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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The New Literacy: Scenes from the Digital Divide 2.0

Just as one cyber gulf narrows, another has threatened to take its place.
By Richard Rapaport

The generation that grows up on the sunny side of the new digital divide will inherit the ease and status that comes with being the literati in a world where literacy has become "digiteracy."

The term "digital divide" was coined in the mid-90s to label a growing gap between those with access to computers and those without. A decade later, we've bridged this once yawning chasm between the haves and have-nots with inexpensive computers and the explosive growth in the use of cell phones as a digital platform in the developing world. We've narrowed the gap in the United States even more dramatically. In 2008, according to Nielsen research, 72.5 percent of the American population -- an astonishing 220,141,000 of our fellow citizens -- used the Internet.

But let's not LOL just yet. A new digital divide now yawns between those who are at home in the new world of social media and those who are not. This is no trivial thing. For educators, it's a far more serious matter than who gets the highest score playing Guitar Hero Mini on a hidden cell phone while the teacher is diagramming sentences on a whiteboard.

Back an era or two, teachers and students with at least a passing knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible could navigate through the dense thicket of 20th-century modernist literature, from James Joyce to William Faulkner. Today, there's a new elite schooled in an entirely reconstituted classical education: students and teachers who are facile with Web 2.0 tools, including wikis, blogs, micro-blogs, Twitter, linking, tagging, podcasting, forums, video sharing, vlogs, Drupal-based group blogs, social bookmarking, and virtual worlds such as Second Life. The generation that grows up on the sunny side of the new digital divide will inherit the ease and status that comes with being the literati in a world where literacy has become "digiteracy."

Those stuck on the dark side of the new media digital divide will be as out of luck and out of touch as those who cursed Johannes Gutenberg as an agent of the devil when that first printed Bible came off the press in 1452. Gutenberg's invention offered a new, and to some, an intimidating, way of collecting, storing, disseminating, and even thinking about knowledge. More than five and a half centuries later, the rise of Web 2.0 and the new social media offers perhaps an even more profound method to expand the way people interact, communicate, and collectively create.

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

This article is the first of five parts. Go to part two to continue.

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