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Ed. Magazine

Beyond the Digital Divide

In 1992, Natalie Rusk, Ed.M.’89, received an e-mail warning that a group of young boys were sneaking into the Computer Museum in Boston, where she worked as an education coordinator, after the exhibits had closed to the public. The e-mail, she recalls, instructed museum employees to watch for anything suspicious. “If found, these boys should be reported to security,” it read. [caption id="attachment_8906" align="alignleft" width="185" caption="Mentor Vaughn Rogers and Clubhouse member Otis Conille (© 2003 Lionel Delevingne)"]

[/caption] Rusk knew the boys in question. Earlier that month, she had organized a weeklong exhibit of computer-driven programmable machines. Dozens of children from all over the city attended, taking their turn at building and programming the machines to react to light, sound, or motion in a simple but profound brush with robotics technology. Rusk remembers one Spanish-speaking boy whose eyes widened in amazement when he picked up a moving motor. He called his friends over to explore it with him. One week after the exhibit closed and all the families and children had gone home, the museum’s standard hush had settled again over the exhibit hall. Then one afternoon, the elevator doors on Rusk’s floor opened. There stood the boy leading his half-dozen curious friends. The boys returned every day—even after hours. Then the e-mail came. “Instead of kicking these kids out, it struck me that what we really needed to do was to find a way to let them stay,” says Rusk. “I thought, ‘These kids are here to learn, so let’s help them.’”

