Activism, Social Class, and the Digital Divide

So it’s not scientific, and it’s not deeply analytical, but this survey (from Mother Jones magazine and posted on the Engaged Youth blog) caught my eye today as I’m juggling my two intellectual worlds of social class issues and  participatory digital media. The question was “where’s the future of activism”:

I have no idea how the questions were framed or even who the respondents were.
But I see some measure of affirmation here in what’s becoming more clear to me by the day:  Having a voice in these times involves at least some measure of engagement in digital media and a presence in digital worlds.

And thus, I am disheartened when I read of the persistent digital divide that’s no longer only about access to equipment but also about  the time to play, create, and engage social networks.  As Cindy Long writes:

Students with round-the-clock, high-speed Internet access have more opportunity not only to be content consumers, but also content creators with a global audience—they have a chance to be “publishers, movie makers, artists, song creators, and story tellers,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The more opportunity young people have to play around online, the more their experience and comfort with technology grows. They’re becoming digital innovators who will increasingly integrate technology into their everyday lives and use it to shape the future—a future that will likely look a lot different for the millions of kids without the same level of experience.

And to many of us, the sort of learning that enables students to shape the future is at least as significant as the  conventional academic skills being drilled and tested in thousands of classrooms in which obsolete computers sit unused under a layer of dust in the corner.

I’m heartened by the work of teachers like Brian Crosby who are doing remarkable things with surplussed equipment  and an enormous investment of his own time and energy.

But it’s time to get beyond the point of thinking that more kids will gain this sort of access to digital tools if only there were more teachers wiling to dumpster dive for for equipment.

Children Left Behind In a Profit-Driven World

I’ve written before about my intersecting interests in social class and emerging technologies. David Warlick writes poignantly about these intersections in his recent post from rural America, where many students have no, or very limited access to the internet, simply because there is little profit to be made for telecommunications companies in sparsely populated, economically depressed regions.

He writes:

Pressure should be applied to the telecommunications industry to do what they promised they would do in the ’90s, in return for enormous tax breaks — connect America to the high speed information grid, not just the parts of America that are thick enough, financially, to be in the Telco’s interest to connect.

There are many ways in which poor and working class children in this country are routinely and systematically “left behind”, and the expectation that they should be made to wait until a profit can be made from their access to the internet is unconscionable. At precisely the time that more privileged children are using the web to transcend geographic boundaries to learn, to collaborate, and to question, the pressures of NCLB have left too many schools for poor and working class children simply tweaking teaching and testing within the confines of classroom walls.

It certainly makes for easy sound bites to simply blame teachers for disturbing and persistent achievement gaps than to ensure that all children have access to the communication tools that children in many communities now simply take for granted.

And thus, it certainly seems to be time for more people the ed tech community to press the issues that Warlick raises in his post. We need obstinate voices to remind us — often — that until all children have access to the dazzling array of tools on the web, our work to push the boundaries of digital teaching and learning may only exacerbate gaps between the children of the haves and the children of the have-nots.

Warlick writes:

The shame of it is that this should not be happening. The natural resource that defines success in a flattening world is human intellect. And there is certainly no shortage of talent here in northeastern Wisconsin. There is simply a shameful lack of access to them, and they have a shameful lack of access to their world.

Shameful, indeed.

What is the responsibility of the ed tech community to ensure that our work isn’t just serving the children who already enjoy so many other economic and educational advantages?

Paul Willis, Social Class, and the Digital Divide

After being away for a few days, I’m still catching up with the many blog postings, listerve discussions, comments, news stories (from NPR to the Chronicle of Higher Ed), and misrepresentations of Danah Boyd’s essay on social class divisions among users of the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Boyd argues that Facebook is the network of choice for the educated, upper-middle class, while MySpace is the choice of kids who are “socially ostracized in school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers”. Boyd cogently argues that these differences are, essentially, grounded in class.

Boyd makes clear that her observations are not (yet) based in research. She’s not reporting on a formal study.

Yet she has sparked deliberation in major newspapers, in hundreds of blogs, on numerous listserves.

She’s talking about class in a land in which class is not supposed to exist.

And people are sitting up and taking notice.

Among the more careful responses to Boyd’s essay are several that press the intriguing questions of why social class would trace into virtual worlds, where ascribed identities would seem to matter less than in the “real” world.

Scott Rosenberg writes that while there have always been distinctions between what is “cool” to the elite few and what is accessible to the broader masses in the on-line world,

The difference today, it seems to me, is not that social class divides extend from the offline world into online space, but rather that online interaction has assumed such a central place in the lives of young people that the divisions now matter far more. For teenagers trying to figure out who they are, the choice of social networking site has become one more agonizing crossroads of self-definition.

