Matt Richtel, the Pulitzer-winning technology writer for the New York Times, was a friend when we toiled together at the Oakland Tribune. Recently, despite my affection and respect for him, I’ve given him a rough time over what I’ve seen as some loosely reasoned pieces on the dangers of education technology. But his piece today, “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era,” raises issues I think anyone who cares about ed tech ought to be worried about–and an interesting response. The article recites breathtaking statistics on the sheer quantity of screen time our kids are getting—for kids whose parents didn’t go to college, it’s “11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets,” up almost five hours since 1999, according to a 2010 survey.
But the nub of the article is “a growing time-wasting gap” given evidence that “children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites.” So great is the concern, Richtel writes, that the federal government is
considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers. Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.
One caution here: learning games and studying via social networks are spreading rapidly. So there’s a fair question to be asked whether all time kids spend on those activities is really “wasted.” But the larger point, borne out by studies, is hard to argue: for reasons too obvious to recite, parents in low-income communities are less likely to monitor their kids’ computer use, and hence, technology may be used more as a learning tool–rather than a fooling-around tool–by exactly the kids who already have the greatest advantages. Thus the “time-wasting gap.”
It’s a real concern, and part of the reason why my colleagues at NewSchools are working to make sure that kids in low-income communities are among the first to get the best learning technologies. But the “digital literacy corps” is an interesting idea, especially in its aim to empower parents. This one will be worth watching.