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

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November272007

Discussing Edtech and the Digital Divide with Barack Obama and John Edwards - Sort Of

I’ve been hoping to ask the U.S. presidential candidates some questions about education technology and the digital divide, but my access to them is, shall we say, limited. So I suggested some of my more pressing questions to tech blogger Mike Arrington, who’s been interviewing the candidates, hoping he’d use some of them. Thanks to him, we now have some insight on how Barack Obama and John Edwards address these issues, with hopefully more candidates to come.

As you may recall, last June I had the opportunity to attend the PBS Presidential forum at Howard University, featuring the Democratic candidates. Immediately following the debate I managed to chat with four of the candidates - Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel - about their opinions regarding education technology, the digital divide and other issues. When I blogged about it, I promised I would try to pose similar questions to other candidates, so you could judge for yourself where they stand on these issues - or at least how they spin them to meet their own PR goals.

Well, it’s been five months since then, and I’ve had a hard time getting my questions through the many layers that make up each candidate’s election campaign. So I’ve decided to take a more indirect approach, passing on my questions to folks that have a lot better access to the candidates than I do, and hope that they utilize them. Various entities have begun inviting users to suggest questions as a form of journalistic crowdsourcing, giving interviewers a broader selection of questions than if they’d just come up with the questions on their own. So I’ve pitched my questions here and there, hoping they might get picked up in an interview or debate.

One person who’s had much more success at posing questions to the candidates is technology blogger Mike Arrington of TechCrunch. Last month, Mike asked the public to help him out with questions he could present to Republican candidate Mitt Romney. I quickly published a short list of ones I’d like to see asked on my personal blog and on TechCrunch:

  • Do you support the federal E-Rate program, the initiative that subsidizes Internet access in low-income schools and libraries? Why or why not?

  • No Child Left Behind mandates that all students must be “technologically literate” by the eighth grade but doesn’t expand on the subject. In your mind, what technology skills should every eighth grader possess, and why?

  • The U.S. continues to struggle when it comes to producing enough college graduates who major in disciplines related to science, technology, engineering or math. What reforms would you make in K-12 education in order to increase the number of students who go on to college to study these disciplines?

  • What do you think of MIT’s so-called $100 laptop? Do you see it offering any benefit to US students?

  • Congress is currently considering legislation that would block access to online social networks at schools and libraries that accept federal E-Rate funding. Do you think this legislation would help protect kids against online threats, or does it undermine educators’ abilities to use the Internet creatively in their classrooms?

  • How do you personally define the term “digital divide”? Do you believe there is still a digital divide in this country? Would you use that term to describe it, if you were president? What would you do as president to alleviate it?

Arrington posted his Romney interview on November 1. He didn’t get around to using my questions, though he did say in the post he hoped to ask Romney about the digital divide in a follow-up interview. A couple of weeks later, Arrington posted another interview, this time with a second Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain. Once again, the clock ran out, with Arrington telling McCain that there wasn’t enough time to talk about the digital divide or the E-Rate.

If I were a pessimist, I would have probably thrown in the towel and dismissed my ability to formulate a half-decent question. But the optimist in me remembered that there are a lot more candidates in the presidential race, so perhaps I just needed to be more patient.

That patience began to pay off when Arrington interviewed Democratic challenger John Edwards the following week. Right off the bat, Edwards began by answering a general question about the U.S. tech industry by hinting at his interest in investing in education and bridging the digital divide:

I believe that the single most important factor for America’s future prosperity is investment in education, science, technology and innovation. But today we are challenged by other countries which have invested aggressively in education, engineering and infrastructure, giving them an edge in the global economy. The country that developed the Internet is now 16th in broadband deployment, and America’s competitiveness has suffered…. The spread of broadband has been uneven and costly, too driven by the profits of a few entrenched companies and technologies to allow the nation as a whole to realize the billions in economic benefits promised by truly universal Internet access. I will set a goal of universal broadband by 2010, make the Research and Experimentation tax credit permanent, make higher education affordable with college for everyone and improve patent quality by reforming our patent laws and devoting more resources to the patent office.

After a few more tech policy questions, Arrington asked Edwards a dual question based on the ones I’d asked about increasing the number of technology and science graduates, and the technology literacy clause of No Child Left Behind. Edwards replied this way:

We all pay a price when young people who could someday find the cure for AIDS or create the next Google end up sitting on a stoop because they didn’t get the education they need. Today, too few of our schools are teaching our children creative, analytical skills, and too few students have access to the technology that can light that spark. Ninety-five percent of urban high schools report problems getting qualified science teachers. American 9th-graders are 18th in the world in science education.

