Desmond Patton on Bridging the Digital Divide for New York City Schoolchildren in Pandemic’s Wake

May 8 @ 4:57 pm
By Communications Office

The pandemic is widening the digital divide, along with learning gaps, among school-age children in New York City. Desmond Patton delivers a social work perspective.

As director of the SAFELab and a member of Columbia’s Data Science Institute, Associate Professor Desmond Patton is often called upon to comment on the relationship between youth of color and technology.

As schools began closing their doors across New York City in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was summoned once again, this time to provide a social work perspective on the widening digital divide being experienced by school-age children who lack tech access. He served as one of the panelists at a virtual town hall on on technology disparities and possible solutions for increased access. Moderated by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, it included not only Patton but also Clayton Banks of Silicon Harlem and Noel Hidalgo of BetaNYC.

WATCH: Virtual Town Hall: Bridging the Digital Divide During COVID-19

Pointing out that access to technology is a “critical lifeline” for young people, Patton posed the question: “When that lifeline is taken away, how does it impact young people who are from ethnic or racial minorities, whose parents are essential workers, have lost jobs, or have a lack of health care?”

He noted that although the city’s grade-school students are expected to treat their home as their classroom, not all of them have access to a home computer. Meanwhile, students living in wealthier zip codes own a plethora of gadgets that give them the edge in learning.

“What we know from the research is that young people do better when there are multiple platforms in the home,” Patton said. “So if I only have my smartphone whereas a young person from the Upper East Side has a smartphone, a DVR headset, and a laptop, they’re going to perform much better.”

Equally important, Patton asserted, is the setting in which students are expected to complete their work: “Do I have the environmental conditions that make it conducive for me to learn?” Instead of merely “moving the school into the home,” he urged educators to take a more realistic approach. They might consider putting aside traditional classes and assignments in favor of “innovative experience and cultural enrichments” that lend themselves to home learning, he suggested, such as asynchronous projects in which groups of students can learn collaboratively.

Finally, Patton stressed the vital role of social workers in mediating the challenges posed by the new learning environment. “Social workers are already in the community,” he said, and even if they can’t meet with students and other stakeholders face to face due to the pandemic, they can partner remotely with students, teachers, parents, and administrators to identify student needs and lend support.

“Bridging the Digital Divide During COVID-19,” took place on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Sponsors included the Columbia University Office of Government and Community Affairs as well as the Columbia School of Social Work.


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