While many companies look to kids and teenagers for hints about the technology trends of the future, that future is likely to exclude a large part of the general population and be defined by a digital divide that will separate societys haves from its have-nots.
The Internet and todays new technologies remain largely an experience for the middle class and upper class. And until digital divide issues are better resolved in schools, it will stay that way, experts say.
“The technology is changing very rapidly, and the gap between haves and have-nots is growing,” said Alan B. Kreuger, a Princeton University economics professor. “Unless theyre given adequate resources, its going to be difficult to close the gap.
When it comes to computers, public schools have narrowed the digital divide: There are computers in virtually every school. Yet many schools come up short with regard to Internet access.
In the schools with the fewest students in poverty, 81 percent of the computers were hooked up to the Internet in 1999. In the poorest schools – where 70 percent or more of the students qualified for free or subsidized lunches – just 42 percent of the computers were connected to the Net that year.
“The personal computer remains a middle-class experience,” said Thomas Stevens, chief technology officer of Denver Public Schools, where two-thirds of the students are Hispanic or black. Three years ago, one Denver principal did a survey and found that of the 700 families, only six had a computer at home.
Thats why its essential that urban school districts use the classroom to bring their students up to speed with the Internets world of information, Stevens said. One project that shows promise involves interactive TV. WorldGate Service, through its Internet-based WorldGate Internet School to Home (WISH) TV project, teamed up with researchers at Louisiana State University to let at-risk students in 4th grade through 7th grade access the Internet through their televisions. Teachers reported that the new connection led to greater communication between home and school, while increasing the students completion of homework assignments and class participation. While most of the students lacked PCs at home, they all had televisions.
Still, inner-city schools have so many competing needs – such as security and reading tutors – that they arent likely to bridge the digital divide without a lot more help, Krueger said.
While suburban schools can raise the money for a years worth of Internet access at a single nights silent auction, an inner-city school might have trouble doing it with a years worth of bake sales.