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February 13, 2000: This message was distributed by Papyrus News, a free e-mail distribution list on the global impact of information technology on language, literacy, and education. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For information on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <http://www.lll.hawaii.edu/web/faculty/markw/papyrus-news.html>.

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Some of you may have seen Steve Cisler's recent piece criticizing the use of the term digital divide (you can find it at http://www.athenaalliance.org/links.html).

Basically, Cisler feels that the term ignores the continua of types of information access that people have, and instead poses a false and patronizing view of a binary opposition between "online" and "offline". It also suggests that the principal problem that "offline" people have is to get "online," and as soon as they do their myriad other problems will be solved.

He makes good points. Shortly after I read Cisler's piece, I read an account of an NGO (I used to wonder whether it should be "a NGO" or "an NGO". A quick search of the two terms on altavista search engine turns up only 147 pages for the former and 14,457 pages for the latter. I guess it resolves that question), anyway, I read on the GKD list an account of an NGO in Indonesia called Women's Solidarity. The account discussed how the members of the networks who lived in rural areas, and didn't have Internet access, received copies of materials from their colleagues who lived in cities and who did have Internet access. In other words, their social network provided them regular access to online material that was relevant to their lives and their struggle. Were these people online or offline?

The term "Digital Divide" is a catchy one with a fair amount of social currency these days, and I will continue to use it as short hand to focus attention on important issues of social inequality. But it seems to me that the concept underlying the term is eerily similar to the "Great Divide" theory of literacy.

That theory suggests that, whether for individuals or societies, there is a binary opposition between being literate or being illiterate, and that being literate automatically brings with it all sorts of automatic benefits. The following are some of the items that the concept fails to take into account, ones that I think apply equally to Internet access as to print literacy:

* There is not just one type of literacy but many kinds of literacies (including different kinds of oral literacy, print literacy, electronic literacy; is a Homeric oral poet less literate that someone who can decode basic words but can't read or write a story?)

* People master each of the many kinds of literacies along a continua, rather than being either yes, illiterate, or no, illiterate.

*Literacy by itself brings little benefits (see, for example, Cole and Scribner's landmark study of the Vai people in Liberia, who learn to read and write their own language outside of school contexts; the study found that without schooling, literacy brought little of the cognitive benefits that were earlier imagined). The meaning and benefits of literacy exist only within particular social and institutional contexts.

*Accessing literacy is a matter of not only culture, but also power, as it is tied up to a much broader agenda of social access

Those of us who think about Internet access and the digital divide might do well to think not only how to get low-income people an Internet address, but also think more about about the broader social contexts which determine whether, when, and how Internet access actually makes a difference in people's lives.

Another thing I've been thinking about lately is what has been called "fast capitalism" (by Gee), "new capitalism" (by the New London Group), or "new times" (by Luke) --- and its relationship to collaborative learning, restructured classrooms, etc. It used to be the case that learning-centered classrooms, collaborative learning, project-based work, etc., were practiced in the US mostly in private schools or wealthy suburban schools. In other words, these kinds of interactive learning were reserved for the well-to- do students, while low-income and minority students generally faced more traditional kinds of drill-based learning (see Larry Cuban's history educational reform for discussion of this). My feeling on this, based on some initial research, is that this now may be changing. It may be that collaborative learning is becoming so mainstream that it will be practiced much more broadly. This has certainly been the case in colleges of education, which are almost unanimous in promoting collaborative learning. Perhaps it will slowly become the case in classrooms as well. Not that there won't be differences in how much, and to what extent, rich and poor students get to practice student-centered learning, but that these kinds of learning practices may become more common in low socio-economic status (SES) neighborhood schools, as well as wealthy ones.

Why do I believe this? The more one reads about economic restructuring going on in the US and other Western countries, the more one realizes that teamwork, cooperation, multi-tasking (and some basic computer skills) are a required part of a great number of jobs, and not only elite ones. Even lower level service and production workers often need to work in teams now in order to function well. And they need to communicate with each other via computer. If one believes, as do I, that the political economy greatly shapes what goes on in the schools, than won't this affect how teaching is conceived and practiced? Think for example how in the mid-20th century US schools came to resemble factories, with highly structured learning systems, packaged materials, pre-programmed learning, fulfillment of narrowly defined learning objectives, etc. Isn't it natural that in the new networked economy our schools will slowly come to resemble the modern workplace? This might seem like a good thing, and I believe it is--we might as well educate children for the 21st century rather than the 20th one. But as Gee et. al point out in their book (The new work order), this isn't necessarily a revolutionary development. My own belief is that as collaborative learning becomes more common place, different types of collaborative learning will distinguish poor schools from rich ones. Kids in low- SES neighborhood schools may end up having a penpal exchange or perhaps producing a limited-content newsletter, while kids in high-SES neighborhood schools will engage in critical analysis, interpretation, production of sophisticated multimedia rich in content, etc.

Anyway, those are some things I've been thinking about. Thoughts?

Mark (from a cold Cairo)


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Last updated: February 14, 2000