Getting to the Other Side – Beyond the Digital Divide

William M. Fleischman


For ten years now, we have been participating in a collaborative effort with students and teachers of the Julia de Burgos Elementary School in North Philadelphia designed to overcome some of the obstacles to technological inclusion and educational progress that affect young students from low-income families. Those of us engaged in this effort understand our purpose to be that of striking an appropriate balance between two competing foci that have dominated thinking and practice in public education in the United States. These foci are represented in the two formulations 1) strong schools produce strong citizens and 2) strong schools produce a strong economy. Although the past century and a half has seen successive periods in which one of these two foci displaced the other in the foreground of public education, there has been an underlying commitment to the principle that public education, as a portal to productive citizenship, is a public good that should be available equally to all children. The problem, of course, comes from the thorny question of achieving equality or, at the very least, a measure of equity when the basis for school funding is so badly skewed against the interests of students in the public schools of our largest cities.

In this context, our effort represents an investment of resources, on behalf of students and teachers at one city school, to level, at least to a small degree, a badly tilted playing field. The further circumstance that this effort is going forward within the frame of reference provided by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 has complicated the mechanics of the collaboration in several ways. At the same time, our awareness of the pressures imposed by NCLB has served to deepen our commitment to the children and teachers involved and to direct our attention to fundamental issues and values associated with the role of computer technology in public education and to consideration of the valence of the World Wide Web, especially as a resource for poor children.

As characterized by Professor Larry Cuban of Stanford University, the prevalent view of educational reformers holds “that increased availability [of technology] in the classroom would lead to increased use. Increased use … would then lead to more efficient teaching and better learning which, in turn would yield able graduates who can compete in the workplace.” The only obstacle to this smooth and inexorable process of transformation appears to be the need of many urban public school teachers to invest their time urgently in preparing students for the high-stakes examinations mandated by NCLB. Thus, apart from exam preparation drill, the use of technology in the classroom has the air of a discretionary activity reserved for teachers and students in more fortunate circumstances.

Against this background, we have been able to implement, in collaboration with the eighth-grade teaching team at our partner school, a year-long curriculum leading to completion of multi-disciplinary exit projects by all the eighth-grade students at the school. The exit-project curriculum combines experience with a variety of software packages, the introduction of concepts of life expectancy and average length of healthy life (formally, disability adjusted life expectancy) and research on student-selected topics related to life expectancy and risk factors that are of immediate relevance to the students by virtue of social and environmental conditions affecting them and their families. This effort has been recognized as of sufficient value that, even in the face of NCLB-mandated pressure of maintaining adequate yearly progress (AYP) the newly-appointed principal of the school has asked us to implement a second iteration of the exit- project curriculum in the current school year.

Returning to the question of striking an appropriate balance between the desiderata of preparing students for the twenty-first century economy and helping them understand the challenges and possibilities of their role as citizens, we recognize that the deeper and longer-lasting effects of education for citizenship are, to some extent, purchased by means of the more readily apparent value of technological education for the near-term marketplace. On the one hand, exposure to and practice with important software packages helps develop a sense of confidence in grade school students that can propel them in the direction of more interesting futures, thus converting them from victims of inequities in access to technology to potentially more resilient contributors to the national economy. On the other hand, the nature of the research and reflection incorporated in the exit-project curriculum encourages students to think like independent citizens, not mere interchangeable economic units.

In the course of our work with the eighth-grade students, we have had the opportunity to observe their changing attitudes toward technology and the possibilities of connectedness through access to information available on the World Wide Web. In this paper, we discuss some of the encouraging, but occasionally contradictory and confounding, aspects of this interaction. In particular, we consider the ways in which increased self-confidence through the use of technology helps counteract the potentially negative effects of the computer as the site of educational humiliation in connection with the administration of high-stakes exams. We discuss also, and in the words of the young students themselves, the complicated valence of the World Wide Web as a medium of individual social expression, a resource for interpreting one’s role as citizen and responsible family member, and a source of both passive and active entertainment.