Digital divide won't close

May 19, 2000|By Craig Peck, Larry Cuban and Heather Kirkpatrick

THE PHRASE "digital divide" suffuses American consciousness. It implies that while the well-off (and mostly white) communicate and prosper in revolutionary ways -- Web surfing, e-mail, e-commerce, IPOs, stockoptions -- the poor (and mostlyminority) suffer as a computer-less, Internet-challenged underclass.

This divide, we're told, is sure to have disastrous effects not only for the digitally excluded, but also for the country's future financial health. "Where will we possibly find enough technology workers?" ask high-tech CEOs.

Many experts, from politicians and minority representatives to unabashed techno-promoters, have anointed K-12 schools as a place to "bridge the digital divide," adding a new sense of urgency to the often fitful efforts to inject technology into classrooms.

Turning to schools to reduce society's technology differences, however, presents serious obstacles destined to doom reformers' best intentions. Most important, schools serving primarily low-income students lack adequate, up-to-date technology.

A recent federal study found that whereas 74 percent of classrooms in wealthy schools have Internet access, only 39 percent of classrooms in impoverished schools are similarly wired. The very students most in need of a school-based digital "bridge" have the least opportunity to access one.

To exacerbate matters, these schools, desperate to catch up technologically yet lacking the deep financial resources necessary to buy new machines, have often been lured into Faustian public-private "partnerships," in which they trade their noncommercial soul for digital trinkets.

For example, the for-profit Channel One gives struggling high schools televisions and VCRs; in turn, the schools agree to subject their students to a daily dose of Channel One programming, which includes corporate product pitches designed to appeal to a captive teen audience.

ZapMe, a San Francisco Bay area outfit, provides schools with fully equipped Pentium labs, but the company requires students to use the computers, which surf the Web through browsers prominently featuring the logos of corporations doing their own partnering with ZapMe, for four hours a day. If students use the computers less than four hours a day, schools pay a fee for the free computers.

The latest target for partnering is the perpetually cash-strapped New York City public schools system. Its board has voted unanimously to include corporate partners' advertising banners on its portal, the schools' home page, ostensibly to be trafficked by 1.3 million students, teachers and administrators, not to mention literally millions of parents.

In return, the corporate partners have promised to construct and maintain the schools' technology system and make inexpensive portable computers available to students. For the tech companies involved, it's a win-win-win situation: immediate returns from selling their products to the schools and parents, access through advertising to a potentially substantial audience and the possibility of persuading a generation of students to rely on and purchase their products.

For the schools, however, it's a grim testimony to their desperate financial straits and the depth to which they have fallen on the slope toward commercialized education. All that's needed is a slick-haired, classroom emcee announcing, "This lesson is brought to youby ..."

Even if all low-income schools brokered such compromising deals and caught up to affluent schools technologically, there would still be a digital divide in all schools, no matter their students' socioeconomic status. On one side are the few teachers who enthusiastically embrace the new machines and frequently use them in their teaching. On the other is the vast majority of teachers who see computers as a supplementary means of educating children.

In a recent survey by Education Week, 77 percent of teachers reported that they consider the computer a secondary, rather than primary, resource, while other responses suggested that nearly half eschew any use of computers for instruction. Moreover, an independent, comprehensive 1999 study found that, while some teachers frequently used technology for instruction, the typical teacher used computers with his or her students less than 10 times a year.

This divide between teachers who incorporate computers into their teaching and the majority who do not surfaced in our study of technology access and use in two Silicon Valley high schools.

These otherwise typical high schools were exceptional in that they provided their students very high access to new technology, especially computers. In some cases, this access translated into high levels of use, thanks to a vanguard of ardent technology-using teachers. This small band of instructors, about 10 percent of each school's faculty, overcame various obstacles to integrate the new machines into routine instruction.

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