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

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Ask a Presidential Candidate

Last night, PBS hosted a debate among the Democratic candidates running for president. After the event, I had a chance to speak with four of the candidates about their perceptions about the digital divide and the role schools might play in bridging it. The lesson learned: it’s hard to get more than a sound bite when the candidates are in spin mode.

The debate, hosted at Howard University in Washington DC, was the first presidential debate in which the moderator and questioners were all people of color. Moderated by Tavis Smiley, the 90-minute debate focused mostly on domestic issues that are of interest among minority voters.

I’d had high hopes that the debate would spend a bit of time focusing on the digital divide and the role of technology in education. This wasn’t just a random wish on my part; the debate’s website outlined the digital divide as one of the key domestic policy issues facing minority communities today. But in the course of the 90-minute debate, they were unable to address the topic. When you’ve got a gazillion candidates on stage who each want to talk as long as possible, 90 minutes gets eaten up rather quickly. So while they tackled issues ranging from this week’s Supreme Court ruling on school diversity plans to HIV/AIDS to Katrina, the digital divide and edtech didn’t have their moments in the spotlight.

Luckily for me, though, I watched the debate from the media center at Howard University. Immediately following the debate, each of the presidential campaigns sent their candidates or their proxies to the chaotic hall known as spin alley, where journalists and bloggers jammed mics and cameras in their faces, tripping over each other to ask them questions. There were at least four candidates in the hall - Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel - and I managed to ask each of them about what they would do to address the digital divide, particularly in the context of schools.

First up was Rep. Dennis Kucinich. I started by asking him if the digital divide were an issue to be dealt with by the federal government or other institutions. “Well, actually it’s an issue at all levels of government,” he explained, adding that Internet access should be seen as a public good just as any other local utility:

As mayor of Cleveland I helped to save a municipal utility, because I realized that this is a fundamental right in a democratic society - to have your own utility. Municipalities should be able to have that right. Well, municipalities should operate the Internet, and access to the Internet, wireless, as a public utility. And it should be free access. And people, the way you move through it, is that you have free access plus you make sure that every child has access and every family has access to a computer. I mean, this is fundamental in a democratic society, and it’s an investment that we should be prepared to make.

I then asked what role schools should play in providing that access. Kucinich, though, continued to focus on at-home access. “I mean, we should be making computers available to those families - a basic computer someone access. If someone wants to buy an upgrade or something, that’s their business. But basic access should be guaranteed. That’s the way we get rid of the digital divide.”

Sen. Christopher Dodd took a similar approach, addressing the issue from the perspective of broadband access, especially when it comes to rural communities:

obviously the broadband is important. We didn’t get a chance to talk about rural America too much [in the debate], and obviously having broadband access into parts of our country, inner cities and so forth, so these education gaps can be made up, by making sure the people have that access…. …I think the schools can play a very important role, obviously, but even more so in families - that ability to have that access in your home. Where your child can access the Library of Congress. Where some rural school district in the middle of Alaska or Wyoming is what we ought to be talking about here, rather than moving people out of rural areas to urban areas. Bringing economy and opportunity to rural America is something we ought to be talking about. The Internet is one of the wonderful ways that allows us to reach a constituency that otherwise would be very hard to reach under other circumstances.

Gov. Bill Richardson tackled the question somewhat more strategically, reflecting some of the policies that were in place during the Clinton administration:

There should be a national plan to have broadband across the country to narrow the digital divide. We should have science and math academies to produce more engineers, up our scores in science and math. And then lastly, I believe the federal government needs to say that the digital divide is real. That because our minorities, and in minority neighborhoods, don’t have the same access to computers. We need to take steps like have a computer for every child in the seventh grade - laptop computers. Find ways to increase computers in the home. Find ways for the federal government to play an active role in not just funding some of these programs but working with the IBMs, the Microsofts to provide more technology. Especially in minority communities.

