The Digital Divide and Social Justice

The Overconsumption of Technology and Opportunity to Transform Learning

S. Otto Khera

New Mexico State University, PhD. Student

Fall 2016, EDLT 616

Image courtesy of David Wortley (2016)

“Technology,” notably “disruptive technology” as defined by Clayton Christensen has been identified as a game changer for education (Christensen, 2011; Oblinger, 2012; Peters, 2003). Networked, multimedia, and other communication technologies offer the promise of greater access to education among the marginalized, those with scarce resources including money, time and mobility; and to the many living in poverty in this world (Borgman, 2000; Dutta et. al., 2003). Since the mid-1990s we have seen the battle lines drawn and sincere efforts to provide “access to technology” for all learners (Ebo, 1998; Eubanks, 2012). Whole government programs like the E-Rate for schools and libraries and more recently ConnectED explicitly seek to close the so-called “Digital Divide” with the refrain that doing so will empower everyone to get an education, job, and enable participation in civic and political life (ConnectED, 2013).

Yet there are troubling signs everywhere relating to technology and its failure. The real challenge appears to be overconsumption of technologies rather than access per se. Globally it is clear that the dominant transportation and mobility technologies of cars, trucks, and other motorized vehicles are creating significant problems ranging from global warming, health, safety, community and environmental degradation, and general unhappiness as commute times become ever longer and traffic increasingly more congested (Frank et. al., 2003). Similarly, we see the increase in sedentary screen time among all ages, and especially youth who are becoming addicted to computer, smartphone and related screens in greater numbers (Brody, 2015). Together, these two types of technologies contribute significantly to the dismal data that points to a sedentary lifestyle (Nelson & Gordon-Larsen, 2006), and therefore an unhealthy society where since 2012 half of all Americans suffer from a chronic illness or disease such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. This national health crisis has prompted the United States Surgeon General to request that we Americans Step it Up! by exercising more and living a more active and healthy life.

While Pokémon GO! Offers an example of screen-based technology that does get people to walk outdoors, or to ride a bike and walk, we need educational institutions and those groups that support the use of instructional, educational, research, and administrative technologies to coalesce around the notion that they are in fact responsible for guiding the appropriate use of technology. This means owning up to the deleterious effects of screen-based technologies, whether as a contributor to sedentary life, or as having poor health effects relating to eyesight, sleep, and therefore cognition. We need to see universities, colleges, and K-12 institutions actively engage more walking, bicycling, and generally a more active student body that commutes to campus in more healthy, less environmentally degrading ways that sap our communities and residents of health, happiness, safety, and overall resilience. This can be done with relative ease and with a keen eye to connecting to the curriculum such as using a platform such as Ride Amigos or one based upon Stanford’s CAPRI platform — both of which allow institutions and campuses to offer employees and students a way to be rewarded for improving their daily commuting habits by walking, bicycling, ridesharing, using public transit, or not traveling as much altogether.

Perhaps even more importantly, we need to see those professional and research groups that support education’s use of technologies to address the realities around technology and instructional technologies. Nowhere in the joint New Media Consortium – EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) annual instructional technology Horizon Report publications for universities, schools, museums, libraries, and more, do we see evidence of concern for or recognition of technology’s deleterious effects upon learners and communities. In fact, a perusal of the different Horizon Reports suggests that we have little or no need for social justice in education, and that most learners who engage technology are White. Similar to the kinds of broad assumptions made by those like Mark Prensky and his “digital natives” nomenclature and Don Tapscott whose Growing Up Digital (2008) and The Net Generation Takes the Lead (2009) suggest already in the title that today’s youth have a more robust connection, understanding, and set of practices around “digital technology” than others, these assumptions may be dead wrong. Evidence suggests otherwise, and challenges the very notion of “digital natives”:

While the use of technologies is limited in terms of the range and the nature, there is some evidence that younger students use some tools more actively than the older students, but neither of these two groups uses these technologies to support their learning effectively. Educators therefore cannot presume that all young students are “digital natives” who understand how to use technology to support and enhance their learning (Margaryan et. al., 2011, p. 22).

