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From the NYT: Will the Digital Divide Close by Itself?

Posted by Editor on November 3, 2009

October 30, 2009, 1:12 pm
By Stefanie Olsen

On the subject of tech and education, academics and executives are worried about many divides.

There’s the growing divide between kids who have access to technology and those who don’t; kids who participate in creating content with technology at home and school, and those who can’t; and the kids who know a lot about technology, and the parents who fear them.

Divides also enter into the equation for proponents of education reform.

Early Wednesday at Google’s “Breakthrough Learning in the Digital Age,” at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., a spat broke out over the urgency of filling in all the gaps.

Jim Steyer, chief executive of CommonSense Media and co-sponsor of the event, stressed that “every kid needs to be digitally literate by the 8th grade” and called for a major public education campaign to make that happen. He argued that technology and learning are synonymous and that schools, parents, and kids must get up to speed in the next five years.

“This has to be a revolution for all kids,” he said.

Immediately after Mr. Steyer’s call to action, Reed Hastings, the founder and chief executive of Netflix, contradicted him directly, saying it would take well more than five years to bridge the divide.

Mr. Hastings, an avid education philanthropist and proponent of school reforms, argued that at the advent of any new technology — television, cars, even rockets — people get riled up and wring their hands over a growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

He said that gaps narrow naturally as the market evolves and prices drop, enabling more people to bring new technology into the home and schools.

“We need to shift our expectations,” Mr. Hastings said. “This is a natural part of the evolution of technology.”

Where it gets tougher, he said, is school reform. Some schools might adopt new effective approaches to learning, but then a superintendent or principal leaves and the reform collapses.

Failed school reform might point to the need for more efforts outside of the classroom.

One of Google’s founders, Sergey Brin, who gave a fireside interview later during lunch, was asked whether he thought some kids were threatened by a lack of access to computers or quality information over the Web.

He responded by saying that connecting to Internet will eventually be like electricity: easy and cheap.

“Will they have access to junk? Yes,” Mr. Brin said. “They will be creating a lot of that junk.”

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