Engineers Without Fear writes that

[P]eople cannot help but take the social structures their bodies grew up in online as well. Our virtual existences are a hybrid of the old and the new. We have already created new social forms but we cannot junk the old ones yet.

Boyd references Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor as offering one explanation for why working-class kids might choose community and belonging over accepting the values of higher social classes in which one might never be accepted.

Yet I think that in all of this focus on what’s going on within the technology, we may be missing even more intriguing questions about what is going on within class.

Working class culture in Learning to Labor is circumscribed by the maleness of the shop floor and the pub, by traditional gender roles in the home. In their economic, social and geographic isolation, the racism and sexism of “the lads” go unchallenged. Yet as Willis has written more recently, with the demise of manual jobs, identity formation among working class youth is grounded now more in their participation in a global, consumerist culture than in the culture of work. He writes:

They find more passion and acceptable self-identity through music on MTV, wearing baseball caps, branded sneakers and designer shirts, and socializing in fast-food joints than they do through traditional class-based cultural forms.

Within consumer and electronic cultures, Willis argues, working-class kids now have access to

…something that only the elite has enjoyed as part of their sacred privilege. This privilege entails the formation of sensibilities to mark oneself culturally as a certain kid of person — rather than simply an unconscious carrier of traditional markers of class, race, and gender — or to “choose” to belong to these categories in transformative, distinctive, mannered, celebratory, or self-conscious ways. … there are simply more groups, so to speak, within the working class. …Within the different groups are very many more discursive, symbolic, and socially symbolic resources feeding into their cultural productions.

For Willis, though, the questions in the 70’s and the questions now remain the same:

How do the cultural forms of youth — whether “having a laff with the boys” in the pub, or creating a presence in Myspace – represent the their understanding of their positions within the larger social structure? To what extent do their cultural practices represent their resistance against exploitation, and when do they participate in reproducing their own subordination?

Knowing that college kids are in Facebook and the socially marginalized are in Myspace does, indeed, raise important questions about the reach of class in contemporary culture.

But the much more intriguing questions may be about how class is being lived within new cultural spaces that include not just “the lads” of Learning to Labor, but also queers, immigrants, and punks, all constructing their own representations of identity in a global virtual space.

What are young people learning their positionality, their agency, their potential in their active participation in deep and broad social networks? How is it different being a working-class kid — the child of “the lads” — now connected to potentially thousands of others via tools that enable voice, discourse, and representation of self via a dazzling array of media?


Willis, Paul (2004). Twenty-five years on: Old books, new times. In N. Dolby and G. Dimitriadis (with P. Willis). (Eds.) Learning to Labor in New Times. New York: Routledge.

Digital Learning, Digital Democracy

I’d written some time ago of my frustration with how seldom I could find work at the intersections of my two current areas of interest: Social class and schooling and the potential of ed tech to help democratize public discourse.

Well, Sara Kajder’s book and website Bringing the Outside In is located squarely at that intersection. Working in a school with only modest technology resources, with kids who, in other circumstances, would be labeled as “resistant” Kajder offers powerful examples of how digital technologies can deepen learning and enable student voice.

Kajder brought the students’ “outside” literacies (visual media, blogging, photosharing) into the classroom to engage them in literacy at a substantive, critical level, making creative uses of new media and social networking technologies to support students’ understanding of themselves as writers and readers.

Kajder writes that literacy involves using “the most powerful cultural tools to communicate our understandings”. In so much of what I’ve been reading about new media in schools, it’s been only middle class kids with access to those cultural tools in classrooms.

The first project that Kajder describes in her book is Digital Storytelling, as envisioned by the wise staff at the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley.

I found this book through the Center, after I journeyed to Berkeley earlier this year to learn more about their work. I’m highly intrigued. This summer, I will be using their model to evoke digital stories of teachers’ work. Soon, I’ll be working with first-generation college students to craft digital stories of mobility.

Kajder writes of “robust communication tools to [enable students to] tell their story verbally, visually, and powerfully”. When poor and working class people are so commonly silenced – in public discourse, and by self-doubt and deprecation — there seems to be potential in the tools of new media to open discourse about the common good to many more voices.

Kajder offers excellent examples of what students might have to say when they have even limited access to new media.

I’m highly intrigued, indeed.

Ed Technology and Social Justice

With gratitude , I read Scott McLeod’s post on educational technology as a social justice issue that so clearly articulates some of the issues that I grappled with a few weeks ago.

Scott quotes “someone” (one of my favorite authors, also…) as saying

“poor kids have things done to them by computers, while affluent kids get to do things with computers.”

