Sunday, July 8, 2007

Digital Divide 2.0

I've been thinking a lot about the new digital divide recently, and how to bridge that gap. I blogged awhile back about Joyce Valenza's new manifesto, and just read Doug Johnson's latest post on the subject, both of which discuss the newest incarnation of digital inequity. While there are still disparities in access to technology, "efforts like eRate in the US and MIT’s laptop initiative in various parts of the world have gone a long way toward getting the Internet into people’s lives," according to an article on the Digital Divide Network.

We've even recognized the "new" digital divide in the need for students to use technology effectively to access information. As my classmates interview for their first library job, most of them report that (aside from the ghastly "What can you coach?" question, which is a whole 'nother rant!), much of their interview related to their use of technology. Enlightened administrators understand that access to technology is meaningless without the ability to use it not as a stand-alone tool, but within the context of real, relevant and worthwhile projects.

It worries me, however, that while we discuss these issues, we really don't seem to be doing much about them. And this is where I found the DDN article especially interesting, for in it the author defines two additional divides: policy and motivation. We all know there are dangers out there in the virtual world. Whatever you think about filtering in schools, it does serve some purpose in protecting students from the seamier side of the web. Unfortunately, in their eagerness to avoid parental confrontations, many district have gone overboard by blocking access to many Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, wikis, Flickr, YouTube and, most infamously, MySpace.

Yet the Advisory Panel to the Congressional Internet Caucus recently held a forum on Online Youth Victimization that debunked many commonly held beliefs regarding students' online presence and stranger danger. Basically, research shows most kids are pretty smart about online behavior. In Totally Wired, Anastasia Goodstein reports that only 150 of the 800,000 kids reported missing each year are taken by strangers. This isn't to say we don't need to teach students to be careful, but to suggest that completely banning the technologies is an over-reaction.

These tools are only going to grow increasingly ubiquitous, with modifications for use in business and education. By banning their use in schools, districts limit their students' ability to collaborate, develop analytical skills, and learn to use these tools in meaningful ways rather than as an extension of their social calendar. Students unfamiliar with their intelligent use will suffer very real disadvantages as they enter the college and job markets.

While I find that worrisome, the lack of motivation to incorporate the technologies into daily practice bothers me even more. I'm in a top-ranked library school, yet the one technology course students are required to take starts with "this is a mouse." The students' final project does include creating a basic web page, but there is almost no discussion/use of the read/write web. Nor are these tools integrated into the classes themselves. We spend a lot of time creating posters, class discussions through BlackBoard, and (very deadly) Power Point presentations, yet little on anything else. Our use of these technologies just transfers paper and pencil onto the internet.

More significantly, when I tried to get my group to collaborate through Google Docs and a wiki, I met with considerable passive resistance. (Basically, my groups ignored the opportunity and just posted individual responses, which another group member later combined by hand.) This disappointed me no end, but was understandable, I suppose, as my classmates were unfamiliar with the process, and didn't want to add that learning curve to the already extensive project workload. However, if we don't learn these skills in college, of all places, will there be time/opportunity on the job, when we're multi-tasked into near-exhaustion?

The bigger problem is that we, this graduating class of cutting-edge librarians, are the ones schools trust to train faculty and students, yet we're not using the tools on a daily basis ourselves. How are we supposed to encourage others to do so? In order to be technology leaders, we must be technology users. How can we teach faculty to integrate blogging and wikis, give them ideas for their use, if we've never used them ourselves? Where's the credibility? To stand in front of a group and say, "Well, Will Richardson's book says they're very effective," lacks motivational oomph. And if teachers won't use the technology, students won't be able to.

As educators we have, if not a moral imperative, at least an educational imperative to move into the pedagogical 21st century. We owe it to our students. We owe it to ourselves.

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