Closing the Divide

November 8, 2011

I attended the annual Digital Inclusion Forum hosted by TLC last week.  I really enjoyed meeting some very committed people in a relatively comfortable setting.   The sessions were taped and are promised to be available at the TLC web site, soon.  I was thrilled when the Twitter hashtag, ,  for the conference was posted on the screen during the opening remarks.  The conference I’d been to the week before hadn’t thought of that ahead of time, although they were happy to announce it, , when I suggested one to them.  It was a bit disappointing when only two other people managed to post using the #tlc_mn hashtag.  I don’t think inclusion is going to happen if the people meeting to talk about inclusion don’t bother to use the tools of inclusion.  But, maybe I need to be pleased to note that this was a beginning.  I’m impatient for inclusion to really happen.

A couple of important questions were raised during the discussion session at the end.  One was why haven’t the people in K-12 been doing more to to close the digital divide.   The conference was held at facilities owned by the Minnesota Department of Education, but there very few, if any, representatives of K-12 schools in the room.  The people in the room were from non-profits, libraries and other public agencies who attend to k-12 students while they’re not in school.  The answer to that question is important, crucial, really.    The short answer would be the people in K-12 aren’t all that interested in closing the digital divide.

The technology already exists and is in place and already up and working to allow any Minneapolis Public Schools student to access and respond to any information in almost any media or format  that their teacher cares to link to or create.  Students and teachers ‘could’ do this from anywhere in the city for FREE; they couldalso do it from anywhere on the planet where they could get wifi access.  But the teachers aren’t using it (most don’t know the capability even exists) and the students have been made to feel like the tools that they would use to access information in such a free way is prohibited, something to be avoided.

Another question raised was How do we get ‘the private sector’ involved in helping to close the digital divide.    Governor Mark Dayton apparently heard that question and took some steps to get an answer.  Yesterday, he announced that Margaret Anderson Kelliher would be leading a task force to ‘expand broadband’ in Minnesota.  The question I have is when this task force expands broadband will it close the divide or make it wider.

There are already lots of people in the private sector working on providing broadband, a term which is loosely used to mean connecting people using the best technology available.   Too many of the people currently working in the private sector, in my opinion, aren’t at all interested in closing the digital divide.  They profit handsomely, obnoxiously, when access to information is controlled.  If the best possible access to information were made widely available it would drastically cut the profits of some in the private sector, and probably put some of the non-profits working it the field out of business, too.  If there were no digital divide, all of the people working on closing the digital divide would need to find other work.  I happen to think there’s plenty of useful things they could otherwise be doing, but it would be a disruption to the status quo.

I’m not convinced that the people on the task force really want to close the digital divide; let’s watch what they do.


The fact text messaging actually costs carriers nothing  combined with the fact that free wireless internet service is also available to connect students in Minneapolis with the servers at Minneapolis Public Schools means that students and teachers in Minneapolis should be able to use Twitter and Moodle in their “classrooms”  which could be anyplace in the city for free.  The only cost then becomes the cost of the devices and the cost of training teachers and students how to use these tools.  The cost of devices is not much more, if any, than the cost of textbooks.

Due to the nature of the system used by carriers to send text messages between phones, texting does not cost the carriers any money at all.  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/business/28digi.html?_r=3&partner=rss&emc=rss   This is because SMS messages are designed to fit inside the bandwidth alloted to the “control channel”, which is used to establish communication between the mobile phone and the cellular tower. This channel is continuously active, so the messages are piggybacking on the control signal, for free.

It is essentially only our ability to think through the logistics of using the current technology that is keeping us from doing what is being done in colleges like the UT Dallas and will be done in UK elementary schools according to the recently announced plans.

I did a search on twitter in the classroom thinking I would get to the Youtube video of Monica Rankin and instead I found out that we’re already using Twitter in the classroom in Minneapolis.

The path seems to be getting shorter by the hour !  Now, we just need to get everybody on board.

I’m still not sure if the focus for Sabier should be machines or training. I’m beginning to think that the real issue will be in training.  I think I first leaned to providing the hardware because I was oriented that way from my experience with the used telecom and computer equipment business.

Using  the laptop cart the last month or so of the school year leads me to teacher training as Sabier’s niche.  The cart fit into the room amazingly well. The cart with 30 MacBooks took up so much less space in the room than the 14 desktops that I’ve been using all year. My concern about not having enough power turned out to not be an issue. 30 computers logging on created quite a logjam which was frustrating to the kids and me. I think a set of Netbooks off the intranet would work much better. I also think that the machine specific filters would be better than the ones provided on the intranet. We could still use the intranet for web access so there would be two levels of filtering.

The logistics of instruction in the classroom is the main issue in the years ahead. Having one to one laptops available any time will be such a powerful tool. It would really transform the classroom. I think that behavior issues will be significantly changed in a 1:1 environment. Now, when we go to the lab the students are spontaneously quiet and engaged. Structuring the learning and sharing becomes the focus as it is any classroom; I think the laptops eliminate more problems than they create. Assessment is a whole new ballgame, too. Anyone with access to student files can see what we’re doing at any given time. Collaboration, differentiation, and individualization are enormous possibilities.

The next topic is to think about the feasibility of using cell phones in the classroom. What would be great is to have 30 phones share a few voice minutes with limitations on usage by each phone and then to have unlimited text plans for each phone. The recent announcement of the latest version of the iPhone promises that cell phones are sure to be a contender for the literacy tool of tomorrow.

With a two year contract, of course. see Stribune article from 4/18/09


This is a big deal because it means that there will likely be a more significant source for internet devices.  If the trend keeps up people and businesses will want a place to unload their ‘old’ netbooks.  Sabier will be there to provide the service of unloading them so that people can buy a new device guilt free.

The new Civic Garden of Wireless Minneapolis allows students and their families to access Minneapolis Public Schools websites including our Classroom Moodle . That means the only thing keeping a student from participating in the online learning environment at home is a device to access the Civic Garden. A $50 used desktop computer or a $150 used laptop would be fine for most of the stuff kids need to do today. As netbooks approach the $50 price, eventually without a contract for the older models, the availability of devices should increase.

The AT&T offering confirms what Wired has said in their piece in February, The Netbook Effect .  It’s pretty clear that internet devices will become increasingly affordable.  That brings me to the thought that maybe the resource that Sabier needs to focus on is teacher training rather providing devices for students.   Students might be able to get the devices on their own, but teachers are going to need lots of help getting to the point where they feel comfortable using netbooks in class.  Perhaps we can do a little of both.