Here’s to much more deliberation about these issues.


Scott also posted these thoughts on his own Dangerously Irrelevant blog.

A Small Bridge Across the Digital Divide?

Ewan McIntosh posts today about Fon, a Spanish company that enables individuals to contribute some of their wireless internet in exchange for access to Wi Fi elsewhere.

Ewan poses the question of whether this might be a tool for providing Wi Fi to more schools, as more affluent individuals could make their broadband available.

I do wish that schools didn’t have to go begging of their neighbors, but there may be potential here.

R Working Class Kids doing IM?

I’m moving between two deeply engaging but seemingly deeply disparate conversations these days.

I turn to engage in the first of these conversations, and I hear about poor and working class kids attending much bleaker schools than middle class kids. Middle class kids have more access to curriculum that fosters critical thinking, more experienced teachers, more resources, more parents with the time and self-assurance to volunteer in schools. Within this literature is ongoing analysis of the digital divide between higher-income and lower-income kids, between well-resourced schools and poorly-resourced schools.

As Adam Gamoran points out, the achievement gap is along social class lines.

I then turn to listen in to the second conversation in which I’m engaged and am hearing dazzling examples of educational technology in schools. I read postings like this from Ewan McIntosh’s excellent blog and think “Oh, yeah. Instead of turning low-achieving schools into test-prep factories, we could be opening the world to kids and kids to the world. This kind of self-directed, boundless, authentic learning could represent a huge shift in how we see lower-income kids as learners”.

Yet as I read teacher blogs and ed tech blogs (and ed tech blogs by teachers), I see reference after reference to The Archetypal Student (such as this reference to “today’s students” coming to school well-versed in IM speak in an otherwise excellent conversation on writing on Bill Ferriter’s blog. ) When I see reference to “today’s students” or “our students”, I reflexively ask “which students?”

It’s more than a bit jarring to move between these two conversations multiple times on any given day.

On the one hand, in conventional schooling, there is simply no question that one’s background makes a big difference in a child’s access to strong, innovative schooling.

On the other hand, as I click through the blogs describing innovative, engaging uses of classroom technology, I can seldom find mention of the kinds of kids present in these classrooms.

The silence about who has access these powerful forms of teaching could mean one of several things:

It could mean that there is no issue, that in the world of ed tech, kids’ backgrounds really don’t matter, because this kind of teaching is evident in lots of different kinds of schools. While we understand that few schools are, as yet, embracing these technologies, kids from all background have access to these things. That’s a given. No need to talk about it.

Yet if this is the case, ed tech people are missing a tremendous opportunity to inform that first conversation — the one that is lamenting the direct instruction, the test-prep curriculum, the angst over Annual Yearly Progress, the dispirited teachers who have lost their professional autonomy. And there is some urgency to the work of informing that conversation.

Or my fruitless clicking to find out who is being taught by these amazing teachers could mean that the ed tech blogs are describing practice in only select, well-resourced schools staffed by exceptional teachers.

Here’s my concern: Web 2.0 could potentially transform the ways that poor and working-class kids think about the boundaries of their social worlds, their potential for developing a public voice, their ability to assume a greater measure of control over the circumstances of their lives.

Or, the innovations happening in only some schools could be yet another means by which the gap between these kids and their more privileged peers deepens, another way in which they come to school already “behind” other kids and with access to fewer resources in school to catch up.

I don’t expect the people who are doing the innovation to solve this problem (if it does, indeed, exist). I’m just very puzzled that there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about the issue at all in the blogosphere.

So, where else can I find intersections between these conversations about equity and about e-innovation?

Here’s where I’ve started:

  • Will Richardson posted about the Pew’s report on tagging that documents that higher-income, more educated individuals are engaging the of practice tagging more than lower-income, less educated individuals. I think that we need to be collecting and tracking information like this and then tapping what we know about the virtual world to go one better than the limitations of the material world.
  • I haven’t found much at all on uses of Web 2.0 in elementary schools serving poor or working class kids.
  • I have found some intriguing digital film-making projects for high school kids:

The teachers working with City Voices, City Visions are doing very engaging things with digital video in urban schools. Their blog feed updates with current student films.

Out of school, students in San Fernando Educational Technology Team tell their own stories via digital media.

Other out-of-school programs from the Center for Digital Storytelling Website:

The Y.O.U.T.H program uses digital story to advocate for foster youth.

The DAVA program supports young people in telling their digital story so that they might become better known.

What else is going on out there at the intersections of conversations about equity and e-learning? I’m guessing ( and hoping ) that there is much more than I’m finding.