“I see the real inequity as between the kids whose interests are supported and the kids whose interests aren't. That's the divide we try to address.” —Natalie Rusk, Ed.M.'89, Computer Clubhouse co-founder
Help them she did. Over the next two years, with funding from local and national sources, including the Intel Corporation, Rusk founded the Computer Clubhouse with Mitchel Resnick, a professor in the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The simple idea behind the Clubhouse was to create an informal environment where inner-city youth could explore new technologies at their own pace. That idea, evidently, touched a nerve. Local youth came in droves to the afterschool haven where exploratory learning shattered the experience of listening to lectures or reading textbooks. The Clubhouse became a digital playground where young people could polish their computer skills to a high sheen as they built Web sites, designed digital animation, and produced their own comic books and compact discs. The Clubhouse’s success led to increased funding from Intel, which has since invested some $30 million in building 60 Clubhouses worldwide. Today, the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network’s virtual reach extends across the United States to 17 international venues as far away as India, Colombia, and China. Closing the Gap The Clubhouse has built a sturdy bridge across what has become popularly known as the “digital divide.” That term was coined in the Clinton administration in response to a U.S. Department of Commerce report titled "Falling through the Net," which charted startling disparities between the haves and the have-nots in terms of access to technology. The report concluded that “individuals’ economic and social well-being increasingly depend on their ability to access, accumulate, and assimilate information.” Since then, computer and modem connections have become keys to the vault of the information age. A flurry of federal and private programs, like the Clubhouse, that emerged to build computing equity are now starting to close the gap. In fact, the 2002 version of "Falling Through the Net"—fittingly retitled "A Nation Online"—reports that 2 million new users join the digital domain every month. Computer and Internet use, it states, are fastest growing among people in poverty—the demographic previously left out of the new technology loop. The report also declared that public schools have made significant headway in providing students with access. This means, at least in theory, that greater numbers of students than ever can develop the skills required for 57 percent of jobs in the current labor market and over 80 percent of professional or managerial positions. In an era when the importance of computing skills cannot be underestimated, these figures represent a tremendous step forward for the most impoverished citizens of our nation. In a controversial move last October, the federal government cut funding to two hallmark Clinton-era digital divide initiatives that provide community technology centers and training in low-income neighborhoods on the grounds that the programs were no longer needed.
"Everything is directed at raising [test] scores. And the social consequences of that is that the students in the schools with the moset resources—often the white students—can develop computing skills, while minorities at underachieving schools don't have the opportunity.” —UCLA researcher Jane Margolis, Ed.M.'88, Ed.D.'90
But a number of educators, including Rusk, believe that the widespread availability and dropping costs of computers have only revealed the more complex issues that created the divide in the first place. “We always say that access is not enough,” says Rusk, now a Computer Clubhouse project researcher at the MIT Media Laboratory. “I see the real inequity as between the kids whose interests are supported and the kids whose interests aren’t. That’s the divide we try to address.” Revising the Rhetoric Others claim that the very rhetoric of the digital divide needs revision. “The digital divide is a concept brought into mainstream consciousness by politicians,” says Jennifer Dorsen, Ed.M.’94, who directs ScienceQuest, a science education program of the Education Development Center, Inc., that operates through community technology centers around the country. ScienceQuest volunteer teachers challenge largely minority, low-income students to pursue their own scientific questions through technology. Say, for instance, a 12-year-old wants to learn how neon can appear in different colors. A ScienceQuest teacher will locate resources—in this case, Web sites, videos, books, and a local neon sign vendor—to help the girl build her own Web site about neon light, complete with digital artifacts. The aim, says Dorsen, is both to generate excitement about everyday science and to polish students’ technology skills. But more than anything, ScienceQuest gives young people an afterschool alternative to TV, chatrooms, or other less constructive activities. In Dorsen’s mind, closing the digital divide is as much about giving young people enriching opportunities as it is about creating a diverse cadre of computer-savvy professionals. “The digital divide is shorthand for any number of divides between privileged students and students who don’t have as many opportunities,” she says. “It encompasses the ‘quality-science-instruction divide,’ the ‘field-trip divide,’ the ‘caring-adult-in-your-life divide.’ Those divides are hard to address.” On a typical Wednesday afternoon, Boston’s flagship Computer Clubhouse, now located at the city’s Museum of Science, buzzes with activity. Six Clubhouse members pack into a recording booth that would be the envy of any Los Angeles sound studio. One youth dons a pair of headphones and bobs his head to the beat, watching a digital representation of the sound pass before him on a monitor. Another youth, who has been a Clubhouse regular since 1996, tries to figure out how to copy a piece of Japanese computer animation into a new digital format. “This is harder than it looks,” he says, as an error message floats to the center of his screen. [caption id="attachment_8907" align="alignleft" width="185" caption="(© 2003 Lionel Delevingne)"]
[/caption] Actually, it looks quite hard—and all the more impressive considering that the fledgling Web weavers, graphic designers, and sound producers are largely self-taught. Sure, a few adult volunteers help troubleshoot and answer questions. But in the end, each Clubhouse member finds a way to navigate the digicams, editing suites, scanners, and Web site software with little supervision. “This is their place,” explains Michelle Hlubinka, Ed.M.’00, who has been a Clubhouse volunteer mentor for seven years. Hlubinka says she spends as much time building supportive relationships with members as she does giving them computing tips. “The whole environment is designed to encourage exploration. And it does.” Vayu Kieta, age 18, considers the Clubhouse his home away from home. He started coming to the Clubhouse four years ago with his older brother, and since then, he has returned there just about every day. He explains this as he attempts to add some remixed tracks from the movie The Matrix to his Web site. “I’d always been interested in computers,” he says, “but I didn’t have a place to learn about them.” “What about in school?” asks a curious visitor. “Oh yeah, school,” Kieta laughs, as if the question has revealed something ironic. “I feel like I’ve learned more here in four years than I have learned in eleven years of school. About computers,” he says. “About everything.” The E-Rate Revolution Carrie Skibba, Ed.M.’99, knew she had her work cut out for her when she saw the computer lab at Burley Elementary School in inner-city Chicago, where she had been hired as the first-ever technology specialist one week before the school opened for the 2000–2001 academic year. The “lab” consisted of a handful of old computers without modems resting on rickety folding tables and a stack of dusty textbooks dating back to the 1950s. Skibba accepted the job because she knew change was imminent. The principal of Burley had already submitted the mountain of paperwork required to apply for E-Rate, a U.S. Department of Education initiative that offers schools big discounts on network infrastructure—data ports, broadband connections, and servers. Her job was to supervise the installation and help train teachers and students to use the new technology in the classroom. In just two years, Skibba has outfitted every classroom with networked PCs, and created a laboratory of wireless notebooks that students can check out. She has even galvanized most of the teaching force around integrating computers into their assignments.
The “lab” consisted of a handful of old computers without modems resting on rickety folding tables, and a stack of dusty textbooks dating back to the 1950s.
Since the Telecommunications Act created E-Rate in 1996, schools all over the United States have capitalized on the program to wire up. In nearly the same time, the numbers of instructional computers in schools has more than doubled, according to Market Data Retrieval, a consulting firm that tracks technology in schools. Even so, schools still vary greatly in terms of quality and use of technology available to students. A 2001 U.S. Department of Education report claimed that students in poverty are 15 percent less likely to have access to computers at school than students in the highest income brackets. And even in the schools that do have adequate equipment, there is no guarantee that teachers can integrate it into their curriculums. “Teacher A might be doing incredible activities with computers, while down the hall Teacher B is using them for drill and kill,” says Cheryl Lemke, president and CEO of the Metiri Group, a consulting firm that assesses technology use in school districts across the nation. “There are points of light, but seldom systematized guidance—on a district level—on how to use technology to help students learn in new ways.” Context is everything when it comes to resources for schools, and that has a huge impact on who develops higher-level computing skills and who does not, says Jane Margolis, Ed.M.’88, Ed.D.’90, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. Concerned about the absence of black and Latino students in the field of computer science, Margolis launched a three-year study of students’ computing experiences at three high schools in Los Angeles—one with a predominately African-American student population, one with a largely Latino student body, and a third with a significant percentage of white students from wealthy families. The third school is the only one that offers Advanced Placement computer science classes. Now at the end of the first year of the study, Margolis has already observed how pressure to increase standardized test scores at the largely Latino school has edged “extras” like computer programming out of the curriculum. “Everything is directed at raising the scores,” she says. “And the social consequences of that is that the students in the schools with the most resources—often the white students—can develop computing skills, while minorities at underachieving schools don’t have the opportunity.” Margolis and Skibba understand how boosting technology skills often gets kicked to the bottom of an already long list of needs in our nation’s public schools. But these educators, along with Rusk and Dorsen, have come to view the distinction between basic skills and computing skills as unnecessary—and even counterproductive. They envision a world in which technology provides a powerful means for building the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Efforts to bridge the digital divide have, indeed, narrowed the gap. Closing it, however, may come only as educators in all ranks and in all kinds of schools learn to teach with technology—instead of about technology. That is when computers and Internet access will become more than indicators of access. They will provide solutions to some of the deep inequities still plaguing classrooms. About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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