No Child Left Behind has lost its way by imposing cheap standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum at the expense of science, history, and the arts and mandating unproven cookie-cutter reforms on schools. As a result, it has lost the support of teachers, principals, and parents, whose support is needed for any reform to succeed.
Every year, 200,000 college-qualified students cannot enroll because their families cannot afford it.

Our children are every bit as talented as our foreign competitors, but they have not been given the tools they need to succeed. I believe that every school should be wired and that we need to overhaul our curricula to emphasize technological skills, math and science, creative thinking and problem-solving. I also support Career Academies in high schools that link students to local employers and skills in high-demand industries, including information technology. If we do not invest in developing these skills among our children now, the United States risks becoming a technology follower, rather than a leader.

As president, I will overhaul No Child Left Behind to center our schools around children, not tests, and help struggling schools, not punish them. I will also launch a “School Success Fund,” a Marshall Plan-like effort to rebuild and restore America’s schools. I would ask teams of experienced educators, what I call “education SWAT teams,” to spend a year at struggling schools helping launch reforms where we need them the most.

To ensure that every child is prepared to succeed, I will provide resources to states to help them offer universal high-quality “Great Promise” preschool programs for four-year-olds. I will work with states to give all teachers in successful high-poverty schools up to a $15,000 raise. I will also create a national teachers’ university – a West Point for teachers – to recruit 1,000 top college students a year, train them to be excellent teachers, and encourage them to teach where they are needed most. Finally, I will create a national version of a program I started in a rural county in North Carolina, called College for Everyone, which provides a full year of public college tuition and books to any college-qualified student who is willing to work part-time.

Arrington followed it up with another pair of questions based on the ones I submitted about the E-Rate and the digital divide.

Arrington: The Digital Divide is roughly defined as the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet with those who don’t. More broadly, it includes not only access, but the skills and ability to use those resources effectively.

The controversial Federal E-rate program allocates money from telecommunication taxes to poor schools without technology resources. Some statistics suggest 100,000 or more schools have been provided with Internet connectivity and additional computers.

What is your opinion of the E-rate program? What else can be done to increase access to technology in our schools? What can be done outside of schools to address the digital divide more generally?

Edwards: First, let’s talk about what the digital divide really means in America. It means that while half of urban and suburban households have broadband, less than a third of rural homes do. It means that African Americans are 25 percent less likely to have Internet access at home than whites. The Internet has been an engine of innovation and opportunity – one that started in America and then revolutionized the world. Yet, here at home, too many are denied access to it, including 40 percent of rural Americans. That is just not acceptable.

As president, I would do a number of things. First, I will help create universal, affordable access to broadband. There should be no neighborhoods in America where the lights of the Internet are not on.

The starting place for that is setting a goal of giving all U.S. homes and businesses access to real high-speed Internet by 2010. I will establish a national broadband map to identify gaps in availability, price, and speed. I will also create public-private partnerships to promote deployment and require providers not to discriminate against rural and low-income areas. I will work to improve Internet accessibility for people with disabilities. I believe we need to improve the e-rate program with a goal of universally wired schools.

Since achieving truly universal broadband will require every tool at our disposal, I will encourage local service providers and municipal wireless projects, and use the newly available 700 megahertz spectrum and broadcast television white spaces to support wireless networks that can connect with all digital devices.

Needless to say, I was thrilled that Arrington decided to use some of my questions with Edwards. Then yesterday, I discovered he had done the same when interviewing Barack Obama. First came that question about the E-Rate:

Arrington: What is your opinion of the E-rate program? What else can be done to increase access to technology in our schools? What can be done outside of schools to address the digital divide more generally? Obama: I consider the E-rate program a success because it has helped make broadband nearly ubiquitous in America’s public schools and I am honored that Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard, the FCC Chairmen under President Clinton who oversaw the plan’s creation and implementation, have chosen to endorse my candidacy for President. Unfortunately, we have not made further progress under the Bush Administration and I will recommit America to ensuring that our schools, libraries, households and hospitals have access to next generation broadband networks. I will also make sure that there are adequate training and other supplementary resources to allow every school, library and hospital to take full advantage of the broadband connectivity. In terms of bridging the digital divide outside of schools, I will reform the two major programs which can drive broadband into underserved communities. I described a bold approach to reforming spectrum policies in the previous question. In addition, my administration will establish a multi-year plan with a date certain to change the Universal Service Fund program from one that supports voice communications to one that supports affordable broadband, with a specific focus on reaching previously un-served communities. Finally, I will encourage innovation at the local level through federal support of public/private partnerships that deliver broadband to communities without real broadband.

