Much of my teaching involves new forms of digital media for communication, connection, and creativity.  This work is grounded solidly in my commitments to ensuring that all children learn the cultural forms that will enable them to fully participate in public life as advocates, learners, and citizens.    As a culture, and as educators, we still have an enormous amount to learn about the rapid changes in digital culture, and at least some of what we have to learn is about how to bridge growing digital divides between low-income children (who, in school, are most likely to be using computers for skill and drill practice or testing) and more privileged peers (who are more likely to use computers for creation and self-directed pursuit of informal learning around personal interests).

A few weeks ago, a social justice organization that I respect greatly posted a link to an awful essay on children and digital media.  I hate to even include the link here because “clicks” count in generating audience for yet more of this sort of nonsense.  Chris Rowan, the author of the essay, misses the very basic lesson of Statistics 101 and continually conflates things happening together as technology *causing* everything from autism (which she labels a mental illness)  to violence to obesity.  The studies she cites (while claiming to be doing a literature review, which would have required that she actually critique, not just list the studies)  are almost laughably flawed.  She claims in comments that children who use technology won’t develop social relationships.  Elsewhere on her website (where she sells $1000s worth books and workshops to cure the problems she claims are created by technology) she laments that teachers no longer teach hours of handwriting a week, as this is the only way that children will become literate.

Yet this social justice organization posted this link on Facebook, noting that the article that “has important implications for teachers and parents”.  And on Facebook, 234 followers of this social justice organization “liked” the post and 135 shared the article with their Facebook friends.  “Great to know”, they wrote.  “Food for Thought” wrote others.

Commenters insisted that instead of using technology, children should be outside playing free, as if one precludes the other.

As if all children live in neighborhoods where it’s safe to run free, or that parents are free to usher their children around to play dates in the wild.

They insist that instead of watching TV or playing with tablets (two very different experiences that they didn’t bother to distinguish), they should be spending time on parents’ laps reading.    As if one precludes the other.

As if all parents have time to snuggle with their children over books for hours each day,  and all children might happily play with retro-wooden toys while their parents cook organic dinners from scratch.

Today, I read a very different report.  The Cooney Center, which does actual  credible research on how children use media, finds that lower income children are significantly more likely to use educational media on digital devices than wealthier peers.   Barbara Ray, the author of this  essay, asks, appropriately I believe,  whether the very broad backlash against “screen time” as evidenced in the Facebook comments around Rowan’s essay is part of elite parents’ snobbish views of television (and now other screens) and their judgments of  low-income parents.

We have an enormous amount to learn about these new shifts in digital technologies.

All of those socially-just readers who “liked” and shared Chris Rowan’s essay seem to simply assume that their ways of parenting are inherently superior, and that poor parents trying to find ways to provide their children with educational opportunities within the geographic and and economic constraints of their lives are misguided.

Even though those socially-just readers missed completely the lack of evidence, the faulty logic, and the self-interest  running through the entire Rowan essay.

I’ve long been interested in the intersections of class and technology, as I’m intrigued by the potential in new media for voice, connections, and creativity.

I was thus delighted to read about the Youth Converts Culture project in which students and teachers in rural Alabama explored ways to  “bridge the gap between technology and humanity”.  Because it’s now possible in ways unimaginable only a short time ago, they explain in their own voices:

The project website can be found here.

The New York Times has published yet another infuriating piece on poor kids.

Yesterday’s article Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era is is almost breathtakingly sloppy.

After the “sky is falling” headline, the article reports that kids from “poorer” families waste “considerably more time” on media than kids from more well-off homes. Without missing a beat — or presenting a shred of evidence –the author, Matt Richtel, declared this time  is “wasted time”.  And then in an amazing leap, he concludes that  class differences in media use are “a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology”.

The sole source cited for this conclusion about parenting is the white principal of a middle school in Oakland.  Prominent on the home page of the website of this school is a link to the school’s Accelerated Reader quizzes.   Accelerated Reader is a “read and answer multiple choice questions for points” computer platform has been widely criticized by literacy experts and others as a shallow program that may actually discourage good reading habits in children.  In other words,  it may well be a waste of money and classroom time.

But I digress.

Readers of the NYT article have to get through several more paragraphs before learning that “considerably more time” is the difference between 10 hours a day and 11.5 hours a day.  You’d have to read even deeper into the article to find out that in the (unnamed) Kaiser study that is the basis for the article, data collectors “double dipped”.   In other words, if  a kid was listening to music while surfing the web after dinner, she was credited with two, not one hour of media time.

So imagine:  A child in a low-income home sharing a bedroom with at least one sibling who slips on earbuds to drown out distracting noise, or another using the home’s one computer as others are watching TV in the same room, or a child who didn’t spend after-school time being driven from soccer to lacrosse practice and instead spent that time watching television — each of these would count as evidence of poor children falling behind their privileged peers because they are “wasting more time” in using more media.

Yet the sloppiness runs even deeper.