While we do see evidence of “a significant positive small to moderate effect size favoring the utilization of technology in the experimental condition over more traditional instructions” over the past 40 years since 1985 (2011, Tamim, et. al., p. 16), these same researchers who methodically reviewed research literature based on performance and other learning outcomes suggest that we should move beyond a “technology/no technology” research comparison given that “it is arguable that it is aspects of the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, subject matter, age level, fidelity of technology implementation, and possibly other factors that may represent more powerful influences on effect sizes than the nature of the technology intervention” (p. 17). In other words, there still exist significant practical and research questions before we can assume that we are beyond the “no significant difference” regarding learning from media as concluded by Clark (1983).

Today we know that we cannot simply avoid modern technologies such as automobiles, smartphones, computers, and electronic networks any more than we can avoid the common cold . As with reducing our chances of catching a cold by washing our hands more often and diligently and sterilizing our dishes in a dishwasher rather than hand washing our dirty dishes, we can though reduce the negative effects of technology by reducing our consumption of technologies and using it more effectively and with purpose. For example, “Private vehicles like cars, pick-up trucks, and SUVs, account for 60 percent of trips of a mile or less,” according to the Federal Highway Administration of the US Department of Transportation (League of American Bicyclists, 2010). Relatedly, somewhere between 28% and 40% of total trips are two miles or less. If all capable, walked or bicycled for such two miles or less trips, we could reduce our use of private vehicles by up to 40% and that is achieved without any infrastructure changes. Such a reduction would be meaningful as setting a global leadership example that helps reduce motor vehicle travel, the number one contributor to CO2 emissions associated with climate change since February 2016 according to the U.S. Department of Energy (before early this year, the biggest CO2 contributors have been energy power plants).

Behavior modification is critical to solving real-world problems such as climate change, and there exists a direct connection to education, learning, and technology. A realization that the local and known place and context serves as an environment in which to participate and from which to construct knowledge, represent and engage in discourse, assess, self assess and reflect upon as social and transactional place; is critical to empowering our learners with agency and the ability to engage these problems with meaning and impact. But for this to happen, we must see our schools, higher learning institutions, and technology research support groups step up to the proverbial plate. Today we have more of these groups involved in cheerleading and schmoozing with vendors than fulfilling their functions as critical research, teaching, and learning institutions that can offer a new model for learning and research, supported by technology. This is too bad, since we know from Pokémon GO! and other technologies that it is possible to activate people to engage their environment — we need only now apply this to a meaningful learning experience that challenges the status quo, including our current, very tired, very sedentary, very interior classroom model of learning.


Borgman, C. L. (2000). From Gutenberg to the global information infrastructure: access to information in the networked world. Mit Press.

Brody, J. (2015). Screen addiction is taking a toll on children. The New York Times.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M., & Johnson, C. (2008). Disrupting class. How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns Mc Grow Hill.

Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of educational research, 53(4), 445-459.

ConnectED. (2013, June 15). Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Dutta, S., Lanvin, B., & Paua, F. (2003). The global information technology report 2002-2003: Readiness for the networked world. Oxford University Press, USA.

Ebo, B. L. (1998). Cyberghetto or cybertopia?: race, class, and gender on the Internet. Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.

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League of American Bicyclists. (2010, October 22). National Household Travel Survey — short trips analysis. Retrieved September 04, 2016, from

Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A., & Vojt, G. (2011). Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies. Computers & Education, 56(2), 429-440.

Nelson, M. C., & Gordon-Larsen, P. (2006). Physical activity and sedentary behavior patterns are associated with selected adolescent health risk behaviors. Pediatrics, 117(4), 1281-1290.

New Media Consortium. (2002-2016). NMC Horizon Report 2002-2016 Higher Education Edition.

