Word processing skills are not writing skills

Earlier this year, the steady drum beat of hysteria about
“information haves and have-nots” hit a fever pitch when two University
of Vanderbilt researchers released a study about the “the digital
divide” between Black and White access to computers and the Internet.

Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak, the authors of the study, in
ominous tones argued “the consequences of this race gap in Internet use
are expected to be severe.” Moreover, they noted that “the United
States economy may also be at risk if a significant segment of our
society, denied equal access to the Internet, lacks the technological
skills to keep American firms competitive.”

Of particular interest to educators, the study highlighted the case
of high school and college students where “74 percent of White students
own a home computer, [while] 32.9 percent of African American students
own one.” Further, the study noted, the difference remains even after
adjusting for students’ reported household income. To emphasize the
seriousness of this detail, the authors commented in italics: “This is
the most disturbing case yet of when race matters …. Our results
suggest strongly that, in terms of students’ use of the Web,
particularly when students do not have a home computer, race matters.”

In the wake of the study’s finding, media outlets, government
officials, and community activists across the country called for
efforts to close the chasm.

The real issue, however, has nothing to do with computers. The
digital divide is a symptom of a far more critical racial cleavage in
society — that of access to high quality education.

Colleges and universities should resist the trendy focus on
electronic gadgetry as a means of mental emancipation and stick to
their strengths in the classic tradition of liberal arts education.

One finding in the study was that overall income “has little direct
effect on Web use” while increasing levels of education “positively
increase Web use.”

Put another way, education drives Web use and not the other way
around. Too many people seem to think that teaching a child to use a
word processor is the same as teaching a child to write. Writing and
word processing are fundamentally different skills. To blur the lines
about which should take priority is a grave error.

Again and again, analysts focus on putting kids in front of
computers without any emphasis On what role computers serve. Hoffman
and Novak talk at great length about computer access, Internet access,
and time spent on the Web without ever qualitatively describing how
those skills improve students ability to learn. Using a computer can
mean playing a video game or writing poetry. Surfing the Web can mean
admiring celebrity fan pages or coding one’s own celebrity fan site.
The difference between consuming other people’s work and creating one’s
own is at the heart of effective education, yet too few policymakers
appreciate the distinction. Students who succeed in introductory
composition classes will figure out how to use word processors;
students who are comfortable with Windows 98 won’t, necessarily be able
to produce grammatically correct sentences.

As even Hoffman and Novak write toward the end of their Paper: “The
policy implication is obvious: to ensure participation of all Americans
in the information revolution, it is critical to improve the
educational opportunities of African Americans.”

In one real world example, Doug Mellinger, the president of PRT —
a company loaded with world-class programmers — was recently quoted in
Inc. magazine stating that prospective employees are put through a
battery of tests measuring “cognitive ability, technical skill, and
attitude,” yet what PRT “cares about the most is how badly they want to
learn.”

The good news is that cultivating a passion for learning is
precisely what the liberal arts tradition of higher education has been
doing for centuries. The challenge before institutions of higher
education is to keep their eyes on the prize of graduating well-read,
critical thinkers — not tech-savvy Web-surfers.

Schools must not get distracted by dazzling new tools and they must
stay true to their missions of encouraging students to think for
themselves and never grow tired of asking questions.

OMAR WASOW President, New York Online Technology Correspondent, MSNBC

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