Keep Access to Technology at the Head of the Class

When gutted budgets leave no room for tech programs, IT pros must step up to close the digital divide

"Mom, did you like computer class when you were in first grade?" asked my 6-year-old daughter.

"Well, er, I, ah, we didnt have computer class when I was in first grade," I said. "When I was in first grade [insert flashback sound effect here], I dont think I had even heard the word computer, let alone seen or used one."

I explained that the first time I used a PC was in college, and that it wasnt until fairly recently that it was common to see a PC in the home.

My daughter thought about that for a moment, then asked me what I asked my mother when she told me that she didnt have a TV when she was little: "What did you do for fun?"

So far, fun is really what the computer is all about for my 6-year-old. She spends about an hour a day (though it would be more if she had her way) playing games like Reader Rabbit, Harry Potter and Clue Finders. Shes also well-aware of the Web, and, while she learns a lot in the process, her school computer class is pretty fun, too.

For my older daughter, the computer is turning into an important lifestyle and education tool. (But no IM yet, thank goodness.)

My 9-year-old is a prolific writer, a history buff and an aspiring journalist, and she has discovered the ease with which she can compose and archive in Word, the (relative) freedom with which she can research people and topics that interest her on the Web, and the amazingly professional-looking ways in which she can produce her own semi-weekly news publication, Yours Truly (written for girls, by a girl, goes the tagline), using a variety of programs.

And for my 9-year-old, whos in fourth grade, the computer is increasingly key for schoolwork.

None of the students is required to use a computer—yet—but this year marked the first time that my 9-year-old and her classmates were allowed to produce book reports and other assignments using the PC.

Big projects, like the one they are currently working on for the school curriculum fair, dont require an office suite, digital camera or multifunction printer/scanner/copier, but, boy, theres a big difference in the projects produced by kids who do have those things in their homes and those who dont.

Teachers are thus charged with assessing students work on yet another level—the technology with which it was produced.

So far, for us, this has not been a problem. Just as teachers have long had to compare relatively the working model engine produced by the student whose father just happens to work at GM and the lopsided model of Mt. Vesuvius produced by the student with telltale clay on his hands, the teachers weve had the good fortune to know have been able to grade fairly and equitably both the hand-made and the CAP (computer-aided project).

Many colleges and universities require that students have a laptop, often building it into the cost of tuition and distributing and managing the systems themselves. Will it be long before the use of technology in all of academia goes from acceptable to required? And what happens to the kids with limited or no access?

Which brings me to the digital divide, a phrase often bandied about during the Clinton Administration but not widely heard now as the slumping economy and threat of war hang over our heads. A very unscientific search finds many articles and papers written on the subject from 1999 to early 2001, but not much after that.

In my home state of Massachusetts, newly inaugurated Gov. Mitt Romney, facing a mega-budget deficit, said mega-cuts would be needed, including some programs that we "really like." Massachusetts is not alone in its state of fiscal crisis, and the first programs to go are usually the ones we really like, including programs for children.

Of course, there are many organizations—including many technology vendors—that have made it a priority to provide equipment and, more importantly, training to those who might not otherwise have it. Part of the proceeds from this years eWEEK Excellence Awards will go to three of them: iMentor, PluggedIn and the Massachusetts-based Youth Tech Entrepreneurs.

And its been my experience that many schools are lucky enough to have at least a handful of dads and moms with technology backgrounds who are willing to volunteer to wire the school, upgrade computers and work on skills with students and teachers, among many other things.

As budgets and good programs get slashed, its incumbent on all of us to make sure all kids have access to the same tools and knowledge.

Dont let the divide widen.

How are you working to close the digital divide? Write me at