“As technology has increasingly driven how Americans learn and the kinds of jobs people have access to, educators and policymakers have long worried about the country’s growing digital divide. Much attention has been rightly focused on issues of access and suggests that existing inequities stem from our students’ families and the communities where they grow up. Rafalow’s rich ethnography adds a layer of complexity to these important questions by showing how the schools our children attend play an important role too; either widening or narrowing the gap. 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, Professor of Education, Harvard University

“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, Chair and IBM Professor of Sociology, Yale University

“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. In an analysis that is reminiscent of Jean Anyon’s seminal work on social class and school knowledge, Rafalow highlights the way school cultures and teachers’ raced and classed expectations contribute to the reproduction of inequality and the digital divide. Unlike most of the scholarship on the digital divide, which ignores the unique racialized experiences of Asian American students, Rafalow’s rich ethnographic data demonstrates that teachers’ perceptions of their Asian American students as “upwardly mobile” and “cutthroat hackers” led to the surveillance of Asian American youth in ways that limited their educational opportunities.”

Stacey J. Lee, Frederick Erickson WARF Professor of Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“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.  Importantly, Rafalow, challenges us to go deeper than our usual focus on the digital divide.  He demonstrates how, even when children have access to the same technology, they do not have access to the same rules.  He takes us into classrooms to see what it is that children are actually allowed to do with technology, and in particular, to show us teachers varied understandings and responses to children’s inclinations towards play (in this case digital play).  Rafalow finds many long standing racial and class disparities in who is imagined to be “innovators” and who are imagined to be disruptive and in need of discipline.  What I love most about this book is that Rafalow shows us that teachers’ differential expectations don’t just come from the teachers themselves, but from the culture of schools.  High functioning schools work better not only for students but for adults.  Strong and supportive workplaces lead to better instruction.  For those who want to see real change, this is very good news.  Shifting local school cultures may be challenging, but it is much less challenging than upending the vast array of implicit and explicit biases teachers bring to school.”    

Amanda E. Lewis, LAS Distinguished Professor, African American Studies and Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago

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, Associated Professor of Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Evidence of digital inequality is all around us – from the profoundly white ranks of tech sector employment, to the unequal distributions of remote learning opportunities among kids during the 2020 pandemic.  Yet the story we tell ourselves about that inequality is wrong, Matthew Rafalow tells us, in this fascinating and rich account of cultures of technology and play in schools.  People may think disadvantaged kids may have far less access to technology, and that schools can mitigate this disparity and prepare them for the jobs of the future by giving them tablets and using smartboards in the classroom.  Yet, as Rafalow reports, 95% of kids have access to a smartphone and a gaming console, with no difference by family income or race/ethnicity.  The origins and impact of digital inequality is more complex than just who can get their hands on a machine. 

Rafalow’s argument relies on a uniquely elegant research design – a comparative ethnography of three schools, equally dedicated to incorporating technology in teaching, yet serving students of different class and racial/ethnic composition.  With compelling examples that read like ethnographic gold – often of kids using the exact same app in different schools with radically different teacher responses – Rafalow shows how teachers and schools vary in how they view and discipline kids’ uses of technology.  Kids’ fluency and playfulness with technology was seen as creative in a white affluent context, threatening in a majority-Asian public school, and an irrelevant distraction from basic skills acquisition in a low-income Latinx school.  The differences, Rafalow shows, are related to racialized visions of the future teachers carry for the students in their charge, shaping how students end up using and thinking about technology themselves.  Rafalow’s work refines and updates Bourdieusian accounts of the reproduction of inequality, as teachers’ expectations framed the kind of cultural know-how by which students were measured.  He also nicely situates the work in organizational studies, breaking free of reductive emphases on teacher-student relations and demonstrating that schools-as-workplaces shape the kind of teaching teachers are able to do. 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, Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia

“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, Professor of Education and Director of Digital Research and Planning, Stanford University

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, Professor of Sociology, Tufts University

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