The True Digital Divide

Last evening I was invited to give a brief presentation to the History of American Education class I am in about Diigo, and how we might use it to collaborate during the rest of the week when we are not in class. I was about two minute into explaining what it does, when the self-described “Type A personality” interrupts me demanding, But why should I care?

I’m getting to that, I say. Not only can you save your bookmarks, your favorite websites, but we can form a group; we can collaborate, we can comment and annotate with highlights & sticky notes on the websites we are viewing as a group! Isn’t that cool?

Unfortunately, the demonstration computer didn’t have an up to date browser that would allow Diigo to function correctly, making it all the more difficult to sell my case. When the sign-up sheet was passed around collecting e-mail addresses of those interested in checking it out, as you can guess, Mr. “Type A” was not among the names. Neither were about half of the rest of the class.

I have written before about how I think Web2.0 should be taught in teacher education programs. Last night’s experience only bolsters my position.

I remember back when the “information superhighway” was just starting to catch on, and there was a big hub-bub about the potential for a “digital divide between the haves and the have-nots”. Wealthy kids could tap into this rich source of information while the poor kids wouldn’t have the means to do so, and there was a big push to wire every classroom in the country.

I believe the digital divide is very real, and the division line is not along economic boundaries. The boundary lies between those with a curious mentality towards technology and those without.

The real digital divide is between mere consumers of content and information, and those who are learning about the collaborative nature of Web 2.0 technology and its amazing content creating power.

Students without a role model at home or at school might be able to cross the digital divide on their own with their own curiousity and some blind luck. I would rather see adults setting the example for them.

When Benjamin Franklin was a young man, he embarked on a daily program of personal improvement. I should like to think that were old Ben alive today, he would be among the curious, teaching himself all he could about becoming a contributor in the digital age. He was all about self-education, which is exactly what every IT expert in the world has discovered is required to remain abreast of developments in the field.

Somehow, we have gotten away from the value of a self-education, in favor of a passive education that is supplied to us by a knowledgeable and well-qualified teacher.

Part of our struggles in the classroom is related to this change in attitude towards learning. How can I engage my students? How can I get them to take ownership of their own learning? Learning is not a passive thing; indeed  in the end all learning must be self-taught.

Mr. Type A from my class, you should care because students need role models of parents and teachers who are themselves traveling a path of life-long learning and discovery. Technology is an ideal area to engage in life-long learning because it is revolutionizing the world, and because you can never learn it all; it simply changes too fast. Not to mention you also run the risk of leaving your students on the wrong side of the digital divide if you don’t.

Edit: This video explains the power of social networking in a way I never could.

12 thoughts on “The True Digital Divide

  1. The divide between the “comfortable in their state of knowledge” and the “perpetually curious” is a huge one. I used to ask, “You are an educator, how can you not be interested?” But I don’t anymore, because they are not interested, often, because of their own educations, which have taught them to narrow and focus their learning.

    As Terry Eagleton said about Edward Said: “Intellectuals are not only different from academics, but almost the opposite of them. Academics usually plough a narrow disciplinary patch, whereas intellectuals of Said’s kind roam ambitiously from one discipline to another. Academics are interested in ideas, whereas intellectuals seek to bring ideas to an entire culture.”

  2. Ira,

    I truly appreciate this comment because you have helped me to better understand myself and my own thinking. Guess I can’t expect everyone to be like me, can I?


  3. Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen! Not having finished my coffee, I am afraid I’m not much more coherent than that, but I agree — we have a divide between people who (including our students) who are inherently curious about learning to use collaboration tools versus consuming.

    I did an English Journal article about Franklin’s program. I think it was in the July 2006 issue. I totally believe he would be trying new things. He’d be blogging. He’d be on Twitter. He had the kind of curious mind and desire to continue to learn that so many Web 2.0 contributors have — probably much more so! Self-education is key, too. So much of Web 2.0 is easier to learn if you poke around a bit and figure it out yourself, and yes, that means doing it wrong a few times, too. I see a lot of my students and colleagues afraid to do that.

    Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach said something I used in my recent presentation: “Technology will never replace teachers. However, teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not.”

  4. Bill,
    Thank you for this post. We have to fight this battle constantly with both teachers and students. Some students are voracious learners who do anything they can to learn whatever information is available to them. Others will not look at any picture outside their own current situation. It’s amazing how damaging that thought pattern can be from a learning standpoint. I passed this article along to my entire staff as I think it’s something we should all read and work to process. Thanks!

  5. Bill,
    Thanks for musing on the subject and I thank the commentors for their further elucidation of this subject. As a librarian, I have a strong interest in how libraries can provide services that overcome one kind of digital divide. Your “digital divide” angle is a new and helpful expression about those in the library profession who choose not to be professionally curious for the sake of others or themselves. BTW, I found your comments through someone I don’t know on Twitter who gave a tinyurl to your blog. THANK YOU. Excuse me now, I need to go and explore Diigo…

  6. An educator should always inspire a student to learn. and with web 2.0 what is the purpose to lookup words in a dictionary. Two Brains are better than one. It should be like this. More Brain are better!

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  8. People are often afraid to try something new because they are afraid to fail. This week I saw a fascinating video by Randy Nelson who works at Pixar and he talks a bit about failure when he says this:

    “The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not error avoidance.”

    How often as educators do we train our students not to make mistakes? Human beings learn best by making mistakes and figuring out ways of doing it better next time. Somehow we often lose sight of this truth.

  9. People would not be afraid to fail if our system did not “punish” failure. Everyone knows you learn more through failure than success, but like our system that “punish” saving money vs. spending beyond our means, pollute and degrade the environment without cost to raise profits and growth…. etc.
    Another question to ask is how do we evaluate “success”? Our true/false exam process may not capture learning very well. We all intuitively know this but because we have large class size or limited time we use it anyway. What does that say about our “system”?

  10. Ken,

    I experienced this last evening in a conversation with my daughter. She said she didn’t feel smart because she couldn’t “win” in the math & spelling games they play at school. In her mind, she must not be smart because the other kids are faster or get the right answers more often.

    We had a long discussion about what makes someone smart, and will have many more in the future. I want to continue to reinforce the idea that real success comes after a long series of trials and errors. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying.

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  12. Interesting material and discussion. While I tend to agree with what everyone is saying, personally I am cautious about saying someone is a “mere” learner of content. Sometimes it is a matter of maturity. Sometimes it is a matter of life circumstance (I think it would be very difficult to shift past mere learning of content when one is a single parent of three, dealing with an ugly divorce, working part time, yadda, yadda, yadda…)
    As a parallel example, in the field of the psychology of religion, a major research topic is a person’s “orientation” to religion. The field has thus far identified three: extrinsic, intrinsic, and quest. The extrinsic orientation is in it for secondary rewards (“I don’t want the neighbors to talk bad about me” or “I want to make sure my children believe something”); the intrinsic orientation is in it for personal reward (“It makes me a better person” and the like); and the quest orientation can’t ever get enough.
    All too often I hear teachers and faculty bemoan students who are only in it “for the grade” or “the diploma”. Is that inherently bad or wrong? Some may say yes, but I would tend not to agree. To me, that’s equivalent to saying: “everyone should be an extrovert” or “everyone should care as much as I do.”

    All that being said, it is possible to get an extrinsically oriented person to shift into the intrinsic mode…though typically it is a matter of maturation and/or crisis. How can teachers help students make this shift? Be excited! Embody life-long learning; bring that quest into the classroom!! I started off one of my classes yesterday with: “Look what I learned over the weekend!! Blah, blah, blah”…and a good twenty minutes of lively exchange followed my 45 second comment. It was awesome. In the end I don’t think it’s a matter of why someone else ‘should’ care, it’s truly a matter of why you care and what caring has done for your life.

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