Skills for the 21st Century

Cognitive and Literacy Skills for Success in a Fast-Paced Technological Age

Providing Web Access is Not Enough

Posted by durencls on April 19, 2010

Again, I am fascinated by the circuitous routes by which you find stuff on the web. Today, looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon Eszter Hargatti, an Associate Professor at Northwestern University, whose work is focused on how people use the web in their everyday lives.   Here’s a great quote from a recent Northwestern press release:

Even among college freshmen and digital natives — those young adults who grew up with the Internet — higher-level Internet skills and more sophisticated Internet usage still strongly correspond to socioeconomic status, according to a new Northwestern University study. [Hargatti’s]

In other words, the differences between the connected versus those not online at all don’t tell the full story of the digital divide, according to Northwestern researcher Eszter Hargittai. The finding has important implications for the ambitious National Broadband Plan recently sent to Congress by the Federal Communications Commission.

Spending billions of ‘stimulus’ dollars to wire the nation with high-speed Internet access alone will not ensure that all Americans have meaningful access to the Web,” said Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies.

To provide meaningful access, the program will have to also focus on Internet education and training,” she added. “Providing infrastructure without offering training is a bit like giving people cars without providing driver’s education.” [emphasis added]

The press release, like many, does not go on to state what should be DONE about this issue – just states the problem and indicates that the current federal plan is not enough.  Further reading in Hargatti’s research, however, indicates that:

a)  there is a relationship between knowledge and understanding of how to use various technological aspects of the web, and using the web for life-changing purposes (as opposed to for pleasure/social purposes), and

b) there is a relationship between amount and ease of access to the internet and knowledge of how to use it. Essentially, she found that those who had access to the internet at work and at home for personal purposes, and who get on the web at least once daily, are more knowledgeable about how to use the web. [BTW – She was able to find no correlation between speed of access and use or knowledge.]

Hmmm – so if a person does not have ready access to an internet connected computer on a daily basis, OR does not feel free to use the internet at leisure daily, then they are likely to be less knowledgeable about a) how to use the internet (at all) and b)  about how to use the internet for ‘life-changing’ purposes (Hargatti uses the term “capital-enhancing online behavior’). 

So getting broadband access available nationally *IS* one way to address the problem (or part of it), but to make things happen faster and for ALL folks, it sounds like  EDUCATION must also be a part. Imagine that.

Ok so, based on her research, we posit a three pronged Internet Education approach in AE (tell us what you think of this):

  1. Actively teach students how to use the internet for purposes OTHER than pleasure (chat, social networking, games, etc.). – things like: comparison shopping; jobs research; e-mail communication for decision making, scheduling, work-related communication, etc.; reading about current events; comparing viewpoints; and research. Hey these are all ‘critical thinking’/meta-skills type tasks!
  2. While doing the above, teach them the basic knowledge of how to use common technologies like viewing & printing pdfs, setting preferences, search tools, printing, bookmarking/favorites (file organization); and saving/copying graphics.  Also address issues of digital literacy like copyright and security/safety, as well as common troubleshooting issues. Hmm – this is all about teaching ‘hard tech’ skills. Also sounds like an internet-based computer in the classroom (or computer lab time) is a must for this!
  3. Get students to spend more time on the internet DOING these things outside of class – using the internet at least once daily for a “capital-enhancing task” – at home, at a friend’s house, at the library, community center, or in the school’s computer lab (or on their IPod or cell phone if they have internet access). I can so see an “internet use log” and perhaps even a graph of how much time they spend on the web doing “life-changing” stuff!  Hey, this any teacher can do!

Well, now, what impact does all of the above have on our emphasis on the need to teach thinking skills as opposed to hard tech skills for success in the 21st Century?


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