Richtel never supports his key assumption that any time on social networking sites, watching videos, or playing games is inherently “wasted”.

He includes an ominous quote from danah boyd about  all of this, but never mentions that boyd was co-lead of one of the major anthropological studies of the social connections and informal learning happening in kids’ uses of new media.   He seems not to have bothered to Google any of the intriguing new studies that go beyond “hours spent”  to look at what kids are actually doing with media, including emerging work on how media is shaping kids civic and political engagement, and on the complex informal learning often happening in gaming.

Make no mistake: there are serious digital divides: Poor kids have less access to broadband at home and at school.  In schools, access to the most basic tools depends entirely on the wealth of the district (or the fundraising savvy of parents).  Most seriously, perhaps, poor kids are not being taught the new media literacies required for full participation in contemporary life.

The Kaiser study on kids’ engagement in media is important.

But it is not a study of the relative merits of childrearing in poor and middle-class homes.

And it is not a study of what poor kids are doing on line –full color photo of the  ethnic, hapless, self-described “Facebook freak” notwithstanding.

Several of the hundreds of people who commented on the article (many of them bashing poor parents)  made an excellent point: everyone who commented on a New York Times article was essentially wasting time in front of a computer.

And as I write on this social media site, I’m streaming radio in the background and have my Iphone next to me, waiting for a text.  I read the article on-line while similarly multi-tasking.

According to Richtel, this is obvious evidence that I’ve “wasted” at least three hours of time.

Of course I did.  My parents didn’t go to college so could not have educated me to do otherwise.

Obviously.

First came this brief mention on the New York Times Tumblr coverage of the  the uber-hip South By Southwest music and media event that attracts “the most data hungry crowd in the world”.

Homeless people have been enlisted to roam the streets wearing T-shirts that say “I am a 4G hotspot.”

A few hours later, writers for the excellent Read Write Web blog picked up the story and conveyed the dismay that I’d felt reading about this as a data problem:

You pay these homeless, human hotspots whatever you like, and then I guess you sit next to them and check your email and whatnot. The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall.

(this post has been updated this morning with an interview with reps from the marketing company behind this project).

The NYT blurb has been tweeted out over 1000 times and “liked” on Facebook hundreds of times.

Commenting is active on the RWW blog post and the RWW editors have “Storified” a range of reactions to their story being posted on Twitter and Facebook.

Tumblr, Storify, Twitter, blogging (and reblogging).

Hundreds of digital hipsters are weighing in on the ethics of this exploit on all these cool new platforms.

But the point would be:

There is no evidence of the voices of the very  homeless being discussed.   None.  Some kid with an Iphone who’s never been within 500 miles of Austin is broadcasting his esteemed opinion on this to thousands of others,  but the objectification of the homeless via this stunt continues in the conversations about them.

Because they live on the far side of the digital divide.

And that’s the outrage here.

Update:  Mid-day, RWW has updated their post with an audio interview with one of the homeless men.

Digital and Political Divides

November 17, 2008

I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (link to PDF here). Jenkins and his team at Project New Media Literacies speak of the need to prepare people to critically consume and — even more importantly — to produce new creative forms of media for broad distribution within new participatory technologies.

And simultaneously, I’ve been reading of the profound ways in which these  participatory technologies are changing political life.

In the presidential campaign, the Obama campaign’s use of the web enabled them to bypass TV networks, party structures, and major fundraisers to build  grassroots support and transparent communication in ways that will also now shape how the Obama administration governs.

And this past weekend, the user-generated website Join the Impact was central to rapidly organizing the  international grassroots protests against California’s passage of Prop 8, “astonishing long-time activists with the power and speed with which [the web] gets their message out” according to the New York Times.

So when it’s with consternation that I read Jenkins’ warnings of new forms of the digital divide. Jenkins writes of the new “participation gap”:  As policy makers have counted computers in schools toward the goal of providing “access” to technology to all kids, middle-class kids, with unfettered access to computers, adult support, and broadband at home are using computers in ways inaccessible to kids whose access it limited to public, filtered computer networks at schools and libraries.

Jenkins writes:

More often than not, those youth who have developed the most comfort with the online word are the ones who dominate classroom use of computers, pushing aside the less technically skilled classmates.  We would be wrong, however, to see this as a simple binary: youth how have technological access and those who do not. [Researchers] note, for example, that game systems make their way into growing number of working-class homes, even if laptops and personal computers do not.  Working-class youth may have access some of the benefits of play described here, but they may still lack the ability to produce and disseminate their own media.

In these new political times, technological savvy is enfranchisement.  And enfranchisement should not be dependent upon the resources that one happens to have at home.
And when I go to my teach my tech class tomorrow, I’ll again hear of computers gathering dust in the corners of classrooms in diverse schools, because no one knows how to use them, because they don’t work, because they’re considered an “extra”, because in schools, people have not yet caught on to the cultural shifts of this new participatory media culture.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers