Bridging the Digital Divide in the Classroom

Technology expert Mario Armstrong talks about what two schools are doing to ensure kids have access to the technology they need to do well in school. He describes the challenge of bringing new technology to low-income students.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now not every student has a reported ready and willing to lend a personal computer. We wanted to learn more about what schools are doing to help kids like Arman bridge the digital divide. So we called on our regular technology contributor, Mario Armstrong. He described the challenge of bringing new technology to low-income students.

MARIO ARMSTRONG: This digital divide can take form as lower performing computers, or lower quality computers, or having a slower access to the Internet. In other words, while some people may have a dial-up connection to the Internet, if someone else has a cable modem or a DSL, which is a broadband high-speed connection to the Internet, there is a difference in how the person using the Internet on a phone line versus the person using the Internet on a cable line experiences their computer and experiences information and how they get access to it.

I mean you can also look at the divide beyond computers and look into whether or not people are even just technically literate and what that divide is, and if people can even perform on the job skills that require technology-related or computer-related skills.

CHIDEYA: But bridging that divide isn't cheap. A desktop computer with a monitor and a printer can cost $1,000. Throw in basic software, Internet access and maintenance and the final price tag can make even middle class families sweat. So how can low-income parents get technology to help their kids perform better in the classroom? Mario said it's a question of economics and perception.

ARMSTRONG: If you perceive that technology can pave a way for your future, you'll invest in it. Unfortunately, a lot of families that are in these low-income situations, and I'm not talking from just my thoughts, my ideas, my perceptions, I've actually been into the projects. I've actually been into homes where people are making certainly less than $25,000 a year and are making choices.

Does my kid eat today? Do they get a new pair of shoes? It's cold outside. Do we buy gloves? And when do we fit in this thing called a computer into all of this? And how does that give me any immediate reaction to anything positive that I or my kids can experience? Because the bottom line is these families want their kids to have the best, and they recognize that technology is moving at a rapid pace and that their kids can't compete. That's part of the challenge.

The other part is, unfortunately, some parents just don't get it. There's plenty of parents that I still bump into or meet regularly that say, oh, I missed the technology drive. I don't need it. I'm already retired. And what they're really missing is the mindset and the perception that they're placing on technology as a value in their home just by not bringing it in. So now the kids suffer because of that decision.

And so usually I have seen hope for families where the kid has really been the driver for mom or dad, I need a computer. We're doing more work at school. Here's what's happening. I have to have a computer. When the kids really start to push that, I have seen family say, you know, it's not about me. It's about the kids. Let's figure out how we can buy and invest in one of these.

CHIDEYA: More students are using computers in their classrooms. Some of them asked for the same gear at home. Mario sees schools doing more to meet student's demands.

ARMSTRONG: The schools for these kids are driving a lot of hope. In Chicago, they just - there's a recent high school that just announced that every student will receive what is called a Tablet PC. These are computers that you can write on almost like a sheet of paper, but you can write on them and do other things that a laptop can do. So there are schools and districts across the country doing different things.

But, you know, I talked to some people in Baltimore, and the University of Maryland and Baltimore County did a study. And they found that if Baltimore wanted to increase a student's connectivity to computers and to the Internet, it was going to cost the city over $4 million to perform this over a five year period. The reason why I'm saying all this, it's very expensive for schools and districts to try to figure this out.

Apple has a program called One-to-One Computing, where they've tried to make -or One-to-One Learning rather, where they try to make their technology more accessible. And I'll give the quick five things that they say schools or community activists or parents should be looking at in terms of how you get technology into their classes.

And one is leasing arrangements. Another one is to really look at the billions of dollars that are out there in federal grants. There is a lot of money out there for schools with the help of technology. State funding, grants are still available for many public and private organizations, and local community support.

But the biggest one for parents I would say is, many schools these days, they started doing this in the colleges, many schools these days now offer parent purchases where technology can be discounted for parents when they're bought for an educational reason. But the pricing issue is really, you know, to me a very big part of this battle. If we could figure out how to get more technology in the hands of these kids, we'd see a lot of more positive outcomes.

CHIDEYA: Mario has witnessed some of those results first-hand.

ARMSTRONG: I've been able and been lucky to sit in some of the poorest schools across the country in their technology classes and see the light bulbs of these kids who you - I mean their classrooms look horrible. But because the technology is in the classroom, somebody cares. And it's giving them an opportunity to experience the outside world.

It's another tool that gives them the ability to do what they know other kids are doing. And that has made kids come back to school or come in on time. And so these kids need this technology, and it's so integral between who they are and where they want to be. And it is kind of that bridge, if you will, that connects where they are in school today to the hope of where they want to be in the future.

CHIDEYA: There are lots of programs out there for people who want to donate computers, give money, or lend some of their tech support skills to classrooms in need. Mario described a few ways to help.

ARMSTRONG: There are programs like Computers for Schools, and they're a certified place that offers refurbished computers. So if you have an old computer, you may think it's too old but it may not be, there may be usable parts in that device. You can donate this.

Another one to look at if you're a non-profit yourself or you have a community center and you want to expand your computer practice or your computer labs for youth after school, check out a Web site called TechSoup.org. It's probably the best destination online for non-profits that are looking for answers to technology problems.

And then I would say from a parental standpoint there's also other tools online I'd like to quickly share. There's one called OpenOffice.org. This is a free place online where you can download legally “Office,” what looks just like “Microsoft Office Suite” software for free.

So I know a lot of families are thinking, all right, I'm going to make that purchase, I'll buy that computer, but now I have to buy software. And that could be another several hundred dollars. Well, I just gave you free software that you can just download and hook your kids up.

So there's no excuse, and that's just how serious it is. And those are some of the ways that you can take charge and get your kids to not be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

CHIDEYA: That was Mario Armstrong, NEWS AND NOTES tech contributor. He also covers technology for Baltimore area NPR member stations WYPR and WEAA.

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CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. If you want to listen to the show, you can visit npr.org to catch up on any of those tech tips you missed or anything else. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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