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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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January122007

UK Proposal to Tackle Home-School Digital Divide

At a major edtech conference in London this week, a British government announced a new proposal to address the home-school digital divide.

On January 10th at the British Education Technology Show, UK Schools Minister Jim Knight announced a proposal to create a national taskforce that would strategize how to bring Internet access to the 800,000+ British students who lack it at home.

The so-called digital divide cannot be allowed to create and reinforce social and academic divisions…. With more than 800,000 children and young people still restricted to access at school, we run the risk that they could be isolated and left behind. There is no sense in asking every school to provide a learning platform to support children at home if some - likely to be the ones who might most benefit - are cut off from that platform. I am setting up a Home Access Taskforce which I will personally chair. I want this to bring together key industry players, the voluntary sector, and education representatives to look at the issues. Because ICT at every child’s fingertips is not the be-all and end-all of our ambitions. We need to make sure that schools and teachers can take full advantage, and parents too can play a significant role.

It didn’t take long for educators to chime in on the idea. Online safety advocate Nancy Willard wondered how the British government planned to educate parents about the potential risks of Internet access:

One of the most important aspects of this - actually THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect from my admittedly biased perspective - is that parents must have a sufficient understanding of all of the risks and effective strategies to address those risks. I mean all risks - not just the 3 P’s porn, predators, and privacy.

For example, most of the most popular children’s web sites are heavily involved in advergaming - integrating commercial advertising into entertainment activities. So we have lots of kids sitting on their butts playing games that encourage them to eat junk food. And parents are largely unaware that this is occurring….

There also must be a strong focus on the quality of the online activities. Certainly, there are some benefits from surfing, gaming, and gabbing - if kept in balance with other life activities. But how much of what young people are doing online is of high benefit to their life? How can we increase these kinds of activities and decrease the ‘time-sink’ activities that are doing more harm than good?

For what it’s worth, Minister Knight dedicated one sentence in his speech to this issue: “And of course, all access to the Internet by children must be safe access.”

Teacher Ted Nellen, who aggressively uses the Internet with his “scholars,” worried about filtering getting in the way of bridging the digital divide:

My main concern is does UK have a filter that would hamstring the schools? if so, forget it. if not, bully, and they should have no problem. just today i found my scholars’ docs and spreadsheets at google blocked. after too many hours of work on my part, it will be unblocked at next undated, by next monday. swell!

The reason USA schools and education is so far backward and getter backwarder more every day, is the darn filter.

And you know what they don’t work. my scholars access myspace, youtube and other sites i cant get to unless i use their unfilter hack. okay so what kind of lesson is this teaching? america, dont ask dont tell.

i would really love to know what Knight is going to do. but the question about a filter is crucial. does UK have filters in schools as we do?

Mark Ahlness offered skepticism on the part of the British government, but still held out hope for individual teachers making a difference:

This sounds all warm and cozy, headed in a politically correct direction, but… this effort will fall way short, and it comes way too late. Large organizations move at glacier speed, and our kids are moving at the speed of light - in terms of embracing new technologies…. Teachers must step up and be the trail blazers between school and home right now. I don’t know how this can happen on a large scale, unsupported by the big machine. Maybe grassroots efforts can still
make a difference. All I know is there are a few families in Seattle who were happy to hear from a teacher at their school talking about the Internet in a positive way last night, a teacher willing to hold a hand and keep looking forward. I encourage teachers everywhere to take a risk or two. Parents are listening, waiting to hear from
you.

And blogger Taran Rampersad of Trinidad & Tobago made the connection between the taskforce announcement and One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), MIT’s so-called $100 laptop initiative:

This is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, it is a developed nation dealing with internet access of children - and dealing with a context of the digital divide.

Second, there is no mention of the OLPC. Now, if the OLPC is supposed to be so good - wouldn’t the UK see it as a viable solution? Perhaps it is not good enough for a developed nation as it is a developing nation… and perhaps that segregation is what may make the OLPC a part of the global digital divide.

But hey. They might use the OLPC, right? They’d have 200,000 left over from the minimum order of 1 million, and would only cost them $100 million US. That’s well within budget. Anyone taking bets on whether the UK goes with the OLPC?

Ahh, wait. It’s probably because they are dealing with infrastructure and policy instead of blowing money on hardware without solving the infrastructure and policy issues.

So far, there hasn’t been any public discussion among the British blogosphere, but they’re probably still at the BETT conference. In the meanwhile, we can continue to speculate where all of this will lead. It’s heartening to hear a government official acknowledge the digital divide, particularly in a time when attentions are often directed elsewhere. But forming a taskforce is just scratching the surface. They face the challenge of coming up with a sustainable, politically viable strategy to supply the technology and infrastructure, offer IT and media literacy training for students and their parents, develop programs to connect schools with these households, raise awareness among teachers and create useful educational resources that address the educational and linguistic realities of many low-income households. And that’s just to get things started.

Would something like this even fly in the US? There have been numerous digital divide initiatives at the local and state level addressing student Internet access at home, but scaling it nationally is daunting. The Brits are only talking about connecting 800,000 students. Here in the US, we’ve got around 55 million K-12 students. Even if 90% of them had Internet access at home, there would still be more than five million students without access. The obstacles to bridging this divide are manifold. But to paraphrase JFK, we choose to bridge the digital divide not because it’s easy, but because it is hard - and necessary if disenfranchised students are going to get a fair shake. -andy

Filed under : Digital Divide, Policy

Responses

Hmmmm…. I wonder if there’s going to be a second conversation about how to address the OTHER home-school digital divide.

You know the one I’m talking about. The one where the kids are learning the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a technologically-suffused, globally-interconnected society at home rather than at school.

You know, the stuff Richard Florida and Daniel Pink talk about. The stuff TIME magazine talked about in two successive issues last month (How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century; The TIME Person of the Year is YOU!). The stuff that’s got the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce all in a tizzy. Collaboration, communication, creative problem-solving, pattern recognition and meaning making, the ability to craft a satisfying narrative, innovation. Often in groups and almost invariably using technology. That stuff.

Web 2.0, anyone? Knowledge economy, anyone?

Oops, sorry, U.K. Maybe you’re already doing all this. Maybe it’s just us over here in the States that needs some work.

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