Derailing the Digital Divide

A U.S. Department of Commerce report, Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide (1998), illustrates that even though a higher percentage of Americans currently own computers, certain groups are still considerably less likely to have computers or online access. Lack of such access affects the ability of students to improve their learning with educational software and learn valuable technological skills. In addition, families cannot benefit from online connections to important health and civic information. A follow-up study released by President Clinton in July 1999, documents that the “digital divide” continues to grow.

Similar data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education highlights a “digital divide” in our nation’s schools and the children attending high poverty schools are less likely to have access to computers, the Internet, or high quality technology programs. “U.S. Department of Education programs provide substantial funding to help American schools and communities bridge the “digital divide,” reducing inequities in access to information technology and the Internet” (Education Programs that Help Bridge the Digital Divide, 1). But will this be enough?

History has witnessed a number of inventions, which have revolutionized the ways people communicate. From the automobile, to the telephone, to the television, these products have allowed people to drive and meet with others miles away, call and converse across oceans, and broadcast motion pictures nationwide, respectively. We are in the midst of another revolution – the computer revolution. “Most prophecies tend to be sensational, and today’s predictions about tomorrow’s computers and robots are no exception” (Bringsjord, 2001, p. 1). Such sensationalizing often clouds the real issue at hand: mastery of this and newer but relative technology is and will be essential for communication and change. When this mastery is merged with a population of minorities, social change will be inevitable.

There is a correlation between high population levels and greater degrees of political power. Majorities determine voting outcomes, which in turn decides plans and funding. The gap between racial majorities and minorities is shrinking at an unprecedented rate. “By mid-century, no single racial or ethnic group will be a significant majority of the U.S. population. By 2050, the longstanding non-Hispanic white majority will be 53% of the population, down from 71% in 2000. Shortly after 2050, the U.S. will become a nation of minorities” (Marx, 1991, p. 5). Subsequently, greater is the likelihood of political and social opportunities.

The unequal accessibility of technology and our steady reliance upon it, however, may be a people’s demise. “As for the instructional use of computers in K-12, broad statistical research consistently disclosed systematic inequities throughout the 1980s and early 90s” (Sutton, 1991, pp 1-9). This research also documented computer use both in and out of school, at all ages, and in several countries. The results concluded that there was less access for girls, students of color, children from low-income families, and students labeled “low-ability.” In addition to the mere access to computers, it is essential that they be used in a meaningful way.

The type of use in this study varied along similar paths: even when students from these groups were provided access to computers, they were disproportionately engaged with drill-and-practice software, “mastery” learning of decontextualized basic skills, and vocational training in the use of specific software. In contrast, boys, white students, middle-class children, and students labeled “high-ability” were disproportionately involved with open-ended simulations, integrated applications, and programming. “(For a current point of comparison, see Gartner 1998, reporting that ‘Internet access initiatives…may actually increase the gulf between high- and low-achieving students, rather than act as an equalizer, even with equal access, because of differences in the kinds of activities engaged in) In effect, some students were learning how to direct the new technology while others were learning how to be directed by it. The already advantaged became more so, adding yet another domain to their list of advantages. The computer, introduced partly in hopes of creating new opportunities for all children, by and large made things worse, even when everyone got to use it” (Bromley, 1998, pp. 5-6).

In politics, commerce, and education the web is leaving minorities behind. Government officials are using the Web more often to disseminate information; political parties are holding major on-line events; companies are using the Web for making job announcements and collecting resumes; distance education via the Web is being offered more and more. The equitable distribution, use, and training of students in technology is the major moral issue about computers. “The poor cannot afford them. Thus, they will be shut of the booming hi-tech job market and forced to do the culture’s menial jobs” (Sutton, 1991, p. 1).

The problem in education, which most affects the Digital Divide, is the inadequate funding of impoverished communities. Nearly half the funding for public schools in the United States is provided through local taxes, generating large differences in funding between wealthy and impoverished communities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000a). This issue needs to be addressed not only because it is central to meritocracy, but also because the United States will prosper when it provides a good education to all; there will be more qualified applicants from which employers can choose. If the goal is to have an equal opportunity for everyone, it must be determined how best to make this a reality.

Better-funded schools generate higher levels of achievement, and various studies have begun to explore this question, with interesting findings. So far, the main factor is associated with teacher qualifications. “Better-funded school districts can attract teachers with higher levels of education, more experience, and higher scores on competency tests; these teachers, in turn, seem to generate better achievement scores among students” (Darling-Hammond & Post, 2000; Elliott, 1998; Ferguson, 1991; Ferguson & Ladd, 1996). In addition, better-funded schools are usually able to reduce class sizes, and smaller classes equates to the need for fewer resources.

