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Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing and Technology in the Classroom

reviewed by Thomas Andrew - 2005

coverTitle: Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing and Technology in the Classroom
Author(s): Barbara Monroe
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080774462X, Pages: 154, Year: 2004
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As its title suggests, Barbara Monroe’s Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing and Technology in the Classroom itself bridges divides between several subjects and disciplinary frameworks of interest to educators. Although it situates its discussion in a society marked by differences in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs),

Monroe ’s book is predominantly concerned with issues of teaching English in low-income and multi-ethnic settings. She writes for English teachers and qualitative sociolinguists first, and for instructional technologists and policy makers second. 

The book is structured around three case studies, but before describing the cases, Monroe dissects some of the dominant discourse of the digital divide. By interpreting the subtext of the reports published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the late 1990s, Monroe argues that the most common conceptualization of this disparity was as a policy problem, to be viewed from a macro perspective. This approach was driven by a motivation on the part of national policy makers to make access to ICTs universal in order to promote economic growth. 

For Monroe , however, the digital divide is just one more manifestation of the economic, ethnic, cultural and geographical divides that rend American society. It is less a curable social ill than a permanent feature of the social terrain (at least in our lifetimes). By defining it as a condition, Monroe makes the digital divide a setting in which language use is situated. Her insight is to realize that ICTs affect language practices. This insight allows Monroe to use the tools of the sociolinguist to analyze online communication. The digital divide mirrors linguistic divides. Conversely, to cross the digital divide is to connect linguistically isolated groups.

In her first case study, Monroe discusses a “cybermentoring” project between mostly white undergraduate students at the University of Michigan and high school English students at a low-income school in Detroit . The college students had e-mail correspondence with the high school students and critiqued some of these students’ written work as well. Monroe conducted discourse analysis on these texts and makes a number of observations about the interactions between these two groups concerning language socialization and different cultural notions of how people should talk about themselves. She also makes two observations having to do specifically with the medium across which these messages were sent. First, she observes that e-mail, despite what many people want to believe, is a public medium. The high school students routinely read e-mail they received from their college cybermentors out loud to their classmates. Second, Monroe claims inner-city Detroit youth are linguistically isolated from mainstream America ; they practice literacy behaviors at home and in their communities that are not privileged in school. They live on one side of a language divide. Building a digital bridge across the linguistic divide, Monroe argues, can be a powerful way to connect groups with different language practices.

The book’s second case study is also an exploration of building bridges across linguistic and cultural divides, but this time the gap is between working-class Latinos and American Indians. Students from a large, predominantly Latino school share a prompted, threaded discussion group with students from a small American Indian school. Both schools have low IT capabilities.

Monroe explains the political differences that divide the Indians, who want to breach dams to restore ancient fishing runs, from the Latinos, who make their living from the agriculture the dams make possible. Thus, though these schools are geographically proximate and on the same side, so to speak, of the digital divide, they are divided culturally, linguistically, and politically.Monroe contends this sociocultural, political, and economic context, coupled with the capabilities of online discussion, open opportunities for engagement with important issues that can lead to critical literacy. Yet, low levels of sporadic access and norms of politeness contributed to a lack of critical engagement. Most importantly, tyranny of the majority shut down debate. Online discussion boards are like mass meetings in Monroe ’s telling. Dissenting voices are “drowned out by the cacophony of voices, where the number of similar responses tends to count as the winning option.” Here, again, Monroe skillfully exposes the interplay between cultural factors and the affordances of digital communications technologies.

The last case study, which recounts the story of two seventh grade classes and thirty papers, is an explanation of home literacy practices in which Monroe fleshes out her pedagogical philosophy. Monroe argues persuasively that language practices at home predict student performance in school, but that teachers who consider this non-standard, or non-academic literacy behavior to be prior knowledge, or in Luis Moll’s term, funds of knowledge, onto which can be layered academic literacy behavior, can improve performance. Referencing the ethnographic work of Shirley Brice Heath, Monroe makes a case that television, popular movies, and other genres from entertainment culture are the bedtime stories of many American youths. Teachers can leverage these forms of language use, which many children grow up understanding, to teach academic English.

Though not the primary audience, instructional technologists may be drawn to this book, but as technology enthusiasts, they will surely find Monroe ’s final conclusions discouraging. Checking on the schools that feature in the case studies, Monroe finds—and describes in her final chapter—disintegrating conditions at all but the Indian school, where progress is present, but glacial. 

Ominously, the conclusion Monroe reluctantly admits is that schools are not making much use of ICTs at all, let alone is the educational system beginning to understand how it needs to change in response to the changing media and information environment. Scholars of the social aspects of technology have shown us that technology’s users and its uses, its success in the marketplace, and political struggles around its adoption shape it. The ICTs mentioned in Monroe ’s book are being forged by popular culture and in the business world. There they become instruments of entertainment and corporate control. Teachers themselves can choose to use technologies to either constrain student behavior or to empower students to exercise their own control. Monroe shows through her cases that the latter is a real possibility, but only if teachers themselves join in the process of re-purposing technology for their own progressive aims. Evidence points to a losing trend: IT staff, more interested in control and surveillance than in teaching and learning, command the lead at school. Outside school, entertainment companies are growing to dominate youth experiences online just as they do offline. A new divide between those who seek to use technology to control others and those who want to realize its potential to empower everyone is opening even as we learn to cross the other divides in our society.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 339-342
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11380, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 4:42:03 AM

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