Professional Learning

Celebrating Access to Information

and ending the digital divide

February 23, 2012

In That Used to Be Us, Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum call the flattening of the world "the most profound inflection point for communication, innovation, and commerce since the Gutenberg printing press."

They are not the first to make the comparison. In the middle of the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg introduced the Western world to one of the most important instruments of its history, one that granted access to knowledge on an unparalleled level: the printing press.

Before Gutenberg, books -- and the knowledge they contained -- were reserved for those of a certain stature (the wealthy and the clergy). He invented a printing process that brought down the cost of printed materials, giving access to the information they contained to all literate people. He has been credited with a revolution in the development of culture, the progress of science, and the education of the masses.

Today, February 23, we celebrate his birthday. It seems particularly appropriate to honor him as we sit in the midst of a technological revolution that some argue is having a similar impact on the world. However, as Friedman and Mandelbaum point out, it took hundreds of years for the effects of the printing press to fully penetrate society. They predict the current transformation will allow "virtually everyone" to participate in our hyper-connected world within a few decades.

A Revolution Underway

Of course, this transformation is already underway, impacting nearly all aspects of life as we know it, with widespread implications for education. The world is changing, and all students must develop skills that in the past they could get by without. They also need increasing levels of education to sustain a middle-class standard of living. But on Gutenberg's birthday, let's simply celebrate the unprecedented access to information available today.

As with the printing press, new digital resources are granting that access to populations that have traditionally lacked it. Consider Project Gutenberg, which offers over 38,000 free e-books that can be downloaded onto a device or read online. Like its namesake, Project Gutenberg has broadened access to a wide variety of texts that all learners who can connect to the Internet can take advantage of Great Expectations, Heart of Darkness, Pride and Prejudice -- classic works whose copyright has expired. A student no longer needs to visit a bookstore or library to read literature.

New resources also give teachers access to primary source materials that in the past they would have been unable to share with their students. (Studying the United States Constitution? Show your students George Washington's edits, courtesy of the Library of Congress and digitization).

Children in rural America now have access to teachers and subject matter (foreign languages and Advanced Placement courses, for example) that they previously would have gone without. Technology allows students all over the nation the opportunity to learn at their own pace; to receive immediate feedback; to communicate with peers in China, Turkey, Australia and elsewhere; to delve more deeply into topics of interest than their textbooks previously allowed.

Educators across the world are sharing best practices and frustrations, learning from what others have experienced. Parents are communicating more effectively with their children's schools. It is a new way of doing business.

Equalizing Access

Of course, these resources are not universally available. The digital divide, which can be defined in so many ways -- whether a child has access to broadband internet (at either school or home); the type of device she uses to access the Internet (can a smartphone really be used in the same way as a laptop?); whether a child has access to educational mobile games or not (the app gap) is a huge concern that is proving difficult to address.

I've written before about the need to focus on the digital divide, and the promise of programs such as Connect to Compete and Internet Essentials (which offer low cost computers and Internet access to families of students that receive free or reduced price lunch) and one-to-one programs (especially those targeting disadvantaged youth) that allow students to take home devices, as well as examples of individual schools and districts working to overcome the digital divide (such as the Salesian School in Hong Kong, which provides their old computers to low-income students).

As we move forward in the information age, we should continue to celebrate the increasing access we have to information from around the globe, and the benefits of that access. While we do so, we should also continue to work to ensure that all children have the opportunity to take advantage it as well.

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