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BELLTONES: What About Our Digital-Divide Have-Nots?

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Nov 1, 2010
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I am going back in my mind to an event that took place in the junior high school library where I worked for 15 years. It was during the mid-1990s. I had one computer hooked up to the internet with a modem that I carried back and forth from home every day. In order to go online, I had to contact the two teachers who shared the line (they used it for one of those newfangled fax machines). The ESL (English as a second language) teacher had brought in a group of students who were doing research on their “old” hometowns.

One student could not find the name of her small town in Mexico on any map. Operating on a hunch, I did an online search for her village. This still surprises me, but we found a website about that little town. When I shared it with her, the girl’s face was transformed. As I sat next to her, she excitedly pointed out the very bench where she and her grandmother loved to sit, in a shady plaza facing the church. Her teacher and I listened as she excitedly told about her life in Mexico, relatives left behind, and memories of a place she might never see again. Anybody who works with immigrant kids knows that, no matter how hard their lives may have been, most kids want more than anything to go back home. Many times after that day, I brought up the site for my young friend who never seemed to tire of looking at the images of the place she remembered so well.

Flash-forward several years … that same remarkable ESL teacher asked me if some boys in her class could look up soccer scores and catch up on the sports news from back home in South America while they were in the library for checkout. “Sure!” I said, and I watched as the young fans excitedly pointed out the latest news to each other while they gathered around several computers. From that day forward, I had a new group of library users who came in regularly during their lunch periods to assuage their collective soccer thirst. They began to use the library for other things too. While I happily allowed the boys access, I never bumped off kids who were doing research. I simply allowed this sort of activity upon request when there were free computers. I never thought very much about it. I was nearby, monitoring the use as I supervised all online use, and the aficionados never tried to sneak off into cyberspace in search of inappropriate sites.

Here is the wonderful thing about those days: My district did not filter the internet, and there were no school rules preventing students from using online access to pursue their own interests. Nor were there rules telling kids they could not browse all library sections and use books on any subject or read any periodicals or newspapers just for fun . Ah, the good old days. Today, kids may be told they cannot even check out the books that are not backed up by the school’s high-dollar, computer-managed reading program. Even more likely is the reality that in many schools, strict rules, tight filters, and overly zealous teachers prevent students from using computers to find anything not strictly tied to a specific class assignment. To that mentality, I raise a virtual fist and send up a virtual shout … hogwash !

Why shouldn’t a kid have a chance to look up information to satisfy his or her own curiosity or to explore a hobby or a personal interest? Some of the most lasting learning I acquired growing up came from reading about my favorite subjects, working on scout badges, or just browsing the shelves in public and school libraries. I was full of questions as a youngster, and I would have loved to have a magic box that could provide answers with amazing speed and accuracy. While many teachers and librarians encourage such activities, there are too many environments in which computer use is so locked down that students can do nothing but drill for standardized tests and/or go online for very limited and assignment-driven internet use.


Before I go on, let me hasten to add a very important caveat and embellish it with a colloquialism: Duh! I am not talking about letting kids go off into the wild cyber-yonder while other serious scholars sit on their hands, which are itching to touch keyboards for scholarly pursuit. I am talking about putting kids in front of available computers during their free time and letting them visit the sites of their hearts’ desires. Particularly for disadvantaged kids, this should extend to before and after school hours, during lunch, and at other times when computers sit idle.

Yes, I know that lots of kids do nothing else but play games and use social networking on their computers when they are at home. The percentage of kids’ lives lived online continues to grow. Social networking sites have replaced malls as gathering places for countless teens whose parents are not comfortable with allowing their kids the physical freedoms that they had as youngsters. The world is far more dangerous than it was just a couple of generations ago. Indeed for those kids who have home computers, I have fewer problems with Draconian restrictions to computer use at schools, though I do think such measures drastically reduce school relevance to students.

My biggest concern, though, is for those kids who find themselves on the wrong side of the economic digital divide and who do not have easy access at home or elsewhere outside of school. I happen to be one of those bleeding-heart types that worries about the least of the least and poorest of the poor. One of my mantras is that all educators, and especially librarians and tech teachers, need to be concerned about boys and girls who have no internet or even computer access at home. For that matter, there are students out there who don’t even have electricity or phone access at home. What about them? And yes, a goodly number of them, in Texas for sure, happen to also be ESL students, which is why I opened the article with two anecdotes about kids from Mexico and South America. I worry about these kids!

When I have a worry or a nagging question, one thing I do is seek information. To that end, I consulted my favorite listservs and message boards, asking for input about how low-income kids are faring as far as getting a chance to use school computers to address their needs and interests since they have little access elsewhere. I posted several questions to LM_NET, TLC, EDTECH, Facebook, Twitter, and my program message board. Even though I did this in early August, the dog days of summer, I had 115 responses in 3 days.


At the beginning of the survey, I asked for some demographics. Respondents were from across the U.S. and represented educators in all levels Pre-K–12. Most were female librarians (only seven males), though I did hear from people in other positions (three administrators, 16 tech specialists, 33 classroom teachers, two consultants, and four university professors). Locations ranged from my home state of Texas to a number of other states, and there were also one each from Canada and Germany. With the exception of only five people, they all indicated that there were kids at their schools who were indeed without ready access to computer/internet due to economic disability. This number was actually a bit of surprise for me because I know that many schools in my state are located in planned suburban communities where one might think poverty was not a big issue.

Immediately after posting the message asking for survey participants, I got several missives from people who wanted to tell me that public libraries are great resources for kids wanting online access. Several kind individuals seemed to think they were passing on information that I did not possess. Au contraire , I love public libraries and had a question about them included the survey. Here is the question, which required a true or false response: “Students have ready, safe, convenient access to public library or free after-school programs for computer access.” The answers I received did offer some hope, with 59% of students having such access. That’s pretty good! But there are still those kids in the 41% who are left locked out. Further, my focus with this survey and article is to focus on K–12 schools and what they can do, are/are not doing, and should do for these kids. In my mind, the truth is that school is where these youngsters have the best and most accessible opportunities to use computers. It is the place where they spend most of their days, in all kinds of weather, with transportation provided.

So what did I learn from the survey? Most queries were true/false. The following are the questions and responses:

• - Question: School rules preclude students being able to use computers/internet for anything other than directed class activities. The responses were 58% reporting such rules and 42% reporting no such limitations. Going further into exploration of what computers are designated for, I fear a large number are set aside for test-review software. Whether this is true or not is something to save for another column.

• - Question: Filters keep students from being able to access sites for personal interest, including sports, music, and other topics. Yes answers here outweighed negatives 78% to 22%. Many AUPs (acceptable-use policies) sternly state computers are for schoolwork only. So much for those hobbies, scout badges, or other topics that kids wish to pursue.

• - Taking the previous question a bit farther, I asked a multiple-choice question about the types of sites that are filtered. Here is a breakdown of these:

• - Music: 55%

• - Shopping: 55%

• - Sports: 20% (sorry, soccer fans)

• - Entertainment: 50%

• - Games: 71%

• - Video: 60%

• - Social Networking: 94%

• - Email: 46%

• - Other: 23% (this included such things as informational sites about cigarettes and drugs; word blocking including the word “breast”; information on sexually transmitted diseases; information about sexuality [sorry, gay kids]; all Web 2.0 sites with galleries or forums)

• - Question: Computer/internet access is available before and after regular school hours. I was a bit heartened to see yes responses for 57%, though that still leaves a very large number of kids not served.

