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Digital Divisions

How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era

Digital Divisions

How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era

In the digital age, schools are a central part of a nationwide effort to make access to technology more equitable, so that all young people, regardless of identity or background, have the opportunity to engage with the technologies that are essential to modern life. Most students, however, come to school with digital knowledge they’ve already acquired from the range of activities they participate in with peers online. Yet, teachers, as Matthew H. Rafalow reveals in Digital Divisions, interpret these technological skills very differently based on the race and class of their student body.
While teachers praise affluent White students for being “innovative” when they bring preexisting and sometimes disruptive tech skills into their classrooms, less affluent students of color do not receive such recognition for the same behavior. Digital skills exhibited by middle class, Asian American students render them “hackers,” while the creative digital skills of working-class, Latinx students are either ignored or earn them labels troublemakers. Rafalow finds in his study of three California middle schools that students of all backgrounds use digital technology with sophistication and creativity, but only the teachers in the school serving predominantly White, affluent students help translate the digital skills students develop through their digital play into educational capital. Digital Divisions provides an in-depth look at how teachers operate as gatekeepers for students’ potential, reacting differently according to the race and class of their student body. As a result, Rafalow shows us that the digital divide is much more than a matter of access: it’s about how schools perceive the value of digital technology and then use them day-to-day.


"Timely and well argued, Digital Divisions showcases the enduring power of socio-logical theories of inequality for a digital age."

The University of Chicago, Press

"Generally, educators believe that the 'digital divide' pertains to deficits related to internet access and access to hardware associated with digital technologies. This work suggests, however, that the technology skills gap experienced by minority populations is tied to teacher biases with respect to race and class, the prevailing school culture, and educator attitudes about student online interactions with peers and play in general.  . . . Highly recommended."


"Beautifully written, shrewdly researched, and artfully argued."

The Arts Fuse

"Digital Divisions provides a robust and critical framework to understand digital technologies in the institutional reproduction of inequalities. . . . It deepens conversations in the sociology of education and youth culture, as well as the complex and evolving role of digital technologies in processes of social stratification. The book will have pedagogical appeal for courses in the sociology of education, youth, or digital society. Timely and well argued, Digital Divisions showcases the enduring power of sociological theories of inequality for a digital age."

American Journal of Sociology

"In Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, Matthew Rafalow takes us into middle-school classrooms in three different schools to reveal how teachers use technology in the classroom and how school cultures and race shape that treatment . . . Readers interested in educational equity, racial stereotypes, organizational cultures, and technology will all find keen insights and experience 'a-ha’ moments while reading this compelling book."

Contemporary Sociology

Digital Divisions [offers an] interesting peek inside three schools and [. . .] the ways that the race and class of the student body seems to shape the schools’ relationships with technology. At the most elite, predominantly white school [Rafalow studies], teachers encourage ‘play’ and deep engagement with technology, and students learn to craft professional digital selves. They envision themselves as creators of content, not just consumers. At the predominantly Asian school, surveillance dominates the school’s relationship with technology—students are seen as dangerous hackers, and they are intensely policed in their technology usage. At the third, predominantly Latinx school, teachers hold a patronizing stance toward students, and use technology for basic skills improvement. The ‘play’ aspect of technology is seen as irrelevant to these students. [. . . D]espite these three schools having comparable technology resources and on the surface not showing a digital divide, [Digital Divisions shows that] what happens in the usage of that technology is most certainly unequal.”

Natasha Warikoo, Tufts University

Digital Divisions focuses on whether, and in what ways, schools prepare students for the Digital Age. The book offers a novel analysis by uncovering social inequities in how technology is used in schools and how student race, class, and organizational cultures shape the extent to which—and how—digital play is valued and incorporated into the everyday practices of teaching and learning. [. . .] As [Rafalow] notes in the conclusion, researchers may miss key forms of inequities in education if we simply focus on access to technology or the mere presence of digitally-oriented instruction while ignoring how it’s used in the day-to-day workings of schools.”

Linn Posey-Maddox, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Theoretically sophisticated, superbly written, and effectively argued, Digital Divisions shines a bright light on one of the most vexing problems of our time. A must read.

Roberto G. Gonzales, Harvard University

This is a critical book for educators, educational scholars, and those concerned with democratizing access to technology. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Digital Divisions, captures the complicated reality of how race and class dynamics shape children’s access to the full benefits of our digital reality.

Amanda E. Lewis, University of Illinois at Chicago

Digital Divisions reveals the racialized and classed dimensions of the digital divide that can't be fixed by simply putting devices in the hands of all students...Rafalow highlights the way school cultures and teachers’ raced and classed expectations contribute to the reproduction of inequality and the digital divide.

Stacey J. Lee, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Digital Divisions is an excellent and timely book on the importance of play in cultivating engagement with technology and promoting innovative thinking among students. Using observations of classrooms and interviews with teachers and students, Rafalow argues that the technological divide is less about the differences in access to hardware, but more about how the use of technology is judged by teachers. Stereotypes of Asian Americans as cut-throat or model minorities and of Latinx students as benevolent immigrants or potential gang members promote the disciplining of their play. White middle and upper-middle class students are free from such constraints and thus their play is tolerated or even encouraged. This is a valuable study and a must-read for anyone interested in the interaction between technology, race, and class in affecting inequality in today’s schools.

Grace Kao, Yale University

Keenly observed, concisely written and deftly theorized. Rafalow does a great deal to update the sociology of education for the digital present. I will read and discuss this book with my students for some time.

Mitchell Stevens, Stanford University

The origins and impact of digital inequality is more complex than just who can get their hands on a machine...Digital Divisions offers a timely intervention in the heated debates about technology in schools, arguing that cultural notions of race, inequality and the meaning of kids’ play shape the digital divide that we yet face.

Allison J. Pugh, University of Virginia

"Considers the ways educational institutions cultivate innovators, explaining how disciplinary orientations to digital youth culture and play come from a complex mixture of perceptions and expectations within the school setting."

Journal of Economic Literature

"Barbas’s rich biography illuminates much about this important figure and his role in the creation of modern freedom of expression in the United States."


Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Similar Technologies, Different Schools

Chapter 2 Disciplining Play

Chapter 3 Where Disciplinary Orientations Come From

Chapter 4 Schools as Socializing Agents for Digital Participation


Appendix: Methodology


ASA Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Section (CITAMS): Best Book Award

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