The effects reported thus far regarding class size appear to be weaker than those for teacher qualifications; however, this conclusion may not be valid. For instance, some studies of the problem have not examined class size directly but rather the effects of a student-teacher ratio that is wrongly assumed to represent class. Student-teacher ratio is usually measured at the school or district level and often includes the school’s coaches, nurses, social workers, and other faculty who do not teach. Evidence indicates that class size reduction raises achievement when applied in the early grades, but evidence has not yet appeared indicating that class size has much effect in the middle school or high school years. Thus, to study the effects of funding-associated differences in class size on achievement properly, one should focus efforts on class size in the early grades.

One study has already done this (Ferguson & Ladd, 1996), and that study reported strong effects for class size. In addition, strong field experiments and trial programs have confirmed that smaller class sizes in the early grades generate both immediate and long-term advantages in student outcomes and that these effects are greater for minority or impoverished students (Biddle & Berliner, 2002a, 2002b). Given the evidence reviewed above, it is probable that students from disadvantaged families will suffer the most from the U.S. system of unequal school funding; students who are disadvantaged are more likely to attend poorly funded public schools. A plethora of research is beginning to support this notion. In a recent study, Harold Wenglinsky (1998) found that gaps in achievement between students from high and low socioeconomic-status homes are greater in poorly funded schools than in well-funded schools. Elizabeth Harter (1999) reported that the achievement effects of funding levels associated with school upkeep are greater in schools serving impoverished students. The funding of public schools through local property taxes goes back several generations in our country, and suburban tension to plans for greater equity in public school funding has been powerful.

Given such facts, what is the best plan of action? Because there are funding inequities both within and between states, one of the most effective ways to address these issues is through changes in federal policies; however, interest in school-funding issues has not yet seen much publicity among the national media. It is necessary to set forth a concentrated effort to change this situation. By addressing this issue through the local media, a national debate may follow, making the public aware of the inequities that currently exist. Subsequently, school funding and technology in particular would become a key issue for politicians.

Ironically, the inadequately funded districts, which have the most to gain, would be less able to vote. Their districts are poor and they are poor. By extension, many in their community may not have transportation to vote for the candidates who promise to focus on this issue. To combat this effect, activists could solicit private bus companies who may share these concerns. If they too are concerned that funding be equally distributed, the businesses may provide free transportation. Humanitarian motives aside, businesses are enticed by the possibility of free advertisement via the news.

Such an approach would be more effective than pleading a case to the federal courts, despite contentions that inequitable school funding creates conditions which violate U.S. citizens’ claims for equal opportunities. In a landmark ruling on San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, issued in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court denied that it violated the constitutional right of equal opportunity. By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not require equal funding among school districts. This decision halted federal court action to rectify inequities in school funding. “This does not mean the funding equity issue has been silent in state courts.

Rather, many state constitutions mandate equal opportunities in education. As a result, lawsuits challenging the legality of unequal funding based on district property taxes have been filed in more than three-fourths of the states, and these lawsuits have been upheld or are still pending in at least 31 states” (Morales, 1997; Murray, Evans,& Schwab, 1998; Rothstein, 2000). Details of these efforts have varied dramatically from state to state, but the following four statements summarize the results:

· When successful, the suits have stimulated both public interest and follow-up actions by state Legislatures designed to provide greater funding equity.

In many cases, the actions have provided additional money from state taxes for impoverished school districts while leaving levels of funding for affluent school districts in place.

The reforms tend to reduce but not eliminate the within-state inequities that they were designed to address. The actions have not addressed inequities in school funding among other states.

One of the immediate and attractive alternatives for districts with less than adequate budgets is to strike up a deal with a company called Zap Me. “Zap Me provides computer labs and Internet access to K12 schools in return for advertising or promotional access to students and their families. The structure of Zap Me illustrates how marketers can exploit the current emphasis on electronic technologies to integrate schoolchildren more fully into America’s advertising and marketing system” (Molnar, 2000, p. 1).

