A Goal for Latinos: A Computer in Every Home?

Cecilia Garcia
August 30, 2002

 

In this new millennium, access to and mastery of computers and Internet technology figure heavily in the Latino community's pursuit of quality education, economic success and vibrant civic engagement. Wired libraries, schools and technology centers all have a role to play—but Latino children can benefit enormously from having home access as well.

In California, a project that brings computers and Internet training to families whose children attend predominantly Latino schools is having wonderful effects. Meanwhile in New York, researchers have looked closely at how low- and middle-income children make use of computers at home, and concluded that having computers at home helps children achieve "digital literacy," a set of skills that is becoming more and more important for success.

California Models
The Latino Issues Forum (LIF), a non-profit public policy and advocacy organization, has been addressing access and equity since 1987. LIF conducted a statewide survey of California schools two years ago and found that many did not have the time, resources or opportunity for computer technology plans, training or development. Current research shows that California schools with predominantly minority student populations offer Internet access in 39 percent of their classrooms. This compares to 62 percent in non-minority California schools.

Concerned about the danger of California's Latino youth being left behind as the digital age forges ahead, LIF put together a public, private and nonprofit partnership to develop comprehensive technology learning environments for students, their families and teachers in low-income and under-served communities.

Now in its third year, the Signature Learning Project creates this learning environment by linking students, teachers, parents and the community. Teachers receive training on how to use computers and the Internet in their classrooms. The teachers, then, train the students in grades one through five. A key component to the success of the Signature Learning Project is the training of the parents to use computers in order to help their children with schoolwork and to improve their own skills.

The project provided each family in the pilot project with a computer, modem, printer and Internet access. E-mail and a community Web site were used to facilitate communications between the parents and the teachers, as well as between the schools and the community.

This approach is having positive effects on the students. Test scores are improving dramatically. There is better parental involvement with the teachers and the schools. Parents are reaping the benefits of access to new technologies, improving their skills and in some cases, getting better jobs.

The Latino Issues Forum provides a good model for a comprehensive approach to ensuring that all children, regardless of economic circumstances, will benefit from the shared vision of educational, public and non-profit organizations, corporations and committed individuals that communities can be strengthened by the creative use of technology.

Home Computer Advantage
Connecting Kids to Technology: Challenges and Opportunities, co-authored by the Annie E. Casey and Benton Foundations and released in June 2002, makes a strong case that access to computers and the Internet in the home is the next front in this nation's struggle to address the digital divide. Census data shows that less than one third of children in households with incomes less than $15,000 has access to computers in their homes. Even with the success of the E-rate program to wire our schools, there are still significant numbers of grade school children who had no access to computers and the Internet, either at school or at home.

What exactly does this lack of access mean, in terms of developing the skills children need to be successful? In New York, Computers for Youth teamed with the Center for Children and Technology, a division of the Education Development Center, to compare children's use of computers in low- and middle-income families over the course of a year.

Rather than looking at this strictly as a technology issue, the researchers wanted to approach this as a literacy issue. Information technologies require mastering a set of tools in order to succeed in their use. For purposes of their study, the researchers define the term digital literacy as "a set of habits through which youngsters use information technologies for learning, fun and work."

While skills can be taught in a classroom setting, the researchers contend that children practice and strengthen these skills at home. They wanted to see how children with home computer access develop digital literacy. The researchers identified a small group of low-income children attending school in an urban setting and a small group of middle-income students attending a suburban school. All of the students were in either the seventh or eighth grade and had access to a computer in their homes.

The study examined how children went about solving problems connected to the use of their home computers, the purposes for which they used computers, the skills they developed in using word processing, e-mail and the Internet, how they use these technologies to communicate with their peers and with adults, and how they use the Internet for information gathering and for creativity.

They found that in both low- and middle-income homes, children with computer and Internet access developed the ability to troubleshoot problems, navigate the Internet, and do research on the Web. They used their computers for recreation, and communication with their peers. Middle-income children generally developed stronger skills, partly because they had had computers in their homes for longer, and partly because their parents and other family members and friends were also comfortable computer-users.

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that policy makers identify and fund programs that provide low-income families with home computers and the skills to use them. Having computers at home helps children develop the digital skills that are becoming more and more important. Researchers point to the importance of helping low-income families connect to the Internet—and remain connected.

They also recommend attention to training parents, not only in the technological aspects of using computers and the Internet, but also in their practical application to a world that is quickly going digital in just about every aspect that is imaginable. The researchers also recommend that schools should be supported in their efforts to use computers and Internet technology to strengthen family-school relations.

Computers for Youth's Take IT Home NY program has been providing communities with a comprehensive approach to infusing technology since 1999 and models the successful application of these recommendations.

homepage photo by Katie Hinnenkamp

 



Cecilia Garcia directs Connect for Kids.

Resources:

Computers for Youth works to improve the educational and economic circumstances for low-income communities in New York.

The Center for Children and Technology addresses the issue of technology and education, working to see that it is used productively at school, at home and at the workplace.

The Latino Issues Forum recognizes the importance of mastering information technology in order to fully participate in today's society.


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