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For a 21st Century Education, Wireless is a No-brainer

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The importance of the Internet in a 21st century education is a given. It is barely possible to do research without the Internet. The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, Black History, Latina History, pictures, videos, speeches—the main source of knowledge is no longer found in books, it’s found on the web.

We also know the digital divide is real. Recently, researchers from Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy presented an overview of their report on Digital Inclusion in San Francisco done with the Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS). I won’t go in-depth here, but the findings are clear and pointed:

A digital divide does exist and clearly follows racial and economic lines. Significant gaps in libraries and technology centers are found in the neighborhoods where technology is least pervasive. A double whammy.

Without 24/7 connectivity as the norm, young people, especially students who dream of a college education, are at an overwhelming disadvantage. Material for high school exit exams and other standardized tests is in great abundance on the web, but try to locate offline help—it’s expensive, difficult to find, and often outdated. Entrance requirements and applications to college? Found on the web. Help and support for health issues? Found on the web.

Kids without access at home might get an hour online at school, maybe a couple of hours at the library. Not enough time to read or create blogs, wikis, podcasts, or RSS feeds; they won’t know VoIP, web 2.0, 3GP, MPEG-4, or any number of terms that are confusing now, but will be part of the lingua franca in five years. The scene plays out in obvious ways. Limited access to the Internet equals limited access to the information and inevitably limited access to the tools for success. It’s a no-brainer.

Look at the numbers and do the math: According to recent figures there are 58,216 students in San Francisco Unified School District, with a dropout rate of 23.6 percent, that translates roughly into 13,739 kids who never finish high school. How many of these kids wouldn’t have given up if they had been more connected, both figuratively and literally? If the dropout rate was even 10 percent, that’s almost 8,000 kids.

If we were talking to educators, we’d cite constructivism as the relevant educational philosophy. Constructivist framework says that knowledge and understanding is “constructed” or built using earlier knowledge. In the real world that philosophy translates into the truism: the present prepares you for the future. The corollary: no present knowledge, nothing to build on for the future.

Kids without access today won’t be part of the discourse tomorrow; they won’t have the background to build upon. Yet another lost generation—voices not heard, skills not developed, a generation not able to compete. And worse for us, a generation whose contributions will never come to fruition. This is in stark contrast to those students on the other side of the divide who are living with all manner of digital media devices. With access anywhere, anytime, success is theirs.

North Forest Independent School District (NFISD) in northeast Houston is noteworthy. In a district that is 95 percent economically disadvantaged and 100 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunches, they have tapped into ubiquitous wi-fi and developed a strong digital inclusion program. In doing so, they have connected their students to learning, their teachers to students, and have extended the classroom into the home by including parents in the educational experience. Files are shared, homework assignments are always available, and project-based learning is facilitated.

In this day and age it is nearly impossible to succeed in school, or in the economic realm, without ubiquitous access to the Internet. But more importantly, without access to the information and ideas it possesses, it’s modern day illiteracy. Those students will be able to get jobs at the local Home Depot, but not at Google.

But, the debate around connectivity and the Internet does bring forth a new and interesting opportunity. The North Forest Independent School District (NFISD) realized they didn’t have the infrastructure to compete in a wired world, but by using wireless technologies, they were able to leap-frog over current educational technology and land in the future. No infrastructure to work around, no legacy technology to hold them back. The same huge opportunity exists here in San Francisco, especially in our more underserved communities. The next and newest field in education is mobile learning, or m-learning. M-learning is characterized by five major principles, and as part of those principles, explores the cellphone and wi-fi connectivity as the newest learning tools.

1. Portability

The cellphone, the multimedia device that an estimated 74 percent of high school students have in their back-pocket, is portable and enables anytime, anywhere learning. With Internet access, a cellphone enables students to content at the most appropriate time.

2. Interactive and Collaborative Learning

Students can share data and collaborate with each other face-to-face. This allows real-time iteration of information and knowledge.

3. Context-Aware

Data and stories can be collected locally and can be located in the place where the story occurred. What would happen if we started using the “community-as-text,” as opposed to the text book as text to more fully connect students to their learning.

4. Connectivity

No longer is learning in isolation, not for students and not for devices. Students are connecting with each other in part because devices are connecting with each other. With wireless and Bluetooth technologies, mobile phones can connect to each other and to a shared network, thereby making data available to all for upload and download.

5. Individualized Learning

Individual devices allow individualized learning experience because it can be customized. Each student can follow the path of most interest, and with the other principles, especially interaction and connectivity, make a collective learning experience the norm.

You might ask what you can do?

1. First and foremost, read up on the subject.

2. Contact your supervisor.

3. Bring it to the people. Make flyers and distribute them in your neighborhood. Talk to your friends and neighbors.

4. Sign up for informational emails.

5. Embrace what’s good about our technological future. Use your own cell phone as a 21st century learning device.

By Leslie Rule, Project Supervisor, KQED Digital Storytelling Initiative

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