As the correlation between access to technology and educational and economic opportunities increases, the youth of underserved communities are the most in jeopardy of being left behind for years to come. It is principally the responsibility of our governmental institutions to ensure that all youth have equal access to the tools that are critical for their success. Without decisive actions, the "Digital Divide" will fester, victimizing the youth of communities that are low-income, rural, sparsely populated, or difficult to reach.
Many families simply do not have money to buy computers, software, a broadband connection, and the training to learn how to maximize their value. But, without them, their children will be disadvantaged in the new economy.
In recent years, numerous initiatives across the country have placed computers in the schools, and have made computers available to students, as well as to all members of a community, at non-profit Community Technology Centers (CTCs). Many exemplary models for CTCs have emerged, including centers that are wholly dedicated to this purpose, and other facilities -- such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and faith-based groups -- that establish a CTC as an adjunct to their existing services.
But there remains a missing link. The relevance of this exposure and training is not always readily apparent to many students. The incentive to become familiar with these technologies and learn how to put them to beneficial use is often centered around entertainment applications and communication with others via email and instant messaging. But a stronger link can be made between these lessons and the students' job and career prospects.
Ideas / Solutions
States can incorporate the use and teaching of technology in their schools to promote meaningful technology skills that shine a powerful flashlight toward the future. Some States may be able to directly fund such activities. But, where there are not adequate resources to set up new technology labs at schools, these objectives can still be achieved by partnering school districts and schools alongside CTCs and the private sector in their communities. Resources can be stretched for win-win situations that convey the same training. States should take the lead in developing such partnerships in order to legitimize the program, broaden their scope, and encourage participation on as large a geographical and numerical scale as possible.
The first priority for training through this program should be the use of technology in researching and writing reports for school. These uses will resonate with the students and be directly applicable to the use of technology beyond the classroom, in future jobs and careers. More advanced students can also be coached toward the development of relational databases and database administration that can be used in basic ways such as tracking their homework assignments and doing math problems, laying the groundwork for more substantial uses in the future. Ambitious students can learn myriad other job and technology skills through e-learning courses downloaded from non-profit groups.
The second element would be partnerships on the local level that can give technology an even greater impact on the lives of students, and provide even more tangible understanding of how it can benefit them in the future. Local industry and employer involvement should be embraced in partnerships with both schools and CTCs. School Districts, County Offices of Education and CTCs should take the lead in partnering with one or more of the predominant employers in each community, requesting donations of some of the software applications and hardware that are vital to the operations in that company. Along with it, each company should be asked to donate a small number of hours of their employees' time to train the students on the donated equipment and software, or fund courses from non-profit organizations that can train students via e-learning.
Following the development of an appropriate level of proficiency, students would be invited for field trips to the job sites, in order to develop a tangible recognition among the students that they, too, could fill roles that utilize the skills which they have learned. Some students could even be selected for internships with the host company. Although there would certainly be no assurances to any student of being selected, the opportunity would inspire many, and some might even be chosen for an appropriate degree of on-the-job training. In so doing, the students would be learning skills that are directly applicable to the industries that hire within their communities.
It would be in the interests of companies to participate, because they would have the chance to prepare potential future employees in their community, facilitate their recruitment, and instill within the students the corporate culture and work ethic that characterizes their company. Additionally, the public relations, goodwill, corporate citizenship, and community involvement benefits to the company would fully justify the costs of participating.