Five in Five: a five-year Timeline to Innovation

This week IBM released its sixth-annual list of innovations that it feels will be game-changing.  From the end of junk mail (yay!) to the development of smart phones that read minds (yikes!), it's a fascinating look into the future.

The development that struck me the most was IBM's assertion that the "Digital Divide" would soon become a thing of the past.  This prediction is based on the astounding growth of mobile technology:  Under current rates of growth, 5.6 billion mobile phones will be sold every year by 2016.  That number would cover 80% of the 7 billion people currently on the planet.  This is an astonishing rate, and the numbers would suggest that access to the World Wide Web will soon be the exception rather than the rule (if it isn't already in developed nations).

From my teacher's desk, however, I see a different kind of Digital Divide.  I have a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio in my classes.  For 90 minutes a day, at least, my students have access to information and online learning tools.

Yet even within a classroom with a 1:1 ratio there is a digital divide.  It isn't between those with fast computers and slow ones.  It is between those who actively use the Web to do their work for them and those who see the Web merely as a resource for entertainment and leisure.

By the third week in the semester this year, a gap opened up.  By that time, students had learned to access the Internet tools we were using in the class, and many of these students were getting ahead of my knowledge of these tools.  Yet there were students on the other side of the divide.  When technical problems arose (anything from a lost Internet connection to a mis-typed password), they gave up.  By the time I arrived to correct the problem--usually by encouraging them to simply try again--they were far behind the learning curve.

I just can't describe how frustrating it is to see a student who has a laptop on their desk and a smart phone in their pocket, yet be unable to use these tools for learning.

In a way, this demonstrates the importance of problem-solving.  Successful learners are equipped with tenacity, the mental determination to develop alternative outcomes once they seem blocked.  For example, it's like two people trying to operate vacuum cleaners.  When the outlet won't work, one looks around for another working outlet; the second gives up and takes a break to wait for a technician to solve the problem.

It reinforces to me as a teacher the need to teach problem-solving skills, along with the curriculum standards.  (I teach English, and I'll admit that I have often seen that skill as "math teachers' job.")

But this Digital Divide also points out a huge divide that educators see every day.  It's the difference between those students who take an active role in education, and those who don't.  It's the difference between students who see a high school education as a tool to get them into a career, a college, a lifetime--and those students students who arrive everyday seeking entertainment.

Bridging this education divide is what I've been trying to do as a teacher for many years now.  Perhaps this technological analogy is the ticket to helping me address it with a higher degree of success.