Can 21st Century Technology Close the Disparities Gap?

I’ve spent the last year of my doctorate work in federally designated health disparate regions of Virginia. Sounds simple enough. We travel to small, rural towns and sit in free clinics, social services departments or at the local Wal-Mart and promote our free research program that aims to give people health benefits and $150 for completing the entire project. However, it’s no simple job.

More importantly, through this work, I’ve had the opportunity to witness life in a different way. To witness what Michael Harrington called “The Other America.” Despite being from West Virginia and growing up in a poor area, I didn’t know poverty until I spent an entire summer sitting in the waiting room of a free health clinic. Here I was able to see and talk to many people who were unemployed, unskilled, uninsured, uneducated, unhealthy, and without transportation, food, a permanent address and hope. It was a humbling, disturbing and transformative summer.

What disturbed me the most about last summer were the children. Knowing the research, like Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California Irvine, pointed out in the video “New Learner’s Of The 21st Century” (at 24:20 ) “we know that the learning outside of school matters tremendously for the learning in school.” I knew this too. I knew this as I watched children come in with their grandparents, their tired and sick grandparents who were now responsible for their grandchildren. I knew this as I babysat for a few kids during one of our community classes and the kids told me how they didn’t always have food in the house or how their Mom’s ex-boyfriend was a mean person. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I know these kids will most likely have a hard time in school and a hard life ahead of them.

To be honest, I left overwhelmed by this experience. How was our intervention on soda and exercise going to really make a difference in the lives of the people I was meeting? How could the educational system make a difference in the lives of the children I was meeting when their basic needs were not being met? How could they learn best at school when their learning was not supported at home?

As I watched the segment on Digital Youth Network (15:30) from the same video I mentioned above, I thought, maybe there’s hope. Maybe giving kids the tools they need to “access their passion,” is a way to avoid a “dream deferred.” Could it be possible for disadvantaged children to use computers to engage in learning outside the school, and this in turn, would make a tremendous difference in the learning their getting inside the school?

What if all kids were given computers in elementary school, regardless of their district’s SES, and all elementary school kids were given assignments that would sustain and engage their attention well into the evening, enough so for them to find a deep passion and be rewarded by education instead of subverted by it. Could this type of digital engagement be the antidote to the educational deficiencies kids endure because of poverty?

I’m old enough to know there’s never a silver bullet for anything, especially not a complex social issue like poverty and education. However, I do feel hopeful that as new technologies become embraced and education revolutionized, the gap will lessen. Because as Diana Rhoten, Program Director for Digital Media and Learning, says, ” the 21st century is (about) learning the tools and skills of remaking the content and becoming the producer and creator.” To many kids in poverty, having control over their lives may be difficult, but perhaps becoming a producer and creator of their learning is a way to produce and create a different life as well.



2 thoughts on “Can 21st Century Technology Close the Disparities Gap?

  1. Angie,

    Your post (which is excellent, by the way) makes me think of several things:

    1) Do, in fact, students in less-affluent areas even have access to the types of 21st-century technologies that, in theory, might help to bridge some of these gaps? My inclination is that they don’t, and if not, then can’t these technologies actually serve to exacerbate the gaps?

    2) Seems to me that there are still structures–call them ideologies, power formations, social/class apparatuses, etc., but they amount to how an individual’s existence is framed–that by their very nature work to counteract what the types of techologies you reference can accomplish. I guess I’m saying what I think you’re getting at also: new ways of teaching and learning don’t necessarily constitute the silver bullet that can address the deeply rooted problems (on multiple fronts) in which so much (fill in the blank) disparity is grounded.

    3) Those points noted, it seems pretty clear, though, that these different technologies at least open doors, help to generate an orientation toward possibility. That’s the thing that is exciting–when possibility is democratic.

    • Hi, Kathy,

      Thanks for reading my post and for your comments!

      I agree with you, the reality is not all districts are created equal. Following such, areas with less wealth, will have less resources in their schools. I was certainly dreaming when I said, ” What if all kids were given computers in elementary school, regardless of their district’s SES (socio-economic status…).” In fact, I did a little digging around Diana Rhoten’s bio online and found this document which really illustrates the point you made about widening the gap:

      I guess I’m hoping that computers, ipads, etc. will be cheap enough one day that all students will be given one in school. Then I would hope that the goals of public education will move toward empowering children to create and produce their own interpretation of the content, using the technology as the tool. Then maybe, just maybe, possibility will be democratic! That would make me happy, but probably only in my dreams. 🙂

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