Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Technological Divide

When I returned from the annual National Council for Teachers of English conference last month, I was energized by the myriad of ideas for integrating technology into my classroom. I am fortunate enough to work in a district that encourages its teachers and students to explore meaningful ways of utilizing technology in the classroom. I am fortunate in so many ways. Recently, along with 18 other teachers in my building, I was awarded a technology based grant which will put 30 laptops, a SmartBoard, web camera, digital camera, and all sorts of software in the hands of my students. I’m excited by this opportunity, but also deeply troubled.

I teach a non-Western literatures course. My students spend a semester reading, writing, analyzing, and reflecting on the literature of people and cultures all across Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, East Asia, and Latin America. The focus of our studies is not to make world outside the walls of our small community more exotic, but to share the lives of human beings – we all fear death, we desire connection to others, we all need to be understood. Regardless of the culture, traditions, and beliefs that we are born into, we all share a common humanity. As individuals we are more alike than we are different.

I have the luxury of exploring this theme with my students. It is easy for us as we sit in our heated classroom (or air-conditioned, depending upon the time of year), with VCR/DVD players and LCD projectors and laptops and books. But at times, many times, it feels dishonest. It is easy for me and my students to spend time contemplating what we share with others when we have a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and the luxury of attending school each day. My students don’t worry in the same way that a child from a developing nation does about where the next meal will come from or whether war will take away our home and family.

My students spend part of our semester researching an issue currently facing a non-Western culture, and as a requirement of the project, they must find a way to share that research with an audience outside our classroom; they must find a way to make a difference. But it is only because of such privilege that we are able to study what we do. And now I’m rewarded with more technology, widening the gap between the cultures we study and how we do it. It doesn’t seem honest to have my students explore what connects them to students in Liberia when the technology we are using to undertake that study is one of the very things that divides us. The divide between those with access and those without is widening. Is technology loosening our grip on our humanity?

So when a colleague started telling me about the Give One, Get One laptop program, you can understand why I was a bit skeptical. How will giving students in developing nations a laptop change oppressive governmental regimes, unequal distribution of wealth, or lack of clean drinking water? And that’s when it hit me: laptop = literacy. I don’t mean literacy in terms of teaching a child to speak, write, or read English, Swahili, or French. Instead, the power in giving a child a laptop is that it helps that student become technologically literate. Yes, it will also increase her traditional literacies, but even more, a laptop connects that child to the world outside her immediate community.

Paulo Friere and Stanley Fish both wrote about this very idea: When you know the word for something, you own that thing. You have power over it. You can describe it, you can manipulate it, you can use it with conviction. Literacy equals power. The same principle applies to technology. A child with the knowledge of how to navigate the Internet has power. He or she is able to enter into the realm of the privileged class. Education is not just the playground of the elite when everyone has the opportunity to enter into the discussion.

And, so I encourage you to check out the One Laptop Per Child Project like I did. What a wonderful gift for the child in your life - each time your child connects to the Internet, you’ll know you’ve also helped to empower another child not so different from your own.

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