Next was the technology literacy question:

Arrington: How would you define “technically literate?” What technology skills should every eighth grader possess? What do you think is the best way to reach the goal? Obama: To me, technical literacy means ensuring that all public school children are equipped with the necessary science, technology and math skills to succeed in the 21st century economy. As president, I will make math and science education a national priority and provide our schools with the tools to educate 21st century learners. Access to computers and broadband connections in public schools must be coupled with qualified teachers, engaging curricula, and a commitment to developing skills in the field of technology. All children must have access to strong math and science curriculum at all grade levels, including the pre-K level. That’s why I will also invest in research and development in science education to determine what types of curriculum and instruction work best. At the college level, I will work to increase our number of science and engineering graduates, encourage undergraduates studying math and science to pursue graduate studies, and work to increase the representation of minorities and women in the science and technology pipeline, tapping the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce. If we export our best software and engineering jobs to developing countries, it is less likely that America will benefit from the next generation innovations in nanotechnology, electronics, and biotechnology. We must have a skilled workforce so that we can retain and grow jobs requiring 21st century skills rather than forcing employers to find skilled workers abroad.

There’s no guarantee that Arrington or others will use these questions in subsequent interviews with other candidates, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. In particular, I hope the questions get posed to Republican candidates as well as the Democratic candidates, since we’re more likely to get a variety of policy perspectives on these subjects that way.

So what’s your reaction to the answers provided by Edwards and Obama? Do you think they elucidate how they would make policy decisions regarding these issues? Do you agree with their answers? If not, what would you like to see the candidates saying instead? -andy

Filed under : Digital Divide, People, Policy

Responses

That is an amazing post! Thank you!

It is interesting to see how the discourse around the digital divide has not changed since 1990s’. Only recently i blogged about Obama’s talk at Google, where he also referred to some of these topics (even if not always directly).

It’s interesting that Obama never really defined what it means to be “technically literate”. He wants students to have “21st century skills” but instead of explicitly listing what those skills are — he skirted around the issue by expressing the steps he would take to make sure students have the skills to compete in the global economy, etc. “blah, blah, blah vote for me.” My guess is, he really has no clue what a technically literate student looks like.

I love this question “No Child Left Behind mandates that all students must be “technologically literate” by the eighth grade but doesn’t expand on the subject. In your mind, what technology skills should every eighth grader possess, and why?”

Not only don’t the candidates have a handle on the answer, but most school districts don’t have a clue either. Technology classes in middle school are being CUT not improved upon or mandated.

I do not have a web address, I guess I am a part of the ‘digital divide’?
One important fact to consider. I have noticed that as bandwidth increases or as ‘access’ increases, the internet slows down. I have been on the internet since AOL started and we had a slow modem, a fast modem, and now cable modem. My internet always ends up slowing down, no matter the speed. A consequence of more content, more access.

I have a graduate degree but being an introvert, have never been into social networking or using the latest electronic gadgetry. How does the emphasis on technology help students who may be like me?

Another point of concern - Where is the money needed for access to technology and its constant need for ‘updates’ that are not free.

My question for candidates promising to ensure ‘universal access’ is how are they going to pay for it? We are engaged in a war that is taking resources away from the citizens and no one wants to be responsible for increasing taxes apparently. The pie can only be cut into so many pieces for everyone to be satisfied. So, unless the pie is made bigger, there will be a problem I think.

As Obama mentioned, jobs requiring the math and engineering skills are being ‘outsourced’ to China and the rest of the world. So, what is the incentive for students to study those subjects? An unintended, unforseen consequence of ‘globalization’ promoted by politicians and capitalists or capitalist politiicians. America is a great country when it has great courageous leaders who have have the foresight to see the real consequences of their actions and are not blinded by poor advice.I am surprised that America’s leaders did not see the consequence of job loss as a result of ‘globalization. when we export jobs to take advantage of ‘cheap labor’ those jobs will not return until salaries and benefits in USA come down to the level of the countries we are exporting those high paying jobs to in order to promote the short term profits of big companies. Are we ready to accept a reduced standard of living - which is what we are facing now. And guess what, no money for access means the digital divide will continue to become bigger.

Perhaps altruism will lead to the rich paying for access for all? Would that be a ‘choice’ and not a ‘tax’? Would an ‘altruism’ based economy become a successful model for our future?

ISSUES BE , OLD HISTORY ,

OLD FREEDOM , WITH A DEGREE ,

IF YOU ASK ME , VOTE FOR FREE ,

FREEDOMFREE , IF YOUR ASKING SEE ,

YOUR NOT FREE ,

NEW FREEDOM , COMES FROM ME ,

NATURALLY , AS YOU SEE ,

TIME REPEAT , THINK OF FREE .

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