Can Technology Wait?

Patrice Pascual and Caitlin Johnson
December 7, 1999

Of the major risks facing America's children, such as poverty, maltreatment, violence and the like, computer and technical literacy hardly rate.

Economists have projected, however, a darkening future for America's children as they prepare to enter the computer-driven 21st century workforce. But how can child advocates and youth service providers, already stretched thin in providing core services, respond to challenges like these?

  • Already, most new jobs require workers to use computers, yet households making more than $75,000 are more than five times as likely to have a computer at home than families making less than $10,000, says the government report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. Computers are shaping how young people think and process information—which has tremendous implications for our political and social culture.
  • Major efforts to wire schools require cannot be the only answer, when teachers lack sufficient training to integrate technology into their lesson plans.
  • Traditional blue-collar jobs won't be a good alternative for many of today's children. Education-minded economists Richard Murnane and Frank Levy reported that in 1992, the math and reading scores of fully half of the nation's 17-year-olds were too low to qualify them as workers in modern automobile plants. Can technology give us new ways to teach basic skills?
  • And the gap is growing between the wages earned by college graduates and those with a high school degree or less. Only about one-third of those under 30 have a college degree, while less than 20 percent of blacks and Hispanics have completed college. Statistically, the children of non-college graduates are much more likely to be in that group whose risks we really do recognize: the one American child in five who lives in poverty.

"If child advocates do not intervene" in who gets computer access and training, says a report by the Center for Media Education, "many of America's children will be worse off than they are now."

So where should child advocates focus their energies in giving kids a more equal playing field when it comes to computers and technology?

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce offers some clues. How Access Benefits Children: Connecting Our Kids to the World of Information features demonstration projects that prioritized equal access to technology and promoted the potential of the Internet to foster creativity and problem solving. The report includes contact information and budget overviews, including the how much federal money was invested in the project.

The intensely poor Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in New York is the site of a 180-hour student training program in computer technology and social skills, run by Concord Family Services. Student teams use computer software to manage a simulated hotel or bank, facing the real-world issues of budget, personnel and supplies. "One thing that surprised me was that the youngsters' reading skills have gone up to the point where some of them are almost up to grade level," reports the director. "We didn't start the program to increase their reading skills, but it has. They like the program ? it's forcing them to read."

Several examples highlight innovative use of technology in the classroom. In rural, low-income Bell County, Texas, teenage girls surveyed the dieting habits of adolescent girls, and worked with an endocrinologist to analyze their data. They developed a presentation on their findings, which showed a significant problem in girls' diets, and "just flooded this community with what they had learned," said their school superintendent.

Low-income fourth graders in Minnesota were given laptops to take home, and evaluators saw direct improvements in academic performance. Further, "students reported that they were using the Internet to get information, said they felt smarter, read more and that their study skills had improved," the report said.

In North Dakota, middle school students took on the real-life task of solving a flooding problem that plagued communities along the Red River. Students in eight schools participated in a region-wide analysis of water quality, which they shared via e-mail and a Web site. At semester's end, students met via a videoconference to discuss their findings; information was also shared with city councils and civic groups.

Common to these successful projects were partnerships among community groups who may not be natural allies (i.e. teenagers and physicians), but which resulted in information exchange and perhaps surprisingly, given common expectations of the Web, community building.

Even e-mail, so much like the telephone that we may underestimate its power, was used effectively to introduce children to technology in several projects. Connecting kids to mentors and elders with rich life experiences, these practitioners stress, can give children not only concrete skills, but a sense of potential for themselves and their place in the world.

Read more about Technology in the Connect for Kids topic page.


Caitlin Johnson is editor of Connect for Kids.