The Digital Bridge
Divides occur all around us, but don't constrain access in the name of equality
Some families with school-age children have computers and Internet connections. Some don't. We call that the digital divide, and it gets an awful lot of attention.
Yet, the digital divide is an anomaly. We don't lament a transportation divide, though it's visible every morning in the school parking lot. A few lucky students enjoy door-to-door, private car service, while most are stuck riding the bus. The least fortunate have to walk. Beyond school, there's a general travel divide. Some families have enough discretionary time and money to travel by air, to travel far, and to travel regularly, providing their children with significant educational advantages.
And what about the academic divide? Is there any middle school that enrolls every student in pre-algebra? You might argue that not every student is ready or able, but too often at least some of those who are, miss out because there aren't enough teachers or class sections to accommodate them. That's not fair; those that take the class gain an important academic advantage.
There's a sports divide, too. Pity the poor middle school student who wants to learn to play basketball and isn't already accomplished enough to make the school's elite interscholastic team. He or she is shut out, forced to learn on his or her own with little access to an indoor gym.
But the biggest divide of all is the parent divide. Not all students have access to two parents. And not all parents are equally involved in children's lives. Not all are equally capable. That's just the way it is.
Many "divides" are a natural outgrowth of democracy. A land of opportunity doesn't guarantee equality of results. Unless you want to engineer a society in which everyone has exactly the same income, lives in exactly the same size house, drives the same type of car, and has the same marital status and family size, we will have variety. There will be so-called "divides." In a free society, divides occur naturally as new technologies emerge, spurring progress and advancement for all of society.
So, what should we do when unwanted gaps develop? Too often we constrain those who have access rather than provide opportunity to those who don't. For example, one teacher in my former district had a policy prohibiting students from using their own computers for homework. The teacher argued that it wasn't fair to students who didn't have a computer at home. She isn't alone. According to students interviewed in a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, most say teachers were reluctant to assign homework that requires the use of the Internet because not all their peers had access outside of school.
More than three-fourths of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 use the Internet, yet interestingly, the Pew study shows that much of the Internet's educational use occurs outside of school. Students claim that rigid Internet-use policies, limited connections, and overly restrictive content filters hamper their use of the Internet in school.
Restricting use is no way to address a digital divide. Progress comes from creating new opportunities, not restricting access. If your school doesn't have enough Internet access, it's time to bridge the gap, not lament the divide. Here are a few suggestions.
- Make arrangements with computer and Internet providers on creative financing to increase access in school, especially during this time of low-cost capital.
- Push vendors to extend special financing to parents when your school district makes a major purchase.
- Expect teachers to use the Internet. Support them with technology and professional development resources.
- Greatly increase access to school computers, especially after school hours, for students, parents and siblings.
- Collaborate with local libraries, community centers, churches and other organizations to ensure broad access to computer and Internet resources.
Don't restrict the educational use of the Internet until all students have equal access. They never will. Instead, when you see gaps, bridge them with new opportunities.
Daniel E. Kinnaman, firstname.lastname@example.org, is publisher.