I am willing to admit that at least some restrictions are reasonable, at least at certain times during the day. Not all teachers closely supervise student computer use. Just giving carte blanche access will result in all kinds of problems. Bandwidth is an issue that certainly impinges upon video usage and other bandwidth-hogging activities. So how about allowing access when a responsible adult is there giving guidance? How about override privileges? How about access before and after school? These thoughts led to my next multiple-choice question: Who on your campus has the right to override the filter? I was not heartened by these responses, especially those in the first category:

• - No one: 39%

• - Administrator(s): 28%

• - Counselors: 4%

• - Librarians: 14%

• - Teachers: 8%

Finally, I asked for success stories about people who have measures in place to help these underserved kids. By the time I got to that last survey question, I was starving for some good news, and I got some! Here are a couple of examples from respondents:

• - “Occasionally the community will donate computers to the district (which serves approximately 40,000 students). For example, a local bank donated a few hundred PCs about 3 years ago, and the Social Security administration did the same last year. Once the IT department had refurbished them and placed them in my high school (at the lower end of the SES spectrum of our five high schools), they took my older PCs and, in partnership with a local internet provider (Cox), are placing them in local households with students in our district. All teachers received laptops about 10 years ago and then again 2 years ago. The older laptops were refurbished and placed back into the schools for student use. I’ve developed a teacher recommendation program with my supply to check them out to students on a limited basis (somewhat like checking out a book).”

• -- “This past school year, I hosted a campus technology club where students were able to come into a classroom and I would teach them how to use specific software (Adobe Photoshop, Moviemaker, Audacity, Photostory, etc.) or allow them to tinker with new equipment we had received (bamboo tablets, microphone headsets for podcasting). Students for the most part enjoyed it. The only drawback was finding a computer lab to meet in. Due to limited classroom space at the temporary school we were at this past year, I could only include 8th graders in the group, and only so many due to lack of working computers in the one computer lab our campus had.”

Finally, there were a couple of disheartening responses:

• -- One was a single plaintive statement: “I wish I did have a success story to share.”

• -- The other was longer and reflected righteous frustration: “My school is in an extremely poor urban area. About 50% of the students do not have internet access at home. It is school policy that computers are to be used for educational purposes only. In fact, teacher computers have the same filters on them as the student terminals, and I am not able to access videos on YouTube or other sites from school. I have used the videos from the Dove Fund for Self-Esteem in class, only by downloading them to a flash drive at home and bringing them into school. Equal access to the computer for students’ personal use is only possible if the classroom teacher uses computer time as a reward for work completion and good behavior. The filters are easily circumvented by proxy servers that all of the students know, and if the teacher is willing to risk retribution for allowing the students on nonapproved sites, they may use. This isn’t a success story per se, but it shows that teachers and principals are affected by rules restricting access.”

The purpose of this article is to raise consciousness about the need for kids who do not have the wherewithal at home to explore cyberspace at school. My desire is to present a very real problem and share how some educators are trying to alleviate it. Because of the depth and breadth of information I gained through my survey, I will do a follow-up in my next column in which I will discuss further possible solutions to the problem. I do not think being a naysayer is productive. I am a little tired of the “yes, but” people who want to say they cannot help these kids because of bandwidth, lack of time, or strict guidelines.

Folks, look at what your peers are doing! Do as much as you can with your bandwidth! Find time! Challenge overly restrictive rules! It is no longer OK to just sit back and say that the status quo is set in stone. Let’s help these kids who, for the most part, just want a fair shake, somewhere, from somebody.

Mary Ann Bell , B.A., M.L.S., Ed.D., is an associate professor in the department of library science, Sam Houston State University, where she teaches classes related to technology and librarianship. She is the author of Internet and Personal Computing Fads , CRC Press, 2004, and Cybersins and Digital Good Deeds: A Book About Technology and Ethics , CRC Press, 2006. She has also written for numerous journal publications and presented at conferences on the topics of information ethics and creative teaching with technology. She is active in Texas Library Association, American Library Association, Texas Computer Education Association, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, and Delta Kappa Gamma. She can be reached by email at

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