Oblinger, D. G. (2012). IT as a Game Changer. Game changers: education and information technologies, 37-52.

Peters, T. J. (2003). Re-imagine! (p. 352). London: Dorling Kindersley.

Tapscott, D. (2008). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing your world HC. McGraw-Hill.

Tapscott, D. (2009). The net generation takes the lead. DNAdigital–Wenn Anzugträger auf Kapuzenpullis treffen: Die Kunst aufeinander zuzugehen, 44-47.



5 thoughts on “The Digital Divide and Social Justice”

  1. Hi Otto,
    You’ve raised a number of interesting points in your post. I’m guilty of being one of those who drive about a mile to work each day and your discussion has challenged me to think about it. What role do you see the for some of the disruptive education classrooms playing in this? Do you think that Eubanks, with her claim that the real issues in the digital divide are based on “power, privilege, and oppression,” would agree that the problem is overconsumption?

    1. Oops, I forgot to add:
      Eubanks, V. (2012). Digital dead end: Fighting for social justice in the information age. MIT Press.

    2. I suspect that Eubanks might agree with the general idea that we are experiencing an overconsumption of technology; but suspect too that she might take issue with the notion that this is a bigger problem in the digital realm than access to digital technology itself. I do find that it does often come down to priorities — for all persons. I see often the emphasis in families that offspring purchase a car/vehicle/truck because credit is available and the idea is that one should “build up credit as early as possible.” The outcome though is often quite different, whereby the vehicle is impounded due to non-payment, leaving the buyer in bigger debt and with a poor debt rating than had they not purchased a vehicle to begin with – similar to the outcomes of various for-profit university enrollments that don’t materialize into a degree, notable is the Univ of Phoenix

      Similarly, the proportion of debt (or income going to decrease/pay off the debt) as a result of a vehicle purchase is enormous — and often unnecessary and the outcome of a culture (American and beyond) that encourages this and frowns upon public transit, bicycles, car sharing, and other very, very, very rational options that also work and contribute to better health (and therefore lowers our medical expenses).

      For example …

  2. You mentioned troubling signs related to technology and its failure. More specifically, the overconsumption of technologies as opposed to the lack of access to them. As I read this I found myself agreeing with your examples even before I read them. This is because I share the same perspective. Our youth, and adult Millennials, share a strong interest in digital entertainment instead of physical participation, which has affected their health, and motivation to participate in any activity requiring physical exertion. However, I wouldn’t call that a technology failure. I place the blame square on the laps of parents, guardians, and to some extend the community at large. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

    As a teacher I am often reminded by parents of how technology is used to babysit their children. It use to be shocking to me when a screaming baby wouldn’t stop crying until the parent gave them their smartphone – now it’s normal. The addiction begins at an early age, which makes it difficult to overcome. Perhaps even more detrimental is that many of these children grow up only knowing how to use technology for entertainment purposes as oppose to utilizing it for their academic development all-the-while their parents are praising their technology aptitude. I believe the remedy lies in the hands of parents, guardians, and the community. At some level each should feel compelled to participate change the negative affects of consumer technologies and questionable parenting. Whether through conversations, classes, or organized events we all need to turn this crisis around.

    1. Hi Hector! Thank you for your incisive observations. Yes, you are correct: this is not a technology failure per se, rather a human failure (parents, institutions, etc.) to moderate the use of technology. This is why I mention cars (motor vehicles). We are in an utter state of denial about the consequences of our existing transportation model. I am though confident that it will give way to a much less traffic-causing (much less traffic in an absolute sense with less cars / motor vehicles traveling) model that is being demonstrated by Uber and its “transportation as service” model — including the development and testing of fully autonomous (on demand) vehicles. When this happens, we will likely opt less to OWN a car/vehicle, and more for using the RIGHT vehicle for the RIGHT occasion. This same principle might happen in the future with screen-based technologies as we refine our use. But my point remains: WE are failing to use technology TODAY in a way that is reasonable.

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