It’s a small world (but a big digital divide)

My ever-observant husband, who heads our community-based youth organization, has been complaining lately at how little benefit the students in our local schools get from the Internet.

Although schools in the Mississippi Delta region were among the first in the state to get wired for Internet access (long before many of the homes and businesses here—some of which are still dependent on dial-up), the use of web resources in many of our classrooms is pathetically limited.

He pointed to several elementary schools in which the only time students use the Internet is to logon to web-based remediation programs designed to help them prepare for the state tests. This is generally done during the students’ once or twice weekly visit to the school’s computer lab. Computers in the classrooms are used primarily by the teachers for various administrative tasks, or for individual remediation work with students on programs such as Accelerated Reader. I checked with some of the local teachers who confirmed that doing very much that’s creative or innovative with students using Web-based tools is logistically difficult, if not plain impossible, due to restrictions on use and requirements to devote class time solely to prefabricated test preparation. The problem is also compounded by the lack of upgraded hardware since most of the computers in our schools were purchased years ago with one-time grant money.

My husband noted, “Our [Delta] kids need exposure; they need to see what the rest of the world is like outside these small towns. What about all the other wonderful stuff on the Internet like National Geographic and museums, and all that?”  Increasing student and teacher access to web resources and more efficient use of the web in classrooms has proven to be a successful strategy for enriching student learning in many settings. But the myth persists that students in high-need areas are best served by more mind-numbing remediation. As I wroteearlier, there are many who think all poor and minority children need are more drills and discipline.

Meanwhile, President Obama created a stir by giving Queen Elizabeth an iPod. During his international visit, it was apparent that people, especially youth around the world, are highly informed about what is happening in this country, as well as globally. How ironic it is that poor children here in the Delta are still being kept in a state of intellectual deprivation partly due to misguided efforts to raise their academic performance. The good news is this is a problem that can be corrected, if we encourage teachers and administrators to shift focus from knee-jerk test preparation to quality teaching and learning for the 21st century.