Why we mustn’t have a participation gap: 2 students’ experiences

By Anne Collier

The other day, two school librarians posted an insightful article about two students – Jessica, just starting her junior of high school, and Michael, who just graduated – who stand on opposite sides of the “participation gap,” Prof. Henry Jenkins’s term for the digital divide of participatory media and today’s networked world. They describe what conditions in schools close the gap and what conditions widen it. It won’t be hard for you to see the benefits to students of closing the gap. Here are just a few of the conditions on either side (please read librarians Michelle Luhtala and Deb Svec’s post for more detail):

Michael’s school…

* Has an “underlying principle … of trust” behind student codes of conduct and policies around the appropriate use of technology
* Encourages students to use their own digital devices in the classroom
* Supports collaborative learning among students, teachers, and “external instructional partners” using the devices during classtime
* Enabled Michael to learn “how to use social media to increase his productivity and learning” – tools such as “blogs, microblog hashtags, photo and video uploads.”
* Helped Michael to be “always mindful when posting to his profile accounts that there were “adults in the room.”
* Prepared Michael for college, where he “will continue to grow his social bookmarking account to construct his own archive of learning resources.”

Jessica’s school, in one of the US’s 12 largest school districts, takes just about the opposite approach: Luhtala and Svec write that it bans all personal devices and “blocks many sites that would be appropriate for secondary students because the district maintains the same settings for all K–12 learners”; provides no opportunities for students to communicate online with students or experts beyond the school campus; and offers “precious few lessons in digital citizenship and ethical use” of media. Since starting high school, Jessica “has actively sought opportunities to communicate and collaborate with outside organizations, but most of these exchanges rely on free tools like Skype, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, which are strictly prohibited on campus,” the librarians write. “Any 21st-century preparedness Jessica develops will occur in spite of, not because of, her K-12 education.”

In our report to Congress in 2010, one of the recommendations of the Online Safety & Technology Working Group was very close to Luhtala and Svec’s conclusion that “it is imperative that K-12 educational programs integrate real-world technologies to embed digital citizenship throughout the curriculum.” So I agree it’s imperative. But it also seems intuitive: How can cooking be learned anywhere but in a kitchen? How do we learn digital literacy and citizenship without digital environments in which to model and practice them?

Others agree too; maybe there’ll be a groundswell: In an interview with Dr. Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, author of the new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, said that “knowing how to cultivate and make use of personal learning networks has become a life skill in school and the workplace. And Manuel Castells has argued, with impressive evidence, that the linkage of global communication networks with human social networks is transforming world civilization into a ‘network society’.” If we want school to prepare students for effective participation in this “network society,” we’d better bring network experiences into school.

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