Access ≠ Access, and Other Lessons from the Digital Divide

My college, like many other institutions of higher education, is working to increase the number of students who complete degrees and certificates in IT fields. We partner with high schools, external organizations, other colleges and universities, and industry. There is genuine enthusiasm for the goal and widespread agreement that information technology knowledge and skills are essential for many careers and professions in the twenty-first century.  We are also aware that student enrollment and completion does not reflect the diversity of our students. IT companies tell us that they are looking for more diversity in their workforce. Greater diversity means greater success. Everyone – high schools, community colleges, four-year institutions, and businesses, seem to want similar goals. So why aren’t there more African-Americans and Latinos graduating with IT degrees?

Stuck in the Shallow EndStuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing, written by Jane Margolis, a researcher at the School of Education at UCLA, and her team, focuses on answering just that question. The heart of the book is a deep study, funded by the NSF, of three Los Angeles high schools and minority participation in computer science. One of the schools is an overcrowded school with an almost exclusive Latino/a population. Another is a STEM aerospace magnet school with a most African-American student body. The third is more diverse school in a wealthier neighborhood. The authors take a hard look at everything around and about the computer science curriculum: who teaches, how they are prepared and supported, where and when courses are taught, who takes the courses and why, and how the school community thinks about technology and computer science. As the authors weave the answers together, readers are taught a lesson in how inequality happens and is perpetuated. There are no clear villains here. Instead, we see how difficult it is upset “deep-seated assumptions about race, equity, and excellence.”

The situations the authors examined are common to anyone familiar with underfunded and challenged public high schools. Technology in the form of computers and software was purchased and provided without meaningful understanding of curriculum. A hope, or more accurately, a wish undergirds the technology investment that simply having the machines around will somehow lift the students. Technology would enable and elevate. We do not make that mistake when it comes to chemistry, building labs and filling them with equipment and chemicals and hoping that students will work their way through the discipline. But with computers, the thinking is different. It is also prevalent, as anyone in education knows. We have all seen far too many attractive computer labs without curriculum, teachers or support to make them effective.

Stuck in the Shallow End shows how students of color who expressed interest in computers were frequently shuttled to word processing and skills courses, as opposed to more abstract computer science courses. A vocational emphasis will constrains student interest and ambition. Enrollment in computer science courses, especially the AP class, consistently had a hard time taking hold. Students in the IT skills courses know that they are missing something but they do not know what it is. Teachers are poorly prepared, if supported at all, and in an environment where there is tremendous pressure to see test scores rise, can a strapped school afford to experiment with computer science? The high schools were unable to build and sustain enough interest, enrollment and success to create a pathway recognizable to students.

Compounding problems included a lack of informed academic support. Students, teachers and counselors have unrealistically high expectations of what a student must bring to the table in order to be a successful computer science student. An absence of computer science or IT role models, in particular role models with whom students can identify, widens the gap. Further, when there was a critical mass of students and a more advanced computer science course was offered, researchers found the environment to be demeaning for those who had more to learn. The students further along clustered, leaving the rest of the class in a difficult position. The dynamics reinforced stereotypes about who was “good” at technology. At its most toxic, the computer science high school curriculum actually widened the academic distance between those that have and know (mostly whiter with higher economic status) versus those that do not have (mostly darker and poorer).

All of these barriers and frustrations led Margolis and her team to the history of swimming and segregation. It is a shameful and difficult history, but it also provides a lens to understand why students of color are not graduating high school with AP computer science credits. The book’s title is a powerful metaphor.

For centuries in the US, swimming – at beaches, lakes, and pools, was consistently segregated. Efforts by African-Americans to swim at the same time were vigorously resisted, often with violence. A race riot lasting several days in 1919 in Chicago was precipitated by African-American swimmers approaching a whites only beach. A white man threw rocks at African-American swimmers, leading the to the death of a teen. Police did not arrest the murderer and several days of violence ensued. Until the 1970s, whites only policies in municipal pools also kept other ethnic groups out of the water. Swimming was not taught to people of color. Reinforcing the dynamic, racist assumptions about people of color having a natural weakness in the water reinforced the negative stereotypes.

“The accumulation of a violent history, denied access, and common lore beliefs have contributed to a greater fear of water among African American adults,” Margolis writes. African American children drown at a higher rate than white children. There is no biological difference that makes one group better swimmers. Humans do not have an aquatic gene. Culture and practice have created a swimming problem and have perpetuated it.

Margolis does an outstanding job in identifying the many barriers, and their sources, that inhibit students of color from learning computer science in high school. It is an essential step, but as she notes, it is a difficult challenge to remedy. Today, the United States Olympic swimming team is not diverse. A commitment to equity carries with it high expectations and substantial burdens. It is an important lesson for all of us in education to remember when we search for quick solutions to difficult problems.

David Potash

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