The Digital Divide and the Knowledge Deficit

To walk from a conversation about the need for a common core curriculum to one about turning schools into digital gaming parlors modeled after Grand Theft Auto – well, it’s what we in the business call a head jerk. But the good thing about the recently concluded marathon conference at the Hechinger Institute (sponsored by the MacAruthur Foundation, which has a major digital learning initiative) was that you didn’t have to walk anywhere.

In less than 24 hours – sleeping was off-campus – a small group of education journalists sat mostly well-behaved in room 177 of Grace Dodge Hall at Teachers College, Columbia University, and listened to a couple dozen experts – plus or minus, depending on plane and train schedules – challenge them to keep up with fast-paced rounds of panels (I counted eight, but who was counting) about “Digital Media, Children’s Learning and Schools.” I wondered at one point whether lunch would be delivered virtually.  My head is still spinning.  (Dave Murray, veteran education writer for the Grand Rapids Press, kept his cool and had three stories about the conference posted before he even left it. See here. Laura Fleming, another participant, reported on the conference here.)

It was a wonderfully eclectic gathering of new media watchers and educators, befitting the infinitely anarchic nature of the digital revolution. There was Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist of technology use from the University of California, Irvine, talking about breaking down “authoritarian forms of knowledge.”  Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, director of the National Writing Project, was trying to save the twenty-year-old national literacy program from the earmarks chopping block.  Anthony Orsini, a middle school principal from Ridgewood, NJ, talked about the media frenzy surrounding his memo to parents advising them to keep their kids away from social-networking sites.  Joe Kahne from Mills College, has found evidence that social media are contributing to more civic engagement on the part of students. And we ate dinner listening to James Paul Gee, author of An Introduction to Discourse Analysis as well as What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. The linguist turned gamer (who bears a passing resemblance to Sci Fi author Isaac Asimov) believes that the full integration of gaming technology into our educational program will end the need for tests – replaced by levels of proficiency as measured while playing the physics or history “game.” As Kahne was explaining to me, even the SAT test, now given on computers, instantaneously adjusts the level of difficulty of a question based on whether the previous question was answered correctly or incorrectly.

Despite the obvious new age mood of the sessions, some of the discussion had a déjà vu quality to it, brought home by education historian David Cohen, the University of Michigan professor with long gray hair and backpack, who bemoaned the lack of a national curriculum and praised the efforts of the common core crowd.  “This is the longest running debate in American education,” said Cohen, who worried the Tea Partiers would sidetrack the common core movement.  Without a common curriculum, he said, “our teachers are learning how to teach nothing in particular to no one in particular.” That seemed to take some of the air out of the room, but the point was reinforced the next day by Meg Campbell, founder of Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston, who was firmly in the computers-as-tools camp.  “Sure we use them in our school,” she explained, “but when I asked an IT friend of mine whether we should have a separate computer room, he replied, `Did schools ever have pencil rooms?’”

Indeed.  While there seemed to be a consensus that the Internet, the computer, iPad, Kindle, Smartphone, cell phone had definitely arrived and would, like it or not, change schools and learning, there was also a great deal of sentiment by the presenters that we were only at the beginning of the road. As Susan Neuman from the University of Michigan, reported, “We thought that once the digital divide was closed, we would be home free.  But almost 100% of our schools are wired and now we have a widening knowledge gap.”

While impressed with caliber of the minds on display at the conference, I couldn’t help wonder whether we aren’t perilously close to letting our digital obsessions distract us from obligations to teach knowledge.  While many educators remain digitally clueless, many are in the grip of the “relevance” and “engagement” and “self-expression” candies that our electronic gadgets proffer.  And unless we get a hold of the thing, as David Cohen and Meg Campbell suggested, we may be setting up another generation of poor kids, especially blacks and hispanics, for another huge fall.

–Peter Meyer

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