Closing Digital Divide, Expanding Digital Literacy During his term as president, Bill Clinton condemned what he called the "racial digital divide" and pledged to connect each classroom to the Internet by 2000. New studies now show that black and Latino youth have found their own way online through cellphones. To learn about this trend, guest host Tony Cox speaks with Craig Watkins, a sociologist who studies minorities' digital experiences in America.

Closing Digital Divide, Expanding Digital Literacy

Closing Digital Divide, Expanding Digital Literacy

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During his term as president, Bill Clinton condemned what he called the "racial digital divide" and pledged to connect each classroom to the Internet by 2000. New studies now show that black and Latino youth have found their own way online through cellphones. To learn about this trend, guest host Tony Cox speaks with Craig Watkins, a sociologist who studies minorities' digital experiences in America.

TONY COX, host: While the World Wide Web has sped up the global pace of communication, not everyone is up to speed. It's called the digital divide, and it describes the gap between those who have significant access to the Internet and those who don't.

Former President Bill Clinton sought to address the digital future during his time in office with an initiative to make every public school classroom Internet-ready by the year 2000. The concern was that minority youth who were not online would be unable to compete for jobs in the new millennium.

Today, black and Latino youth use media more than ever, outpacing white and Asian youth, according to a recent study by Northwestern University. But there's a big difference in how they use media, and that has created new challenges for bridging a divide that still exists.

S. Craig Watkins is a professor at the University of Texas, who is with us now to explain his research on minority youth and what fuels this gap. He joins us from Austin, Texas. Welcome, Craig.

S. CRAIG WATKINS: Hi, Tony. How are you?

COX: I'm fine, thank you. Let's begin with this. Let's define terms. When we say digital divide, what exactly do we mean and who are we talking about?

WATKINS: That's a great question. You know, I think about 15 years ago when we used the term digital divide, we were talking largely about the question or the concern around access to technology. Fast forward about 10 or 15 years later to 2011, and now when we talk about it, I think it's less about access to technology and more about participation. That is, the quality of engagement, what people are now doing with the technology that they have access to.

COX: You have commented before on reports about media use among minority youth. Reports that say they use media, for example, on average 13 hours a day. Thirteen. First of all, that's a startling amount of time. Does that capture all media? Being online, being on cell phones, or what?

WATKINS: You know, I think the study that you're alluding to, which was published I think about a year or so ago, but it deals primarily with just a combination of different types of media platforms: TV, music media, print, video games, online media. And increasingly, you know, we know that mobile is becoming more and more part of young people's media time as well.

Although I'm not sure if the 13 hours that are quoted in this study actually account for the amount of time that young people are spending watching video and listening to music on their mobile phones.

COX: For example, blacks on Twitter, it said in some of these reports, that they are the biggest users by far, disproportionately to their numbers in the population. How do you explain that?

WATKINS: Yeah. And that's what I mean by sort of a shift. I mean, 15 years ago, I mean, this - the idea, right, that African-Americans would be kind of on the front, on the cutting edge, a platform or a technology like Twitter would've been inconceivable, right?

We would be having a very different conversation 15 years ago. And now when we look at the landscape, right, Latinos and African-Americans are just as likely to be on Facebook, just as likely to be using mobile devices, just as likely to be using Twitter. And so now I think the question isn't so much about access, right, getting to the technology, but now about participation.

COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the digital divide among young people - the gap between whites and people of color and access to the Internet. We're joined today by S. Craig Watkins, a sociology professor who specializes in digital youth culture.

Craig, I want to go back to a point that you just made, and talking about it's not so much a matter of access, perhaps, but a matter of participation. Are minority youth - and I don't even know if this is a fair way to say it - are they ahead or behind in terms of their participation?

WATKINS: Yeah. It's a fascinating question because if you define progress largely as using technology, increasingly black and Latino youth have caught up and in some situations even surpassed their white and more affluent counterparts. We know, for example, that they're spending more time online or as much time online.

Again, we know that they're using their mobile devices, for example, for a wider range of things, so a much more robust activity around mobile devices: listening to music, playing games, social networking - those types of things. But, you know, there's a whole other sphere of technology, behavior and technology used, particularly in relation to young people.

There is a community of young people who use technology not only, right, to sort of consume content, but also to create content, to produce content, to become kind of manufacturers and producers of their own kind of information landscape.

And those require very different kinds of skills. What we call very different kinds of new media literacies. And what we don't quite know is to what degree are those literacies distributed evenly across race and ethnicity and across class.

COX: Give me an example of what you're talking about - the kinds of creations that you're referring to.

WATKINS: We're working with a group of students this summer, for example, it's a four-week program and they're essentially designing video games. And the video game is for a client. It's kind of getting the students, you know, thinking about and learning not only about game design technology, but also about, you know, the environment and green technology and building sort of, you know, green-based architecture.

And this is a group of students who traditionally, you know, aren't necessarily exposed to these kinds of opportunities, exposed to these types of assignments. The kids who are really on the cutting edge of technology, again, are using technology to create and design, you know, content.

COX: Who are we talking about? Which kids are doing that?

WATKINS: That tends to track primarily along the lines of class, and which in this country in some ways begins to intersect with race. So let me just give you an example of a study that my colleague Mimi Ito and some of her colleagues produced about three or four years ago in a book called "Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out."

And they discovered, sort of, two types of technology users - young technology users. There was the one group that they characterize as primarily using media to interact with their friends. But then there was a whole different sort of community of kids who were primarily drawn to the Internet for what they called interest-based reasons.

Like, they had a passionate hobby. Maybe it was a game. Maybe it was fan fiction. Maybe it was fashion. And they were seeking out other people who had those kinds of interests and developing a kind of depth expertise and a kind of learning community, a kind of learning ecology. Those kids tended to be kids who came from affluent communities, you know, rich social networks from, you know, very affluent school districts, which tends to be white and Asian.

And the question that we now want to pursue and some follow-up work that we're doing is: Are all kids accessing those kinds of opportunities? Are all kids accessing those kinds of online communities, online spaces that really enrich and empower their participation in the digital world?

COX: What can be done to get more people involved in myriad ways of using the Internet and digital media?

WATKINS: It seems to me that the richest and most promising attempts to do this are really kind of happening in the informal learning spaces. So they're happening in after-school programs, they're happening in the summer camps, summer workshops, which is interesting and raises a whole other set of questions about why schools aren't able to provide these kinds of opportunities.

But I think it's happening right through community, technology leaders. I think it's happening through social entrepreneurs who have decided, right, that these issues are so important that the digital divide today is really about digital literacy, right, and how do we begin to create environments, create spaces that encourage and support kids' ability to develop the kinds of digital media skills that they will need in the 21st century in what I call kind of islands of kind of innovation, right?

It's happening, you know, maybe in a couple places, you know, here or there. I'm seeing it in Washington, D.C. I'm seeing it in Oakland, here in Austin, in Chicago. I mean it's happening in a variety of places, but it doesn't seem to be, right, a kind of cohesive or kind of coherent effort. But one that's kind of scattered across different communities driven primarily by visionaries, driven primarily by social entrepreneurs who have decided that it is a space that they want to step into, a space that, again, schools have been inadequate in servicing.

COX: S. Craig Watkins is a professor at the University of Texas who studies the social and digital media behavior of young people. He joined us from Austin, Texas. Craig, thank you.

WATKINS: Sure. Thank you.

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