Rick Inatome, president and chief executive of Zap Me refuted some of the criticisms. “We are dealing with the number one issue: how to deal with the ‘digital divide’” while letting schools offer safe Internet access, he said in an interview…” (Mendels 2). The main distinction that ought to be made is the difference between safe and quality access; students who use these technologies through the Zap Me company witness hundreds of commercials for candy bars, chewing gum, and soft drinks. “Where will this end – aside from bad education and bad teeth – unless what is happening is exposed and vigorously challenged?” (Mendels 4) Similar to the issue of what students should and should not be exposed to, censorship and the internet filters are key issues. Unlike the advertisers who try to sell their product, these advertisers are selling something far more dangerous and with fewer regulations: flawed ideology. ” [W]ith respect to the Internet, there now is a much greater need to stress the teaching of skills of discrimination, analysis, and interpretation. Since getting so-called facts is now easy, the need is to teach children and young adults how to handle large amounts of information, isolate bad from reliable, and critically unravel facile connections that now can be made with the push of a button” (Botstein, 2001, p. 14).

Internet filters are capable of censoring hate groups, which may intentionally mislead those they wish to persuade. In contrast, filters have the potential for corruption by making available harmful ideology while simultaneously repressing movements to equalize rights. For example, the students of Davenport (Iowa) Community School District became involved with the situation in 2000 when they discovered the original filter removed sites like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) but left Ku Klux Klan (KKK) sites opened (Malcolm, 59). One of the main causes of racist ideology, ignorance caused by ignoring others ideas, beliefs, and values, can be lessened if not eliminated on the Internet. In “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Peggy McIntosh cites a list of observations, which illustrates that Caucasians holds many privileges, most of which are unknown to the possessor. These privileges include, but are not limited to, the following: “I can be fairly sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race; I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another woman’s voice in a group in which she is the only member of her race; my culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races” (McIntosh, 1986, p. 4). In this respect, the entire realm of communication is altered when online.

“As you move around the Internet, most of the people you encounter cannot easily tell who you are. System operators and some technological savvy, motivated users may be able to detect your e-mail or Internet address, but for the most part people only know what you tell them about yourself. If you wish, you can keep your [ethnic] identity hidden” (The Online Disinhibition Effect, n.d., 2). In most cases, everyone on the Internet has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself. Everyone – regardless of status, wealth, race, or gender – begins on a level playing field. Some call this “net democracy.” Although people’s status in the outside world ultimately will have some impact on their life in cyberspace, there is some truth to the ideal of net democracy. “What determines your influence on others is your skill in communicating (including writing skills), your persistence, the quality of your ideas, and sometimes your technological know-how” (The Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace, n.d., 2).

“Technology allows N-Geners [those belonging to the Net Generation, now aged 3-23] to talk with others worldwide. Hence, a greater openness and global awareness exists in many in this group. E-mail and chat rooms let them talk with others without regard to racial or ethnic stereotypes or geographic boundaries” (Dorman, 2001, p. 31). For teachers to capitalize on the opportunities of the Internet in equalizing rights, they might begin by improving student’s writing and computer skills. Many minorities as well as majorities are currently excluded from high paying jobs because they make poor impressions in speech and writing, never having the opportunity to make known their insight, silenced by the inaccessibility of quality education and computers.

By utilizing the internet to force the suspension of ethnic judgment, teachers can begin to break down stereotypes. That is, by having the students “meet” one another online prior to meeting face-to-face, the students will judge their classmates more subjectively. Judgment would first be made on their ability to hold a written conversation. Later, when the students link these interactions to the actual students, some of which will be minorities, their stereotypes will be proven false. Standard English, then, as it is currently defined, becomes of paramount importance. There is for many teachers, as well as members of the public, the feeling that Black English Vernacular (BEV) is, “merely a pass-through language, only to be used to get to

Standard English” (Perry, 1997, p. 5). “To imply to children or adultsthat it doesn’t matter how you talk or write is to ensure their ultimate failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. Tell them that their language and culture style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are certain games that they too must play[S]tudents must be taught the codes needed to participate fully in the mainstream of American life” (Delpit, 1988. p. 100).

“In introducing new technologies in the classroom, educational policy-makers, researchers, and school administrators seem reluctant to systematically consider possible drawbacks of information technology at the same time they consider the benefits” (Nelson, 2000, p. 1). It is and will be crucial to analyze not only the accessibility of this technology, but also the quality of instruction. As our society becomes more reliant upon technology, those who can readily manipulate its functions will prosper – economically, politically, and scholastically – while those who are ill prepared will not. Technology has the equal potential for good and evil. That is, it can be used to equalize opportunities or it can be used to further the current inequalities. With this in mind, it will be essential to have a representative panel of policy makers who will enact legislation for the good of the entire nation as a whole.


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