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Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Gutenberg Divide

Install a book on your bookshelf, and what you’ve got is a book. Install a TV between your bookshelves, and unless you lock the channel selector to PBS, you’ve got an entertainment center. The same thing can be said about computers, as PBS or related topics are consigned to an unused hyperlink somewhere because the channel selector is deliberately unlocked and you’re long gone surfing elsewhere. A book has built in content controls, whereas electronic media which allow you to access online books do not, unless of course you have an e-book reader.
But digital divides have never been about books but rather about having ready access to the entire ocean of knowledge available on the web. The fact that children in lower socio-economic classes had less access to information than their more well off peers was long presumed to be a major factor in their lower intellectual accomplishment. So give them the information processors they need plus the broadband connection to pipe all that ocean of knowledge through, and what do you get? You get even lower levels of accomplishment! This is what Jacob Vigden and Helen Ladd found when they surveyed adolescent’s behavior. Specifically, they found that students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Indeed, as the authors’ state, “It was thought that the introduction of technology would lead to an improvement in future living standards if it primarily lowers the cost of activities with strong future returns.” However, ‘strong future returns’ are a distant dream compared to the gratification of the moment, as fast food for thought becomes as fortifying as fast food is for one’s health. Which is to say, not much.
When we use tools, it’s not wise to use them ‘under the influence’. Thus when we drive cars and operate power tools, being of sound mind is a prerequisite. However, when we use information tools, being under the influence can come from the very use of the tool, hence the use of the tool must be especially monitored. Because the web can be a literally intoxicating thing, adult supervision is definitely required. As the authors non-surprisingly discovered, the web is indeed a useful thing if it is used under benevolent parental direction. If not, it rapidly devolves into a tool for goofing off, and will set its users blissfully off course and to the wild side of the digital divide.
But perhaps quality trumps quantity, and it is not a digital but a Gutenberg divide (as coined by Nicolas Carr) that is the issue. Just having access to a well stocked library is a more reliable predictor of academic success. Indeed, students who come from homes that emphasize reading do consistently better in their academics than those who do not. Recently, Ann McGill-Frazel and Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee extended this observation to disadvantaged students during summer break. Giving each student twelve books from a list the children provided, the children took pride in their little libraries, read the books and significantly improved their test scores. As they waded in their little worlds of information, digitally divided from the oceans of information available to their better off peers, they nonetheless learned to swim, demonstrating that what divides us is merely the chance to read.
Science Daily: Retrieved form http://science releases/ 2020/ 07/ 100721112234/htm

the Digital Divide- Home computer technology and digital achievement. – Jacob Vigden and Helen Ladd (available at National Bureau of Economic Research working paper no. 16078, June 2010
from 'One Track Minds', available on in July, 2011

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