veteran educator who teaches digital learning at one of the lower income school districts in the state during a recent conversation.  Like compounding interest, starting early in terms of technology will pay off
exponentially in the long-run.  Not mastering the fundamentals at an early age results in a never-ending game of catch-up.

Many homes in lower income areas do have online access, but they don’t have the right type of access (for example, they instead rely on mobile access through smart phones), or have slow and poor quality access.  USA Today refers to this as being “under-connected” and goes on to quote Professor Katz from Rutgers University explaining that “many low-cost connectivity programs sound great on paper but are problematic in real life”, providing slow access, an Ethernet cord to a single device and no easy way to add wifi services.

We need to find a way to bridge this digital gap to tap into the full potential of our countries greatest asset – our citizens.  Programs such as ConnectEd and ConnectALL are steps in a positive direction and have helped millions of Americans get better access to technology.  However, adoption is slow while the rate and pace of technology developments and integration continue to move at warp speed.

Globally there are interesting initiatives underway.  For example, Internet.org launched in 2013 by Mark Zuckerberg in partnership with several telecommunications companies brings online access to the developing world.  The Maendeleo Foundation is bringing solar-powered technology to remote locations in East Africa.  Domestically there are many organizations working to bring technology access to lower income youth such as Computers4Kids.net in Virginia or Computermentors.org in Florida.

Assuming that Digital Natives can get access, the opportunity for education both in the US and globally is exploding.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) continue to grow. Kahn Academy is a well-known name throughout Gen Z, is offering free, high-quality online courses and tutorials on a wide variety of topics across disciplines such as math, science, computer programming, history, economics among others.  Additionally, prestigious organizations and universities are offering their knowledge to anyone with an internet connection and the desire to learn. For example, it is now possible to take classes virtually from MIT.   Last year, Fortune wrote about Laurie Pickard’s journey to earn an MBA entirely through MOOCS. (she has since founded an organization, NoPayMBA.com, to help others looking to do the same).

All of this is changing the way education works, and the impact over the next two decades is likely to be astonishing.  If we can close the digital divide, and ensure equal online and device access, the natural result will be a leveling of opportunity.  Traditional paths to success, like a college education, may no longer be as valuable.  Additionally, broad access to education can change the balance globally between have and have-not countries with enormous potential impact on people’s lives.

Ensuring our Digital Natives have the tools they need to master fundamental technology skills is akin to ensuring fish have water.  It is critical not only to their success but to the strength and health of our society as a whole.

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