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

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The YouTube Debate: Shining More Light on Schools, Filters and the Digital Divide

You’ve probably noticed I’ve been harping lately on the relationship between the digital divide, civic participation and Internet filters. Thanks to this week’s YouTube presidential debate, others have been talking about the issue as well.

First, I must confess that I watched none of the YouTube debate as it aired live on television this Monday. (I’ll pause for a moment so all of you can gasp or do a spit-take.) I was on deadline for a project, and by the time I got that wrapped up, Anderson Cooper was already thanking the candidates for participating. But I didn’t feel terribly bad about missing the live coverage, given the fact that activities that took place related to the debate are all available online, including the questions from the public that were asked, the questions that weren’t asked, and the candidates’ responses. That’s easy for me - I’ve got broadband at home and at work, and no filters to get in my way.

Just before the debate commenced, Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post decided to go down to Charleston, South Carolina, host of the debate, and visit some of the nearby neighborhoods. There, he met people like Marcella Morris, who was sitting on her front step despite the soaring temperatures. “I am low-income and computers are not low-income,” she said. “I know how to use a computer. I just can’t afford one right now.”

Writes Vargas:

There exists “two Americas,” as John Edwards, South Carolina’s own son, likes to say: an America for the rich and an America for the poor. But what Edwards and the rest of the presidential field have yet to adequately address are the two Americas online: one that’s connected to high-speed Internet — socializing, paying bills, uploading debate questions to presidential candidates on YouTube — and one that’s not. This is the digital divide, now more than a decade old, a rarely discussed schism in which the unconnected are second-class citizens. In some parts of this so-called Internet ghetto, the screech of a telephone modem dialing up to get online is not uncommon. And with dial-up, YouTube is impossible to use….

And in a presidential election that’s being fought as much online as off it — all campaigns employ Web strategies — some say the candidates have generally ignored the issue.

“I would argue that the digital divide is worse than it was 10 years ago. Back then everyone — schools, businesses — was trying to get online. These days every single Fortune 500 company has its employees, its customers and its suppliers connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the meantime, while our students have online access at school, many of them don’t have it at home,” says Andrew Rasiej, a member of a panel studying universal Internet access in New York, and co-founder of TechPresident, a nonpartisan blog that tracks the online campaign….

“At one level, the YouTube debate shows that the Web has really become a centerpiece of American political culture,” adds Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet. “At another level, it also shows that the debate is not for everybody. It’s certainly not available to all Americans.”

As part of the Washington Post story, Vargas included a brief video of local Charleston residents discussing the challenges they face when it comes to the digital divide. In the video you’ll see Marcella Morris as well as her daughter, who says that her only recourse for going online is relying on her school or local library.

Charleston is hardly the only city in which people struggle to participate in this surge of online public dialogue. Shireen Mitchell sees it every day here in Washington DC. She runs Digital Sisters, a nonprofit group dedicated to bringing technology skills and access to disadvantaged women.

“For those that have the access to technologies like video cameras, the Internet, editing software - and the skills to use them effectively - it gives them an option to participate in political debates and ask questions of candidates that are of importance to themselves and their communities,” she explained. “With millions of people not have access to computers or the Internet, this means they don’t have a voice, and all those connected can’t relate to the life experiences to those who aren’t connected, creating a larger divide.”

Shireen noted the role that schools might play in alleviating the divide - if students and teachers weren’t subjected to roadblocks like poorly implemented filtering strategies. “We have schools caught in a challenging place,” she said. “It is their job to educate and engage students in things that give them experiences to be successful in today’s society. Yet, these [filtering] restrictions make it difficult to for them to fully participate. At school they can get the support with their participation but with the restrictions as they are currently in existence in many schools, it makes especially challenging for those students who still don’t have computers at home.”

The irony of Charleston residents being unable to participate in an important local contribution to the political process wasn’t lost on the Washington Post. It clearly hasn’t been lost on all of you who have been posting comments on the blog. There, Mark Ahlness reminds us of the words of edublogger Tom Hoffman: “We’ve got a situation akin to letting the clerks in the purchasing department decide whether or not the books ordered by teachers and librarians are acceptable.” -andy

Filed under : Digital Divide, Events, Policy, Video


Digital Divide is a pretty old term for anyone interested in the issues. Though perhaps you can resurrect it as the Digital Divide 2.0 :)

With the OLPC project, perhaps we can take up a collection around the world and start a OLPV to get each voter in america a computer. If they bother to vote.

Cheers from Kanukistan to the north.

Harping on the “digital divide” is much ado about little. As mentioned in your blog, the library is available for researching and contacting candidates about their platforms and records. Further, reams of information is available, as it has been in past decades and centuries, from non-digital sources.

Regarding the coming presidential election, there is ample time for snail-mail correspondence with the parties and candidates.

Yes, digital is easier, but it is not necessary for informed participation in the political process.

I think in this society it’s a big deal to not have internet because we’ve made it that way. at the same time there is the school and the library. If someone really needed to use it, I have no doubt that they could find a place or person who would let them use the computer. However, in other countries, this wouldn’t even be an issue. As a future teacher in low-income schools this is something I will have to keep in mind when planning my lessons and activities. It is something that can be worked around and not the end of the world. I bet that families without internet, spend more time together or doing some kind of social activity and have better people skills than those who grew up with internet.

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