Building a bridge across the digital divide

January 24, 2000|By Barbara A. Mikulski

I HAVE often wondered what it would be like to witness the end of one era and the dawning of another. Now I know. I grew up in a Baltimore that depended on smoke-stack industries. Now our future depends on "cyber-stack" industries.

In this new world, those who have access to technology -- and who know how to use it -- will be able to succeed. Those who don't will be functionally obsolete. This is true for individuals, communities and even countries. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates calls this gap the "digital divide."

As a lawmaker, I've adopted bridging that divide as part of my legislative agenda because I see technology as a tool for empowerment. My goal is to make sure that all of our citizens become computer literate.

A call for activism

Baltimore is a city with a great tradition of activism. We've always organized around a shared need. We need a new activism to help everyone cross the digital divide.

Technology is changing the Baltimore region and re-energizing it. You can see this at the American Can Co. building in Canton. It's now a high-tech business center, where small start-up companies are doing everything from designing state-of-the art Web sites to developing software to help the deaf. Across town, at a new community, The Terraces in West Baltimore, site of the former Lexington Terrace public housing complex, there's an "E-village," where residents have access to computers and computer training.

What was once an incubator for drugs is now the Parren Mitchell Business Center. This program is so successful that I'm fighting to put E-villages into all of our federally funded housing programs.

Federal help needed

Technology empowerment can't be limited to a few zip codes or a couple of recycled factories. We need national policies and programs. In meetings with educators, entrepreneurs and community leaders, I have found that relevant federal programs are skimpy and scattered. Dedicated professionals are forced to forage for assistance.

In Baltimore, only 41 of 181 schools are wired and linked to the Internet. In many schools, computers are locked in closets, lacking trained staff to operate or repair them.

Schools may apply for federal funds to help pay for high-tech needs under the "E-Rate" program, but it has too little money and the application process is cumbersome.

Meanwhile, some 46 percent of Maryland's teachers say that they have inadequate training in technology. Last summer more than 600 Maryland teachers volunteered to participate in a technology training academy -- but 480 of them were turned away because of a lack of funding.

Today I'm joining Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. at a Digital Divide Summit in Annapolis, which will focus on three key areas: universal access, education and workforce readiness, and E-commerce.

In Washington, I will introduce legislation to give all children the tools they need to cross the digital divide. My legislation would:

* Improve universal service and access to technology by making the E-Rate funds more accessible and simpler to apply for. For example, we should extend such funds to Head Start centers and to structured after-school programs.

* Create a one-stop shop for federal education technology programs so educators won't have to forage for federal programs. This would include a clearinghouse for information on best practices in the classroom and best ideas on public/private partnerships.

* Create "tech-prep" academies for teachers to learn how to use technology in their classrooms -- and double the budget for teacher training.

* Include E-villages in public housing complexes.

* Create an "E-Corps" within the Americorps national service program so that volunteers can bring technology training to our schools and our communities.

* Give businesses tax breaks for involvement in partnerships designed to help bridge the digital divide.

This is an exciting time for our city and our nation. If we're to realize the full potential of this era, we must work together to cross the digital divide, ensuring that no child is left behind.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is Maryland's junior senator.

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