Former Sen. Mike Gravel, perhaps best known for his blunt talk during the debates, didn’t respond directly to my question, instead using it as an opportunity to talk about his belief that the government shouldn’t regulate activity on the Internet. “The first rule is leave the Internet alone. Keep it free.” After lamenting regulations that would prevent gambling-related credit card transactions online, I tried to steer the conversation back towards education, asking specifically what needs to be done to improve technology literacy skills among young people. “I like the idea of putting computers in every classroom, in every classroom,” he said. “Particularly in the inner cities. No question. They are the future, and the future is electronic.”

Of course, I’d hoped to go into more depth with each candidate about these issues, not to mention ask similar questions to the candidates who didn’t visit after the debate, but that’s what the spin room is all about. Unless it’s an issue that a candidate wants to hammer home as a key policy issue of theirs, it’s difficult to get more than a few sound bites out of them. So between now and the election, I’ll dig deeper into the candidates’ positions on issues such as the digital divide, education technology and media literacy, and let you know what I find. And if I can get into the spin alley at the Republican debate that’s being organized by PBS in September, you can be sure I’ll have questions for them as well. -andy

Filed under : Digital Divide, People, Policy


Thanks for asking questions at this and future debates.

When getting responses like computer access in homes and laptops in schools, you might want to ask “what about a learning/library memory card for every student, and adult?” One that would work at home, school, library, work, laptop or public kiosk?

A number of consumer electronic tools were referenced this month as part of “digital excellence” approach in the report The City that NetWorks by Mayor Daley’s Advisory Council on the Digital Divide. Consumer electronic tools not only include “learning cards” (precursor to digital textbooks), but also portable e-health records and stored-value cards on the model of electronic food stamp cards and Chicago Transit Authority electronic farecard.

Perhaps also ask question in terms of Digital Literacy, Youth Development and Telecommunication for Economic development, urban and rural, and how electronic tools can help persons accomplish daily tasks “faster, better, cheaper,” including interacting with Digital Government.

Note Sen. Durbin of IL has a Broadband extension planning bill with bipartisan co-sponsors to match state initiatives, including provisions expected in this summer’s farm authorization bill as part of USDA rural development.

Keep your microphone in front of the candidates to help them help the country think through the best ways forward!

I find it amazing and disappointing that candidates for the presidency of this great country cannot state a specify position regarding the digital divide. Their responses were trival and trite and did not answer the question at all. China and India are forging ahead in applying technology in the workplace and society and because of sheer numbers of people they will become the number one and two economies in the world and our inadequately educated workforce will bringing up rear in the third. Our young people need the tech skills to compete in the 21st century workplace. The strength of this countries enterprises and workforce has been creativity and innovation and we need to capitalize on this strength by making available the tech tools and skills to excell. We need to put in place a educational system that treats all students equally in terms of skilled teachers who teach 21st century skills and who use technology to enhance teaching and learning, hardware available to students 24/7 because magic occurs after the school doors close, wireless access to the internet and intensive parent and private sector involvement. Installng broadband nation wide is needed step but that will not insure a tech savy populace. A synergistic approach has to be taken in which people are taugh to use the available hardware and systems in a manner that will benefit the end user and our counry and our economy as a whole.

Is it affordable? My answer is yes, if technology is given the highest priority by local school boards, state legislatures, the federal house and senate and most of all the president. It is ideal opportunity for our next president to be known as the Education President.

The responses in the interview certainly are not a even an entry level position for keeping this country the world number one economy.
Thomas J. LeCloux
Former Principal, Oak-Land Jr.- Home of 1:1 Laptop Computing 24/7
Consultant for 1:1 Laptop Computing
Telephone no. 651-231-9613
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Alvin Toffler 
“Don’t let your preoccupation with reality stifle your imagination.” Unknown

You may be interested in visiting the Wireless Communications Association’s new site covering the Presidential Candidates for ‘08 and their positions on Broadband. The site was just announced two weeks ago at the WCA 2007 conference in Washington DC: Thought Leaders Forum: U.S. Presidential Candidates Debate Broadband www.wcai.com/taskforce/politics/index.php

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