Technology necessary but not sufficient for parity

It is five in the morning and night is fading into dawn. I am in my
favorite place at my favorite time–hunched over my computer before
morning light, stringing together sentences in the same way that a
child strings beads on thread, trying to make sense and create
resonance from words.

I could do this, I suppose, with a pen and a yellow pad. Indeed,
twenty years ago, I did. Now, my fingers bend to the keyboard and
resist writing more than a few paragraphs by pen. Technology has set me
free from scraps of paper and ink stained fingers. It has also yoked me
to a laptop and electronic adaptor that I carry almost everywhere.

Technology has transformed the way we write, think, communicate,
and learn. We’ve sped up communications, have access to more
information, and depend on precious microchips that–like so many other
resources in our society–are unevenly distributed. There is a racial
technology gap that has momentous implications for educational
attainment and workplace readiness in the future.

A 1995 report of the Department of Education indicated that Black
and Brown children are 30 percent less likely than white children to
have Internet access computers in their classrooms. Even when computers
are available in schools, the ratio of students to computers is nearly
twice as high in inner city schools as it is in the suburbs, where some
classrooms may have as many as a dozen computers. Further, Black and
Brown students are also only a third as likely as white students to
have computers at home. At the periphery of the computer revolution,
both at home and at school, where are these young people likely to be
in the twenty-first century workplace?

If computer literacy will be as necessary as basic literacy in the
future, what kind of futures will those without computer access have?
While some Americans are speeding down the information superhighway
with modems that connect to the Internet at faster and faster rates,
others are traveling on an unpaved side road in broken down jalopies —
or even on foot — as far removed from the superhighway as they will be
from the workforce of the future.

I believe that the technology gap will dictate part, but not all,
of the educational and workforce future for disadvantaged youth. In
other words, computers are not a panacea. There’s much educational
content, but also lots of junk, on the Internet. Some youngsters who
have computers at home use them to enhance their schoolwork. Others are
busy in chat rooms or game rooms, engaged in a sophisticated form of
leisure.

Computer access is key, but basic skills and literacy are equally
important. Inner city schools that lack computers with access to the
Internet need the same resources that suburban schools with Internet
access have. But every school also needs skilled and committed teachers
to teach basic literacy and mathematics. Every school needs a writing
program that helps youngsters express themselves concisely. Students
need to learn history and civics in addition to reading, writing, and
arithmetic.

Schools need the resources to teach these subjects. There aren’t
enough hooks to go around in some inner city schools and teachers are
copying pages for each day’s lesson to compensate. There aren’t enough
teachers to go around in schools that crowd more than thirty children
in a classroom. And not just incidentally, safety is as pressing an
issue on some high school campuses as computer access.

Because schools are funded with property taxes, inner city schools
spend fewer dollars per pupil than suburban schools. Some may say that
throwing money at these problems is an ineffective way of closing the
educational gap, but a few more dollars would go a long way toward
closing the resource gap.

The Congressional Black Caucus has made access to technology a
priority–not only for students but also for communities caught on the
short end of the technology gap. Imagine the access that many will gain
if there are storefront computer centers, computers in libraries, and
in other places. Imagine how the lives of homeless people or those
without telephones are improved with an e-mail address! There are many
reasons that technology must be made more accessible and available to a
wider audience.

My point: Because computer literacy is often a workplace
requirement, computers and technology will certainly improve the skill
levels of most students. But closing the technology gap will not close
the educational, employment, and economic gap.

Technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient, tool for parity.

We still need committed and competent teachers. We still need
adequate classroom materials, including those rudimentary antiques like
books, paper, pens, and laboratory equipment. Inner city schools need
the same extracurricular programs that other schools have. And inner
city students need to get off their campuses for field trips to museums
and other community resources.

Our focus on technology should not blind us to the other inequities
that so many African American students experience in the educational
process. Even as we struggle to close the technology gap, we should
understand that the gap is a symptom of a broader set of societal
inequalities.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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