October 30, 2003

US kids are more wired than ever - is that good?
Do we really need to close the Digital Divide?

The AP reports on a new study released by the US National Center for Education Statistics

"If kids today seem more wired than ever, it's because they are. About 90 percent of people ages 5 to 17 use computers and 59 percent of them use the Internet -- rates that are, in both cases, higher than those of adults. Even kindergartners are becoming more plugged in: One out of four 5-year-olds uses the Internet."

"Children are often the first adopters of a lot of technology,'' said John Bailey, who oversees educational technology for the department. "They grow up with it. They don't have to adapt to it. ... Students, by and large, are dominating the Internet population.''

The report predictably discusses the use of computers in schools and the "digital divide." You often hear the media, technology vendors, and educators use these kinds of statistics to cry for more computers and technology in schools.

As a parent, I question whether more technology is what we most need in schools. I wonder if the technology in place and the way it's used in classrooms is really worth the cost. I'm not talking about just financial costs either. Consider also the opportunity costs: use of teacher time, use of students' time, use of physical space, etc.

I'm a heavy technology user; I've advocated and sold many computer-based technologies in the past. Yet, I still wonder if our children shouldn't be focusing on other things or learning in other ways. There's an excellent report called "Computers Make Kids Smarter—Right?" that analyzed current research (as of 1998) and raised some excellent questions. If you're wondering if your local schools need more technology, I recommend you skim this report to learn what questions you should be asking educators and school boards. I know I'll have a keener eye to what my daughter is doing in the with computers in the classroom after looking this over.

"Over the past 30 years, studies of classroom use of computers have indeed found evidence of moderate effectiveness when it comes to the academic performance of students who use them. They also have found evidence of minimum effectiveness. And of no effectiveness at all."

"To answer the urgent question that many policymakers, practitioners, and parents ask—do students using computers learn more, faster, and better than if they were taught in familiar, nontechnological ways?—few of the interested parties have delved into the findings researchers have provided. Most have simply assumed that computers are effective and rushed to put new technologies into schools

"While it is clear that students will need to know how to manipulate databases, word processors, and other computer applications if they are to be competitive in the labor and undergraduate markets, what is less clear is how effective computers are as teaching tools or levers for transforming classroom organization. In coming to policy decisions about the best use of computers in schools, these distinct goals must be recognized and considered individually."

For another viewpoint, see Music Beats Computers at Enhancing Early Childhood Development

Closing the Digital Divide
As I mentioned, the report also highlights the "digital divide." Some will continue to say we need to "close the digital divide." (President Clinton called the divide the "key civil rights issue of the 21st century," and the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in calling for help to close the global digital divide, even recently asserted that technology "can and must be harnessed to our global mission of peace and development." Can someone please tell me how more technology in the world helps establish more peace? Do we really know that computers are what disadvantaged people need most? Do poor inner-city dwellers need a computer more than a job? Do kids need a computer instead of a mentor? Should we bypass building a park for kids to play in if it means we can provide instant access to MTV.com for Brittany-depraved teens?

Sure, you can assert that I shouldn't sit in my connected home and claim that others don't need what I have. But here's my point: I know I'd rate Internet access for my kids as a very low priority on a list of things that enhance their lives. What things are at the top of the list? Having two parents, a good family income, food on the table, friends to play with, outside space to play in, a dog or cat to die so they learn about loss early in life, a family vacation, books to read and color in, and so on... One of the best "schools" I had in life was working on cars with my grandfather. He taught me a lot of things about problem solving, improvising, having a "can-do" attitude, etc. My kids won't learn those kinds of lessons from Reader Rabbit.

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