Book finds teachers’ digital expectations for students impacted by race, class

Photo of a desk with a notebook, calculator, and computer
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A book recently published by UC Berkeley visiting scholar Matt Rafalow centers around his research concerning how race and class can color teachers’ digital expectations for their students, with white students receiving more encouragement.

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Matt Rafalow, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, recently published a book describing how race and class impact teachers’ digital expectations for their students

For “Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era,” Rafalow researched three middle schools in California, each equipped with similar technological infrastructure but composed of different demographic makeups.

While the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has recently given rise to conversations about digital learning in many communities, Rafalow’s research was conducted many years prior, during the 2013-2014 academic year.

Technological use, even video games and social media, was viewed by teachers at a school largely composed of wealthy, white students as being “essential to learning,” Rafalow said in an email.

According to Rafalow, at a middle-class, predominantly Asian American school, teachers viewed their students’ use of technology as “threatening” to learning.

Lastly, at a school where Latino students from mainly working-class families made up a large portion of the student body, teachers primarily saw digital pursuits as “irrelevant” to educational endeavors.

“Teachers and administrators truly are trying to do the best for their students,” Rafalow said in the email. “Yet I don’t think they quite realize how living in a society that circulates such horrible stereotypes about students of color and students from lower socioeconomic contexts can trickle into the classroom and into their teaching.”

Growing up in a time when digital technologies were more on the fringes of society, Rafalow said in the email, he was considered a “pretty geeky kid” for having an interest in technology. Additionally, as a son of two teachers, education has always been a cornerstone of Rafalow’s upbringing.

These experiences contributed to Rafalow’s curiosity about how young people’s use of technology today impacts their educational success.

“The path to students’ success in schools is due neither just to closing digital divides nor to addressing “unequal childhoods” — these students all showed up at school with some digital proficiencies,” Rafalow said in the email. “But teachers operated as gatekeepers who determined whether students’ digital activities were permissible and could be nurtured in the classroom.”

As possible remedies to address disparities in teachers’ digital expectation, Rafalow suggested that schools provide teachers with more professional development workshops to reflect upon these issues, adding that teachers must strive to confront their own personal biases and predispositioned notions. Having a more diverse teacher population would likely help alleviate the unequal treatment of students, Rafalow added.

According to Rafalow, rather than assuming that students’ technological pursuits are “frivolous,” educators should work to translate those interests into opportunities for learning.

“Embracing this framework would be an important step away from making different assumptions about the value of these activities depending on the race or class of their student body,” Rafalow said in the email.

Contact Kaleo Mark at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kaleomark_dc.