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For Whom Does the NET Work?

For Whom Does the NET Work?

I find the term “InterNET” somewhat ironic. A net is often thought of as a safety feature, as in a safety net that catches someone who might fall while attempting to do something significant. But a net is also used to entrap things, as in a butterfly or fishing net. Now doing something significant, like getting an education, may, for some people, involve significant risk-taking. Safety nets are, then, desirable in giving people the confidence to accept important challenges that involve risk — challenges they might be less willing to take, were there no safety net.
So what are we to make of the Internet? Which kind of net does it provide? Does the Internet act as an enabling safety net, or does it entrap or otherwise pose a barrier when it comes to people fulfilling their aspirations in life? Does the Internet provide access and opportunity for fulfillment of human aspiration? Or does it actually entrap those who do not have access to computer technology or proficiency in the use of the technology. At issue is the role of computer literacy — or its absence — in contributing to the new segregated society characterized by a new racial-digital class divide. 
Computer literacy is today what the three R’s were just over half a century ago — an absolute necessity. If African American and other minority graduates are to compete successfully in the work force of the 21st century, they need access not only to the hardware and software, but also to the training that will place them on a level playing field with the best-trained graduates of the top research institutions. 
Before we can talk about college preparation, however, we need to examine our national commitment to creating a level playing field at the precollege level. Until we can say with some assurance that students have had access to equal opportunities before college, we cannot expect the outcomes to be equal across the board.
Some months ago, I read a column by Clarence Page about the “digital divide.”  His sub-title was “High-tech knowledge key to finding good jobs today.” Page argued that “for increasing numbers of people in the new telecommunications age, the Internet is the bus (that gets them to where the jobs are) … these days, you have to know how to get wired in order to get hired.” Page also referred to a report by the U. S. Commerce Department that found that although Internet access had grown among all groups, the gap in access for Blacks and Hispanics and access for Whites and Asian Americans had actually widened. It is clear that those who begin disadvantaged become more disadvantaged relative to those who have access early on.
If we are to have the highly trained and inevitably multiethnic, multicultural work force that the future holds, America’s colleges and universities must provide a vigorous, high-quality education that prepares all students for a technologically complex and demanding future. For minority and nontraditional students in particular, this may well mean additional efforts to compensate for backgrounds in which their access to computers and other essentials of modern technology has been distinctly inferior.  
Knowing how to use a computer to communicate is empowering. However, unless we level the playing field by ensuring the adequacy of access to technology at the precollege level, those who come to us underserved remain vulnerable to falling behind. Institutions of higher education have the awesome job of providing resources to level the playing field for students who have been subject to the damaging disparities created by the lack of Internet access, i.e., the “entrapping net.” Educators in higher education know all too well, as Page stated in his article, they (our students) “must get wired to get hired.”
And with the safety net in place, we must not only close the gap; we have to work aggressively to level the playing field. We must advocate and implement precollege experiences that provide quality technology and training for all of our young people. Our goal: To eradicate the digital divide.

— Dr. Dolores E. Cross is the president of Morris Brown College
in Atlanta, Ga.


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